“OF ALL THE PEOPLE I’VE PLAYED WITH,” Eric Clapton once said, “the most stimulating in an onstage situation was Freddie King. Freddie could be pretty mean, but subtle with it. He’d make you feel at home, and then tear you to pieces.”
Freddie had learned to carve the competition in Chicago’s blues bars when he and Earl Hooker were a fierce duo in the ’50s.
“They’d be shaking when we walked in,” King said of resident club guitarists. “They’d say, ‘Here they come again, man. Watch all your scotch. Watch your women.’”
Ella Mae Christian gave birth to Freddie Christian in the small northeast Texas town of Gilmer, roughly midway between Dallas and Shreveport, on September 3, 1934. Family folklore has Freddie picking cotton to buy his first guitar at age six. King’s half-brother and long-time bassist, Benny Turner, remembers it as a Roy Rogers model. Like most American kids of the era, Freddie attended Saturday matinees and thrilled to the musical “oaters” of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but his most important early influence was a saxophonist famed for his “jazz with a broad grin,” Louis Jordan.
On August 26, 1960, Freddie recorded two hits that became staples of his repertoire: “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and the instrumental “Hide Away.” By the mid ’60s, King’s impact in England was evident in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers covers of King’s instrumentals. Eric Clapton covered “Hide Away,” Peter Green played “The Stumble,” and Mick Taylor had a go at “Driving Sideways” during their respective Bluesbreakers stints. The ardor of English blues fans had its impact on King, as well.
“He just took on a whole new style once he came back from England,” recalls his daughter, Wanda. “His first tour overseas was in ’69, and he was still wearing that pompadour. When he came back, he was wearing a natural, and he shocked the heck out of us!”
Freddie, who used a plastic thumbpick and a metal fingerpick on his index finger, detailed his picking style to Living Blues: “It comes from the wrist, from the fingers here, and I don’t use any straight pick. And then I knock the tone down with the back of my hand. A lot of these rock groups, they hit wide open, whereas I can turn it all the way up to 10, and it still won’t be too loud, see, because I can keep the sound down with the back of my hand.”
Once when asked if he, B.B., and Albert King were brothers, Freddie King quipped, “We’re brothers. We just don’t have the same mother.”
Of the blues-playing Kings, Freddie was the first to draw white listeners to their music.
“He had a tendency to have the white kids follow him early on,” says Turner. “Guys like Ted Nugent would get on the stage with Freddie King and try to outplay him. They’d run about a thousand notes within 12 bars, and Freddie would come out and throw those two notes in there and just kill ’em! They don’t realize it ain’t how many notes you can play, it’s what you can do with them.”
—Excerpted from Mark Humphrey’s piece in the August 1995 Guitar Player