Masters of Louisiana Music: Earl Silas Johnson IV (Earl King)

Born:
February 7, 1934
New Orleans, Louisiana

Died:
April 17, 2003
New Orleans, Louisiana

For five decades, Earl King reigned as one of New Orleans’ most perceptive songwriters and explosive guitarists. Among the artists who covered Earl’s songs were Jimi Hendrix, Dr. John and Robert Palmer.

Earl King, whose recordings, performances and compositions placed him at the top of the pantheon of New Orleans rhythm and blues, left “the meat world” (as Dr. John described it), due to diabetes related complications on April 17, 2003. He was 69.

In a career that spanned half-a-century, King recorded and wrote hundreds of songs including “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,” “Mother’s Love,” “Big Chief,” “It All Went Down The Drain” and “Trick Bag,” among others.

Earl King’s given name was Earl Silas Johnson IV. King was born in New Orleans, February 7, 1934, the only son of Ernestine Gaines and Earl Silas Johnson III, growing up in the Irish Channel at 2834 Constance Street. Earl Sr. was a local blues piano player who died when his son was one. Ernestine, also known as “Big Chief,” began taking her son to the Antioch Baptist Church at an early age.

“I paid my dues in church,” said King in 1983. “I didn’t have too much time for shooting marbles as a kid. But when I turned 14, I started looking in other directions. I know I had no business in there, but when I was 14, I went into a place on Tchoupitoulas Street, Big Mary’s, and saw Smiley Lewis with Tuts Washington. My mother cut into me that night, but I just had to hear that music. After that, I’d go see Smiley around by Sal’s on St. Thomas. They had another guy in there called Hold That Note Sam. I remember that place because the smell of reefer was so strong.

“I was standing on the street one day with my best friend, John Davis. He was playing guitar and I was dueting a few gospel songs, when this guy came up to us and started listening to us. After we were finished he said, ‘You boys ought to be singing the blues because you could make a lot of money. Gospel music don’t pay too good.’ He said his name was Victor Augustine and that he had a shop on Dryades Street. He told us to drop by and see him sometime because he knew a lot of talent scouts and he might be able to get us recorded. He left us his card. John and I didn’t know what to think, but after a few days passed we built up the nerve to check him out. When we went down to the address he gave us, there was a sign painted in the window, House of Hope—Dr. Mighty the Voodoo Man. When we walked in, we heard a piano playing boogie-woogie, but we were almost knocked down by the smell of burning incense. Inside he was selling candles, mojos, prophecies, incense, wonder water, ointments and records. We saw Mr. Augustine and said, ‘We’re here to audition.’

“He was real friendly and said, ‘Call me Doc, everybody else does.’ He introduced us to the piano player who turned out to be Huey Smith. Huey gave me the words to a few boogies and we went on from there. After that, I started coming by regularly.”

When King was 15, he began to play guitar, so he and couple of other Booker T. Washington students, Davis and Roland Cook, formed a trio, the Swans, and began rehearsing at the House of Hope. Although he was under-aged, King began entering—and winning—talent shows at the Dew Drop and Club Tiajuana. It was at Club Tiajuana, on Saratoga Street, that King met his mentor, Eddie Jones, a.k.a. Guitar Slim.

“THE PERFORMANIST MAN”

“Guitar Slim was the performanist man I’ve ever seen,” laughed King. “A lot of people didn’t take Slim seriously—but I did. Slim gave me the idea to write lyrics from a psychological approach—saying things that people want to hear. Slim also inspired me to contemplate a marriage between a song and its solo—instead of playing something at random.”

King often visited Slim at his room in the Dew Drop, bought his first guitar from him and impersonated him on more that one occasion. Slim had hit a bulldozer with his Cadillac just as “The Things That I Used To Do” was climbing the charts and wound up in the hospital. Slim’s manager, Frank Painia, had a number of bookings procured and didn’t want to lose a lot of money. Painia convinced King to impersonate the hit maker and sent him to Atlanta’s Magnolia Ballroom.

“I knew all of Slim’s songs but I was scared to death,” said King. “You see it was never pointed out to the promoters that I was a substitute. We kicked off with ‘The Things That I Used To Do’ [in Atlanta]—it was like a cannon going off. People started throwing money and I nearly got pulled off the stage. We pulled it off, but I went to Atlanta later behind one of my records and the promoter laughed and said, ‘Hey, you look familiar.’”

The charade ended after about a week and King returned to New Orleans and continued hanging out at the House of Hope. A year earlier (1953), King—as Earl Johnson—had a 78 released on Savoy “Have You Gone Crazy” b/w “Begging At Your Mercy.” In 1954, King was courted by talent scout/producer/ salesman Johnny Vincent, who signed him with Specialty Records. It was at Specialty where Earl Silas Johnson accidentally became “Earl King.” On his first Specialty outing, “Mother’s Love,” initially Specialty was going to credit the release to “King Earl.” The pressing plant flip-flopped the information on the label, and the record was pressed crediting one “Earl King.” “Mother’s Love” made some noise along the Gulf Coast, and Earl Silas Johnson’s nom-de-disque permanently became Earl King. However, because King’s style was deemed very close to their current hit-maker Guitar Slim, Specialty dropped him after a few releases.

In 1955, King joined Vincent’s new label Ace. His Ace debut, “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,” despite the incredibly out-of-tune guitar and piano, turned into a Southern hit, selling 100,000 singles between Texas and Florida. Although the record was quickly covered by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights”—an important influence on the emerging swamp pop style—was a quick ticket out-of-town. King was signed by the Buffalo Booking Agency out of Houston and hit the road, often paired with “Gatemouth” Brown and Smiley Lewis.

Although King developed as a musician, producer and songwriter at Ace—he penned “My Love is Strong” for Jimmy Clanton and “Roll On Big Wheel” for Roland Stone/Benny Spellman during his Ace tenure—and, had some great follow-ups on the label, none of his subsequent singles crested 10,000. He grew frustrated with his situation at Ace, often complaining royalties were withheld from him. In 1959, King was on a tour with Sam Cooke, Dakota Staton, as well as Dave Bartholomew and his band. Each night King opened the show with a catchy, stop-time shuffle he had recently composed, “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” which invariably sparked the audience. Bartholomew—who doubled as Imperial’s A&R man—took notice, and once back in New Orleans, approached King about the song.

“One day [in 1960] I was standing in front of the Dew Drop when Dave pulled up,” said King. “He said, ‘Earl, that song you did on the show—is that yours?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then Dave said, ‘Did you record it yet?’ I told him I did a demo of the song [for Ace], but it hadn’t come out. [It later came out on Cosimo Matassa’s Rex label as ‘Darlin’, Honey, Angel Child’]. He wanted to know if I had a contract at the time. I never signed my option [with Ace] because I was stagnating there, so I was free. Dave paid me an advance and we went in the studio to record it.”

“Joining Imperial really gave me a chance to go in a different, creative direction. It was a real eye opener working for Dave Bartholomew [Imperial’s New Orleans talent scout and producer]. He had an open ear to production and he listened to suggestions. We began to use different musicians in the studio. Even though rhythms were changing then, Dave knew how to do things that were appealing, and not too far out in left field. It was a real learning experience.”

King recalled that the inspiration for “Come On” (later covered by Jimi Hendrix on the Electric Ladyland album) came from jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, who once recorded in New Orleans.

“The guitar part was a cycle of sevenths,” pointed out King. “I didn’t want to play it that way, but George Davis [a respected New Orleans musician] told me to leave it in. When Hendrix picked it up, he did almost the exact same version of it, except for the improvisations.”

Although King and Bartholomew expected big things from “Come On”—it was released as a two-part single—his Imperial debut became what King described as merely “a regional type thing. I wrote to Lew Chudd [the owner of Imperial] in California and asked him about promoting the record. He wrote back and said, ‘We don’t promote anything until it gets in the charts.’ I wrote back saying, ‘If it gets in the charts, it’s already on the way up. Ain’t too much more promoting you need to do.’”

King followed up with a couple of other “regional type things,” “Mama & Papa,” and the telling “You Better Know.” While at Imperial, King also wrote material for other artists. He’d penned a Top 40 hit for Lee Dorsey, “Do-Re-Mi,” an event which perturbed Chudd, because the record appeared on the rival Fury label. Chudd instructed Bartholomew to tell King that if he was going to continue to compose songs for other artists, those artists should be on Imperial. King responded with “He’s Mine,” recorded by Bernadine Washington, as well as “Teen Age Love” and “The Hum Diddy Do,” which Fats Domino translated.

THE FLIP SIDE

In 1962, King finally reached Billboard’s R&B singles chart. Although the magazine touted “Always A First Time”—it reached No. 17 during its five-week visit—the flip side, “Trick Bag”—which featured some superior Benny Spellman vocal interjections—was really the reason the public bought the record. A comical record in the tradition of the Coasters and Huey Smith & the Clowns, “Trick Bag” was a song King said he wrote about his father.

“My grandmother told me a story about my father’s temper once,” laughed King. “Every night my dad went by his girlfriend’s house to eat supper. One night, she just hands him a plate of food over the fence. My dad thinks about this, goes back to her place, kicks the door in, and there was another guy in there!”

Among the artists who covered “Trick Bag” are Robert Palmer on his breakthrough 1985 Riptide album, New Orleans bluesman Polka Dot Slim, the Meters, Ronnie Barron and New Jersey’s Fins.

Once again, even though it was the most successful single of his career, King felt the record could have gone much further. “We started hearing rumors in New Orleans that Lew Chudd was going to sell the company. Even Fats Domino knew about it and he was getting ready to find another record company. As a result, Chudd held back on promotion and my record didn’t go as far as it could have.”

King’s next release, “Don’t Lose Your Cool,” recorded three years earlier, was issued on the subsidiary Post label. The single did little, and soon after Chudd sold out to Liberty Records, an event which helped slam the door on the golden era of New Orleans rhythm and blues.

“We were just getting going when Imperial went down,” lamented King. “My hopes were with Imperial. It really hurt New Orleans when they pulled out. I often wonder what would have happened if Chudd would have hung on a little longer.”

Outside of a brief flirtation with Motown, Imperial’s demise caused King to withdraw from performing in order to concentrate on being a producer and song writer.

“We had a chance then to make a real turnaround in New Orleans,” explained King, referring to the mid-1960s. “Wardell Quezergue and myself were doing a lot of great things for NOLA and Watch. When Cosimo [Matassa] formed Dover, I thought we were out of the woods. Dover pulled all the small labels together and gave us a chance to break things nationally. But the jocks backed Cosimo against the wall—he couldn’t afford to pay them, so they refused to play any of his records. Everything sent from Dover went in the garbage can. So with no outlet to get records played we went under.”

Nevertheless, the 1960s were prolific years for King as he penned “Big Chief” for Professor Longhair, “Teasing You” for Willie Tee, Johnny Adams waxed “Part Of Me,” Danny White recorded “Loan Me Your Handkerchief,” Curley Moore and Bobby & the Heavyweights cut “Soul Train,” and the Dixie Cups did “Ain’t That Nice,” among others. There were occasional visits to the studio over the next 20 years, and isolated singles appeared on the Hot Line, Amy, Wand, Sansu, Kansu and Checker labels.

In 1969, King wrote a book about songwriting and concentrated on getting his catalog in order. Three years later, Allen Toussaint produced an Earl King album that Atlantic was initially interested in but the deal fell through when the company wouldn’t put up any front money. However, “Street Parade” was issued locally on a Kansu single and immediately became a Carnival favorite. The subsequent Street Parade album wouldn’t see the light of day until a decade later when Charly licensed it (recently it was reissued on CD). Other recording from the 1970s included a cameo on the 1976 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival LP (King’s tracks weren’t live but studio tracks with applause overdubbed) and a rushed album, Good Old New Orleans Rock and Roll, that appeared on Sonet in 1978. For the most part, King spent his time writing material at SeaSaint Studio during off hours, or holding court at the lunch counter of the K&B drug store on the corner of St. Charles and Louisiana Avenues.

DYED HAIR AND LONGHAIRS

By the late 1970s, King began gigging more regularly (it’s no coincidence that this was around the time K&B removed their lunch counters) when clubs like Tipitina’s, Tyler’s and Jed’s provided venues. King was paired with the Rhapsodizers and they were quite a pair. An early version of the Radiators, the Rhapodizers were young longhairs. Earl on the other hand was carefully dressed in one of his many safari suits with carefully coiffed dyed hair and polished fingernails (King also studied cosmetology).

In 1983, King, who’d been friends with Black Top’s Hammond Scott for several years, stopped by Tipitina’s on a Wednesday night to hear a band Scott and myself had been touting to him from New England—Roomful of Blues. Scott alerted the band that King was in the house and they called him to the bandstand. Ronnie Earl turned over his pink Stratocaster to King (clad in a turquoise number) who proceeded to rip into a version of “The Things That I Used To Do” that dropped every jaw in the room. At its conclusion, I turned to Scott and said, “You will never, ever, hear a better version of that song again in your life.” Several months later, King and Roomful of Blues were in a Slidell studio laying down the tracks for the Glazed LP.

Glazed, a superior effort, shone new light on King and he began getting calls from Europe and blues festivals from around the United States seeking his services. It was followed by outstanding LPs, Sexual Telepathy and Hard River To Cross. Scott surrounded King with the finest musicians and also used his material on James Davis, Nappy Brown, Snooks Eaglin and Guitar Shorty albums.

Although he was optimistic about the future in a telling February 2000 OffBeat Backtalk—even talking about getting back in the studio—ill health dogged him in the new millennium. He missed several gigs and arrived messed up on the ones he did make. Frankly, the press and the Internet message boards weren’t very kind to him. It was no secret King was fighting a losing battle with the bottle. Scott and his friend Isaac Bolden had got him into a detox clinic in 1998. King started eating again and he stayed sober for six months. Unfortunately, he eventually went back to his old ways and suffered a heart attack. Last fall, there was a rumor going around town that he had died, but after a couple of days, it was proven unfounded, although WWOZ actually announced his death on air. In October 2002, he collapsed and was hospitalized. When I visited him, King was clear headed, and even told a few jokes, but physically he was a mere shadow of his former self. Eventually he checked himself out of the hospital. Sadly, we have lost a good friend and one of the most important and influential New Orleans musicians of all time.

 

Selected CDs

Street Parade
(Fuel 2000)

Come On: The Complete Imperial Recordings
(Imperial)

 

Selected Book

I Hear You Knockin’
By Jeff Hannusch
(Swallow Publications)