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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A great bluesman just died-Did you know him?.

The dancing crowd at Bettie's swirls around Willie King as he plays on Sunday night. King has played Bettie's on Sunday nights for close to 15 years.

"When you look at a fellow, if you taught yourself to look for it, you can see his song written on him. Tell you what kind of man he is in the world."
- Bynum, from August Wilson's play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," 1988

Listen up. The music took him from the juke joints of Alabama to big concerts "up North" in the United States and to huge crowds in Europe. Yes, the sad news came out of dusty roads of Montgomery, Alabama. Willie King, another great black blues guitarist, is gone. Debbie Bond, one of his band members, said King, 65, died of a heart attack on his way to the hospital. Did you know him. If not, why didn't you?

Why is it that we pay so little attention to our great musicians until they are past their prime , if then?

Why is it that oftentimes we don't know, or don't hear of, our own artists who have given such great gospel, blues, and Jazz to us and the world? Ever thought about how the white media, electronic and paper, keep us from the real deal, especially when the real deal is black?

He was born in Prairie Point, Mississippi soon moved to be with his sharecropping grandparents in West Alabama. When he was 9, he began doing what a number of would-be-great blues guitarist did-- begin playing a one-string guitar. The string is usually nailed against a wall with a tin can at the top or put on a stick and cigar box. But it wouldn't take long for King to get a six-string guitar and begin playing. Soon, he would be playing in juke joints all around West Alabama.

King played around West Alabama for years and didn't become known elsewhere until 2000, the year his album"Freedom Creek" was released. The songs were strong with a drive and a tone that reminded the listener of the voice of the late great Howlin Wolf and the guitar sound of Hubert Sumlin, the Wolf's lead guitarist for years. And the entire album had that down-home, Mississippi-Texas feel; and, when it was over, the listener could not help but say, "Now that was the blues!"

Released on the Rooster Blues record label, Freedom Creek received universal rave reviews. Soon, King would record several more albums and tour The United States and Europe, giving the fans what they wanted: good down-home blues. Along the way, King received several awards, including the "Best Blues Album" and "Best Contemporary Blues Album" by Living Blues magazine. And Living Blues named him Blues Artist of the Year in 2004.
But King's blues was not only down-home. It was unique. Unlike other bluesmen, many of King's blues were infused with political themes set within the traditional blues frame. Rick Asherson, King's keyboard, said of him:

"Willie once described his type of blues, which deal with things a lot of blues don't deal with, as ‘struggling blues,' and by that he didn't mean the usual things. He meant struggling with the injustices in life in the rural South." Peter Guralnick, author of two books about Elvis Presley, said that, in songs like "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," King "...combined the standard blues elements, but he sang about more than the standard blues subjects." He said he saw King perform live in juke joints and was surprised to see dancers and non-dancers alike singing political songs along with him, something almost unheard of in the blues.

King also visited schools. He felt a deep responsibility to make the younger generation more aware of their musical history. He would talk about the blues and demonstrate it on his guitar. In fact, the annual Freedom Creek Festival that King organized grew out of his work with youth in his community.

King's music and organizing work in his community inspired Dutch filmmakers Saskia Rietmeijer and Bart Drolenga do a documentary on him called "Down in the Woods." The DVD captures King not only in concert but in his community and on his farm.

He also appeared in the Martin Scorsese film "Feel Like Going Home."

Al Head, director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts and friend of King for more than 20 years, said King played the blues the way it is supposed to be played, "the right way." "When King played," he said, "...You can see on his face and hear in his guitar and you say, 'Hey man, that's what blues is all about.'"

A great bluesman died today. Did you know him? If not, why didn't you?

13 comments:

brownsugatou said...

Albert King, B.B. King - yes. But I've never heard of Willie King. Thanks for sharing a brief history about his legacy and his role in arts/education and his community. In regards to the latter part of your question - I don't know but I'll take that as a hint to start expanding my blues knowledge. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great tribute. He would no doubt be honored.

Anonymous said...

We knew him, and some of us didn't like him. Always playing that loud. The men get drunk dance and start flirt all the time. Sometimes they fight. But he was alright.

MacDaddy said...

Brownsugar: Yes, he's one of many good black bluesman who got little or no notice until they were much older. Meanwhile, some of the younger people with a new CD with only one or two decent songs on it get to go on tv shows. Some even get on Lettermen or Leno. You can say this about artists from other genres as well. But, historically, this failure to appreciate our artists seems most pronounced with black musicians.

MacDaddy said...

Anon: You say that "some of us" didn't like King. Who's us? The people in the neighborhood? The religious people in the neighborhood? You sound like you knew him.What do you remember about him, good or bad?

Anonymous said...

Great post Mac, Willie King was a hero, not just as a musician but as a man.

Tim

Christopher said...

I always learn something more about music from you, Daddy.

I never heard of Willie King and I pride myself on being pretty damned knowledgeable when it comes to music.

I will be checking Mr. King out now and if I'm lucky, I will get my hands on something to listen to.

Anonymous said...

I heard of him. Playing that music on Sunday is just not christian.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

Didn't know him Daddy.
Who else do you recommend that I might not have heard of? You know I love the blues. . . especially the kind where you go "now that's what the blues is all about."

People crack me up with their "anonymous" comments. Aint got the nerve to come right out.

MacDaddy said...

Anon:You say Willie King committed sin by playing on Sundays. Two things:

First. What if played the blues so he could take care of himself and his family? Is it not christian to feed and keep a roof over your family's head?
Second, Is Willie playing loud music on a Sunday so bad? I think your Jesus would understand a man playing the blues to take care of his family and to give hardworking people a place to go and relax and maybe have a dance or two before going back to a hard week's work, don't you?

Sagacious: That's a difficult one. I would need to know what kind of blues you like: contemporary or urban blues Buddy Guy or the more traditional stuff. But looking at some of the more very good blues guitarists whom we all should know,I would start with these guys:
1. Willie Murphy is a fantastic guitarists, but I don't know why he wasn't recorded more.
2. Magic Sam was great but died early. He made a great live album in the late 60's, around 1968, just before he died. Side 2 is live at the Ann Arbor Festival and gives a feel for good he is. He was backed by just two people: A drummer and a base and pulled it off. Side 1 shows him live in a bar in Chicago. It really brought out how he performed with his fans and folks from the Southside neighborhood.
3. Jimmie Dawkins plays hard, tough blues, the blues of black folks growing up and living on ghetto streets or staying in the gang-infested Robert Taylor projects, where I hear he lived at one time. Check out his song "Welfare blues." Great.
4. Magic Slim plays great house rocking music. He's very popular in Europe and on college campuses. He travels all the time. But he's best when he plays one of those bittersweet ballads about a man being mistreated. By the way, he was taught to play by Magic Sam, a good friend and homeboy from somewhere in Mississippi.
4. Mighty Joe Young was another great guitarist. He was one of those so-called West side guitarists, which included Luther Allison, Otis Rush, Jimmie Dawkins.Young played with R&B bands as well as the blues. He was best with the blues. His rendition of "As the years go passing by," made famous by Albert King, is very good. His solos sometimes are more jazzy than blues, but it's all smooth and you know where he's going.

Mighty Joe Young, Jimmie Dawkins and Magic Sam and Magic Slim can be found on Utube. I hope this helps.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

Daddy, I'm a Mississippi blues fan. Muddy, the Wolf, John hurt, etc. That's when I say "that's what the blues is all about," but hell, I like it all.
Thanks for the references!

Shady_Grady said...

Wow. That is sad news. I enjoyed Willie Kings' music. I loved his politically infused blues, similar to that of Otis Taylor.

It seems like most of the great ones have gone on. It's a damn shame that we don't give more credit and praise to our artists while they are still alive. Also folks like Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks and John Mayer, while talented, get media attention a Willie King could only dream of.

I think King's release Freedom Creek was his best. It was very different than anything else that was around.

SDG said...

I didn't know who he was and that's one of the reasons I visit your blog. Learning is a constant process.