The seventh son of a seventh son, Earl King composes songs that are witty, wry observations of human nature. Earl’s guitar playing, inspired by Guitar Slim and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, directly influenced Jimi Hendrix, whose rendition of Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)” is a highlight of the Electric Ladyland album.
For four decades, Earl King (born Earl Silas Johnson, February 6, 1934) has been the reigning monarch of New Orleans rhythm and blues. King’s career is linked with those of Guitar Slim, Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix, Allen Toussaint, the Meters, Dr. John and Robert Palmer, all giants in their domains. And yet, the prolific Earl King has remained somewhat in the shadows, often sacrificing his own career in order that others could succeed. While his own recordings are classics, for King they have been less of a priority than writing songs for other artists. Indeed the list of hits this man is responsible for writing and arranging is daunting: “Trick Bag,” “Teasin’ You,” “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” “Soul Train,” and “Big Chief” are just a few of the classics in his catalog.
King does step into the spotlight on occasion, and when he does it’s always memorable. A natural showman, the normally reserved King gets charged with atomic energy once he picks up the guitar and hits the bandstand. Put a solid band behind him and you’ll hear some of the best New Orleans rhythm and blues this side of Fats Domino.
OffBeat recently caught up with Earl King at one of his favorite haunts, SeaSaint Studio, deep in the heart of Gentilly on Clematis Street.
I’m sure your fans would be interested in knowing what you’ve been doing lately.
I’ve been chilling. I had been preparing new material, but I haven’t really worked on anything new in almost a month since we abandoned the original project. I was in the studio with Black Top. We had four or five cuts but then everything came to a halt. Right now I’m waiting for them to get their business together. I’m still trying to piece some things together musically and this time off lets me get down with it. I’m not doing anything too different from what I’ve been doing, but I’m trying to make a bit of a different statement. I just haven’t gotten it to the point where I can record it yet.
I got a bad habit of starting stuff and then putting it down. I start working on a new project, then I start something else and I forget about what I was working on originally. Like I remember one night sitting up and listening to that song I did for Black Top, “It All Went Down the Drain,” and it hit me. I forgot to put the monologue on it and that was a pertinent part of the song.
It’s been a while since you recorded.
Yeah, three or four years. Hard River to Cross [recorded in 1993] was the last thing we did. But I talked to George Porter last week about getting together and kicking around some new material. That way when we do get ready to record, we’ll have some kind of direction to go in with these songs.
You see when I was hanging around and gigging more sparingly, I had plenty time on my hands to put things together. But now I’m in and out of here a lot. I’m jumping out of here in February and then I’ve got some dates in March. My agent books stuff way ahead so I have to keep my eye on the calender.
Have you been touring much?
I’ve been in and out of New Orleans with the Butanes, a group out of St. Paul [Minnesota.] Canada, Minnesota, Chicago–I do Buddy Guy’s club three or four times a year. I haven’t been overseas for a few years but I’d like to go again. Now you take Japan, that place is intriguing. I could live there forever. Have you ever seen that movie Shogun? I visited the castle that was in the movie. It’s in the city of Kyoto. That used to be the capital of the country but they moved it to Tokyo and I know why. I was there in the summer and it ain’t nothing nice. You wouldn’t complain about New Orleans being hot and humid if you were there. It’s like a Turkish bath – people walk around in the streets fanning themselves.
The first time I was there was with Johnny Adams. Johnny walked all over Kyoto because he could take that heat. It would be a 110 degrees and Johnny would come back to the room, leave the windows closed and put a blanket over the AC. Man if it rained, Johnny would put a quilt on. Johnny used to be my roommate on the road but after that never no more. The second time I went back there it was October and it was much nicer. It’s kind of like déjà vu with me in Japan. I used to walk around there and the signs aren’t in English but I never worried about getting lost and I’d walk for miles.
Do you like Japanese culture?
Yeah, as fast as it is over there those people are actually laid back. It’s busy on the street and there are as more cabs in Tokyo than in New York, but when you get in a public building there’s no rush for nothing. Like I said that second trip was real nice because we went to a lot of different cities and stayed in nicer hotels.
Greece is nice, too. I went there with Tommy Ridgley, George Porter, and Curtis Mayfield. That’s the only place I saw men storm the stage at the end of a set. They were sitting there quiet with there arms folded during the whole show but bam, after I finished “Let the Good Times Roll,” 50 men started running at us. Tommy said, “I wonder what got into them?” I said, “I have no idea.” At some gigs the people would bring us baskets of flowers and pour champagne all over the bandstand before we started playing.
What’s the ideal way for you to compose music?
Well, if I can I start working on a piece music until I burn out. I don’t deal with nothing but that. I eat, sleep, and in between work on music. Writing for me used to be like being on an eight-hour shift. My break was going to the K&B counter for lunch. It’s time-consuming, but I enjoyed doing it.
I always tell new writers, “Don’t be afraid to tear a song down because you think you created something perfect.” You can always find something else to make it better. Like one time I was writing a song for Dr. John, “Let’s Make A Better World.” I lost the song and had to write it again. Dr. John cut it and six months later I found the original tune. Well, I’m glad I lost the song because it wasn’t as good as the second version.
When was the first time you met Dr. John?
It might have been at J&M (Studio). Him and Booker would be in there every day. In them days he was playing more guitar than dealing with the piano. Mac (Dr. John) played in a band with Jimmy Clanton and I produced some sessions with Jimmy. They used to call Jimmy “The white Earl King.” (laughs) Later I worked a lot of sessions with Mac at Cosimo’s.
What was Cosimo like?
Cos was a brilliant individual. With the kind of recording equipment they had in those days you had to be a genius to get a good sound. He was a master of one track. He knew a lot of tricks in the studio and he was very helpful with the musicians. He would get what the musicians were trying to create on one track. It was impossible in some cases but he went on at it. When they held auditions at his studio there would be lines of people all around the block. I met a lot of writers and musicians from going to auditions. I remember going to one that Lee Maghid had for Savoy. Me and Huey [Smith] wound up recording. Back then  me and Huey hung out every day going over songs.
After playing on all of those ragged pianos in the clubs, Huey would go in Werlein’s on Canal Street. He’d pretend he was going to buy a piano just so he could play one that was in tune and not busted up. The first time I saw Clifton Chenier was in Werlein’s with Huey. He was buying an accordion.
Huey used to make a lot of recording sessions. If it was R&B it was Huey on piano. But when Huey started making his own records he changed his style of playing. Huey had a certain style that he only put on his records. But when he played on other people’s records he played all types of different styles and was awesome.
Huey played that nice signature on Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knockin’.”
Yeah, but I could have killed him for that (laughs). I showed him how to play that and he first played it on my record, “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” When he played it on Smiley’s record he played a dissonant bad note on the arpeggio but I think he did it on purpose.
Tell the story behind the song “Barefootin’”
I had just finished [writing] Johnny Adams’ “Part of Me” and Fess’ “Big Chief” [for Watch Records]. I called Robert [Parker] in the back room at Chief’s [One Stop Records] and played “Barefootin’” for him on the piano. Chief [Joe Assunto, who co-owned Watch] wanted to do the song but he said he had to wait because he was trying to get Johnny’s record exposed in New York and he wanted to get Fess’ record out. He told Robert, “Gimme about a month.” Well Robert left there, took my basic thing and changed the word structure and went with NOLA [Records.] At the time I thought about going to court but Alvin Battiste stopped me. Fess’ record was making a little noise, the Dixie Cups [“People Say”] were up there, and Willie Tee’s [“Teasin’ You”] was in the charts. Alvin said, “Earl, you don’t need the money.”
Do you have somebody handling your song catalog now?
Yeah, Don Williams. He’s got a bunch of clients. Don administers my catalog. It keeps me from dealing with all that paper work – licensing and all that junk.
In the last year or so, several contemporaries from your generation have died. Does this make you reflective?
Damn right, but I try not to get too reflective… When I’m traveling, I’m always listening to the radio and I hear a lot of new young guys that emulate what we did, but in a sense it’s new to them. They put a new twist on something. I feel that there are people out there that can continue what we started.
Like I talked to Robert Palmer. He said, “Earl, what did you think about me doing ‘Trick Bag?’” I said, “I liked it. You didn’t cut it the way it was originally cut.” You know there are some things you can’t get away from. Some songs it’s hard to stray away from the original. You got to have a thinking cap on your head to make something sound different.
You know I’ve been listening to Frank Sinatra and I’ve been thinking, ‘Whoever arranged that music created a perfect marriage between what they did and Frank’s singing. It’s like all the stuff [arranger] Joe Scott did with Bobby Bland [in the 1950s and 1960s.] Then Joe died and they had a slack period. The other people that were doing Bobby’s sessions were good, but they didn’t have that same special marriage. It’s like Al Green and Willie Mitchell, Fats [Domino] and Dave [Bartholomew.] Once it’s on it’s on. It’s strange how that works.
I know you’re interested in astrology and numerology; what’s your view about living in a new millennium?
Well, you see we’re functioning on a two now. That’s very important. Two is a liaison number that demands peace at all costs and tolerates no frustration. Now all the rhetoric is going to diminish little by little by little. This is a partnership century, there will be more people going into business than you can shake a stick at and there will be a lot more marriages than there were in the 1900s. The two demands partnerships at all costs.
It’s interesting to see that there were a lot of the frustrations around the world, but there were attempts to establish the peace thing late in the 1900s. Like Jimmy Carter tried to be a liaison in the Middle East between Sadat and Began, so they could get their thing together. This was the preparatory stage for the year 2000. How did people used to say that, the calm before the storm, or vice versa? It will be interesting to see what the two is gonna bring about.
You see a lot of people think astrology and numerology pinpoints something, but really it ain’t nothing but a road map. You can go left or right, it’s up to you. What might be a downer for one person might be an upper for someone else. Everything functions off rhythm. You can get in a certain environment and feel annoying vibrations but in another you feel serene. You can meet one person and really hit it off. You can meet another and there’s like a force field between you.
You know they say different faces, different places? One time I was speaking with somebody and they said, “Earl, man you’ve been talking about reincarnation, I ain’t coming back as no female.” I said, “Man, you got no choice. Don’t even think you’re gonna come back looking the same as you do now. It’s absurd to think you’re gonna come back as even the same nationality.”
People got a thing on that borderline, too – here’s a good for instance. Say a woman was living a luxury life with a nice family, plenty money, and people to wait on her. Let’s say she gets reincarnated twice as a female, but next time she comes back as a newborn male baby. Some of those babies make the transition smoothly but some of them don’t. Then people start saying, “Oh, that kid’s got gay tendencies.” The baby didn’t make the transition all the way. People don’t realize what could have taken place in his spirit, his soul. Now they have people coming out that say, “I’m a man in a woman’s body or a woman in a man’s body.” They don’t know that they’re actually right on top of that thing. You don’t know if you’re gonna come back as a male or a female.
They got people that say, “So and so went to the psychiatrist and they said he’s schizophrenic.” Schizophrenia comes from a past life. But the psychiatrist doesn’t tackle it from that level. That’s something from somebody’s past life that hasn’t been resolved and it can pop in and out.