Few musical genres have suffered as much bastardization, misinterpretation and just plain abuse as the blues. Once reserved almost exclusively for the juke joint—that back o’ town bastion of crap-shooting, corn liquor and their inevitable outcomes; knives, straight razors and the occasional revolver—it is now more commonly heard in over-priced bars festooned with ferns and frequented by fanny-packed tourists and well-heeled professionals. It’s the inevitable problem that arises when a style of music emerges from the underground and is thrust into the mainstream. Everyone winds up influenced by it, but few understand what made it so gripping in the first place.
In these dark days of dilution when even Hollywood action movie star Steven Seagal claims to be a blues man, this unfortunate phenomenon does have its upside: On the rare occasion that one stumbles upon the authentic article, in all its ragged, real-deal glory, the effect is shockingly immediate. And from his two-toned Stacy Adams shoes to his colorful felt Homburg hat—to say nothing of his gritty guitar and vocal styles—New Orleans’ Little Freddie King is just that.
Born Fread Eugene Martin in McComb, Mississippi on July 19, 1940, he took the nom-de-plume Little Freddie King in the late ’60s. He’s been playing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since its inception, and the fact that for the last four years he and his band have been relegated to the opening slot of the Blues Tent doesn’t bother him one bit.
“It was eleven o’ clock in the morning, donut and coffee time,” he recalls of his recent performance, “And didn’t nobody even have to give us a chance. They just went wild.”
Stirring up crowds is nothing new to King, who’s been playing the blues in the Crescent City for nearly 50 years. But since being displaced to Dallas after Hurricane Katrina, and returning to the city half a year ago to reside in the Musician’s Village, things seem to be on the rise. His fourth CD, the self-released Messin’ Around tha House, continues to spread his gut-bucket blues gospel far and wide while his self-contained band suddenly seem to be everywhere, from clubs all over town to festivals all over the country.
King, who spent his first three decades in New Orleans literally soaking up more life and near death—shootings, stabbings, jail sentences, drinking, all night rambling and plenty of hard work—than most folks who make it to a healthy 67, takes a philosophically humble view of his recent good fortune.
“I never did expect it. But when you don’t even think about it and just give it up; don’t care no more, then boom! All at once that’s when it happens.”
Not long ago, the only place King and his band could be seen was on the last Friday of every month at BJ’s Lounge, a ramshackle corner bar room buried in the bowels of the upper Ninth Ward, just a stone’s throw from the Industrial Canal. A run-down dive of the type that’s rapidly disappearing—as much due to gentrification as levee breaches—BJ’s remains the penultimate place to catch one of the most unique gigs in the whole shrinking blues world.
Past the pool table and through thick thunderclouds of cigarette smoke, Little Freddie steps to the microphone and begins finger-picking his hollow-bodied guitar, throwing in distorted, gnarled chords that ring with nasty tones snatched directly from the heyday of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. His wardrobe is Canal Street finery at its most swirling, be it purple, yellow, bright red, royal blue or any combination thereof, and is as sartorially splendid as his music is primal.
Like Hooker and Hopkins, who King cites as his two favorites, it’s immediately clear that he can stand on his own, with just his guitar and stomping foot for accompaniment. But then drummer “Wacko” Wade Wright makes his presence known with an authoritative cymbal crash and bassist Anthony “Skeet” Anderson anchors the rhythm with his ancient Vox violin-shaped bass. The final ingredient is Bobby Lewis Ditullo, who unobtrusively lays down the melody with lonesome harp wails that slowly intensify as the groove takes off.
Those who make the New Orleans nightclub scene regularly will notice that, aside from their sound, there’s something else that makes this band unique: none of its members are ever seen playing with anyone else, a rarity in a city where everyone seems to play with everyone, and more often than not, don’t really rehearse except when they’re onstage.
“That’s my problem with the music scene here,” says Wright. “You go to see someone and you don’t know what you’re getting because you never know who’s going to be playing behind them. And depending on who it is, it really changes the sound.”
The fact that King’s band is such a remarkably dedicated unit means that they not only know the songs inside and out, they anticipate idiosyncrasies that would be lost on even the best musicians. Their exclusivity is by design, not chance, says Wright.
“Not just anyone can play behind Freddie,” he states, citing the fact that like many a true blues man—most notably the aforementioned Hooker and Hopkins—King developed his own sense of timing long ago.
“When we first started playing together, I told him, ‘Look, when you go into a ride, I don’t care where you go. You can go into outer space if you want, but make sure you come back in on a count with the bass drum, and I’ll reverse the snare drum beat if I have to.’ That’s why Anthony doesn’t play a regular walking blues bass line. He listens to Freddie’s guitar lines and plays in between the cracks. When we feel he’s going to break down on his timing, we compensate for it. And I think we’ve got the feel after 13 years.”
Wright and Anderson were honing their musical chops at high school CYO dances when King first hopped a freight train to New Orleans in 1957. It would be nearly forty years before they all began playing together.
“When I met Skeets, he was playing with the Rhythm Kings out of Warren Easton High School,” says Wright, who was drumming in his own combo the Nite Owls. “I jumped to the Rhythm Kings and we started playing behind Jerry Byrne and Frankie Ford.”
Besides white R&B singers like Byrne and Ford, Wright and Anderson backed local black stars like Eddie Bo, Bobby Mitchell and Irma Thomas. Wright even played drums for Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns one night, but the parallel universe of the New Orleans blues scene might as well have been miles away.
In reality, like everything in the Crescent City, the two worlds existed right on top of one another, but rarely co-mingled. New Orleans blues was truly an underground phenomenon, a back alley world populated by artists like Babe Stovall, Lil’ Son Jackson, Boogie Bill Webb and Polka Dot Slim. Their countrified styles may have originated other places, but were somehow uniquely New Orleans, shot through with an urban electricity that could have come from nowhere else.
Though his father, Jessie James Martin, was an itinerant blues man himself, King developed his style wholly in his adopted city.
“When I first came down here I was looking for a job,” says King. “Our school had given a picnic down here and I took a liking to New Orleans. I told my mama, ‘I like it down in New Orleans. I’m going back down there and stay.’ She said, ‘You’ve got no business down there. Someone will kidnap you and kill you.’ I said, ‘I’m going to go.’ And sure enough I did.”
Over the years, King would do everything from slinging bananas on the riverfront to repairing television sets in his home, but in the first weeks that he arrived in New Orleans, his interest in music ignited.
“My daddy showed me some chords but I never could use them right,” he says. “When I got to New Orleans, Sears and Roebuck had this little Silvertone guitar with the amplifier built into the case. And that was just what I needed. After I started practicing, I’d play at home, then I’d bring it to work with me, play on the way to work, play my whole lunch hour. I just kept on working on it. Then I would slip down on Bourbon Street, watch the other guys play. Trying to catch on, you know? But I could not catch on for anything to what they were doing! It was above my knowledge; my computer would not pick it up. I would get home and try to do the same things they were doing and wasn’t getting anywhere.
“So then, in the next couple of months I went and bought a little 45 record player. I came home with it and put the records on there and they played too fast; my brain wouldn’t pick it up. There were three speeds to it so I decided, ‘I’ve got to slow it down.’ I put it on 78 and that was too fast—it was like a jet taking off—so then I put it on 33 and a third and that broke it all the way down and it started dragging. That was just what I wanted. I could follow the music note-by-note and that’s how I really learned to play. I had no teachers at all, period. None at all.”
As for the records that King listened to most during this period, he cites Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Blind Lemon Jefferson as favorites. “But I also loved country music like Lonnie Glosson, Ernest Tubb and Wayne Raney; I’d listen to it at work to help me concentrate.”King’s first gig came about through local musician Lloyd “Curly” Givens, who owned a thrift shop on Conti Street that also specialized in corn liquor.
“My friends would come by my house with some drinks,” says King. “I’d be playing my guitar and when we ran out of alcohol, we’d go buy this corn liquor that Givens was bootlegging, He found out I could play a little bit because I was doing pretty good on two or three songs.”
Givens insisted that King come to Scotland, Louisiana, where his friends owned a juke joint. “I said, ‘Man, I ain’t good enough to play at a bar or lounge where people are. I’m just not that good.’ He said, ‘As long as you just play one song, you’re good enough.’
“Back in those days, if you just had one can and a stick and pretended like you were beating a drum behind a guitar player, it was good enough for them. And man, when we got there, them people was swamped out. You talk about a crowd. Everyone was drinking corn liquor, regular booze, home brew, and we played all night long. I played two songs over and over and then I wound up learning another one.
“Givens got drunk on me around about four o’clock that morning and put a rosary around his neck and started crying. When he did that, I started to get worried. I said, ‘How am I going to get back home?’ Finally his wife called, and about two hours later she showed up. Then he wanted to start a fight with her behind the wheel. I thought, ‘If I ever get home I will never go anywhere with you again.’ That was my first gig and it was terrible!”
Things improved vastly when King began gigging with Big Joe Williams, Boogie Bill Webb and Polka Dot Slim. “Polka Dot played spoons and harmonica and when he got a job, a lot of the guys he played with wouldn’t show up so he would call me. We played a lot on Bourbon Street.”
Though King made some never-released recordings for the tiny Booker/ Invicta concern on South Rampart Street, he debuted on record in 1966 playing “chop guitar” on Slim’s fantastic reading of Earl King’s “Trick Bag,” released on the Baton Rouge-based Apollo label. It was around this time that King began playing with Harmonica Williams, with whom he’d form his first band and cut the first electric blues album in New Orleans history.
King met Williams through A.B. Bruer, who recognized Freddie as a fellow guitar player and introduced himself. “A few weeks later A.B. ran into Harmonica Williams, and told him about me. So he and Williams came by my house and we went and practiced about half the night, with Williams blowing his harmonica, A.B. playing the bass, and me playing what little I knew. Things rocked on about a month or two and then we ran up on (drummer) Rudy Taylor. We went and made a few gigs on Jackson and Willow at Irene’s Bar, and then we stepped up to Newton’s Bar on Second and Dryades. Newton played guitar so we’d jam with him, drink and have fun. We called ourselves the Mississippi Delta Blues Band.”
Two of the group’s biggest fans were Tulane students Steve Johnson and Parker Dinkins. “They would always come by and hear us play,” remembers King, “and one night Steve said, ‘Freddie, I love the way y’all play. Won’t you get your band together and we’ll cut a record?’ I said, ‘I don’t know about that, man. I don’t think we’re good enough for that yet.’ He said, ‘Oh yes y’all is.’ Now see, Williams could already go with the harmonica, he could really blow. I said, ‘Well, maybe in about another couple more years we might be good enough.’ He said, ‘No, you’re good enough right now.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll try it out.’”
After an aborted attempt at recording at Newton’s new club, the Crystal Palace, with the entire band drunk out of their minds and heavily distorted results, Steve suggested Gary Edwards’ unfinished studio on Mandeville Street.
“We had to use plywood and pieces of cardboard to patch it up and get the best sound that we could get,” says King. “But we started playing and Parker started recording. When we got to the last track, Newton busted in the door. He had been gambling and had lost everything, almost lost his house. He said, ‘Man, I got the blues.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter with you, Newt?’ He said, ‘Man, I lost everything I own. I’m going to cut me a song now and I’m going to sing this song the way I feel.’ I said, ‘What’s the name of it?’ He said, ‘I’m going to give it the name ‘Born Dead.’ So he got up there and sang that song and that was the hit. That was the best song out of all of them.”
“Born Dead” may have been galvanized by Newton’s gambling problems, but the song’s subject matter was far darker, a harrowing tale of the segregation era South that climaxed with the line, “You know a black man in Mississippi, he just may as well have been born dead.”
Released in 1971 on Johnson and Dinkins’ Ahura Mazda label, Harmonica Williams with Little Freddie King, known unofficially as Rock ’n’ Roll Blues, has long been a sought after item among blues fans. Upon its release, it garnered the band several West Coast festival tours, during which King also played and spoke at various California colleges.
He wouldn’t record again for over two decades, and the intervening years were riddled with ups and downs. During that time, he worked a variety of day jobs, one of which was rebuilding alternators at Anderson’s family business, Skeet’s Auto Electric. In 1976, he toured Europe for the first time with John Lee Hooker, but for the most part he stuck close to home, playing long stints at joints like the Stereo Lounge in Shrewsbury and the Busy Bee in Central City, which he’d later immortalize in “Bucket of Blood.”
“Every weekend I played there, someone got stabbed or shot. And sometimes when I was working during the week, I couldn’t get away from it. It was two blocks from Skeet’s, so I’d slip off from work and go there to get a drink. They’d have already started cutting and shooting, so I’d have to go and get me a drink somewhere else. It was bad.”
Once, during a band break, King was hit by shotgun pellets when a woman he was sitting with was murdered by her husband. No stranger to domestic disputes, he was shot and stabbed by his own wife as well. His rough-and-tumble existence smoothed out when he quit drinking in 1984, but along with the booze went his desire to play night clubs. Limiting himself to Jazz Fest performances, he began tackling vocals when Williams left New Orleans in 1989.
Wright and Anderson began playing with King in the mid-1990s when he needed a band for the Fest. “He came off with a lot of original stuff which we really liked,” says Wright. “We were used to slick R&B, but Freddie was all over the place.”
The lineup was finalized with the addition of Ditullo, whose bartending job at BJ’s presented them with the now-legendary monthly gig that solidified their sound. Since the bar had no live music license, the band played for tips, but the synergy they developed was priceless. Orleans Records’ Carlo Ditta had already put King back on the map with his first solo CD Swamp Boogie, but it was 1999’s Sing Sang Sung, also released on Orleans, that first captured the band in full lowdown swing.
“It ain’t pretty,” wrote Robert Fontenot in these pages shortly after the live album hit the streets. “You can practically smell the Chinese food and chicken coming from Chun King…the slop bucket wheeze put out on his cover of King Curtis’s ‘Soul Twist’ is potent enough to turn George W. Bush into the Godfather of Soul. It’s that country and that ghetto.”
“The big thing on Sing Sang Sung,” says Wright, “is that it got airplay in France. We were selling it off the bandstand, and they really loved that greasy sound. I sent (Fat Possum Records’) Matthew Johnson a couple of songs, and when he heard ‘Walking with Freddie,’ he said he couldn’t turn it off. It had him captivated.”
Johnson, who had long wanted to re-release Rock ’n’ Roll Blues but could never track down the rights to it, signed King for 2005’s You Don’t Know What I Know. Initially, Johnson expressed interest in recording King both alone and with different musicians. But as King noted at the time, “I like my band, they help me keep my time right.”
“Freddie’s got a real edge to him,” says Wright, “so our idea was to let him be raw and dirty in the middle. Let him come out and murder you with the band as the bouquet around him. But Fat Possum wanted it raw and dirty all the way through. In the end, Matthew wanted the record so he let us go with it.”
While the album’s lone solo track, “You Rascal You,” sounds frail and confused, suggesting the musical primitive that Fat Possum may have originally envisioned, full band blasts like “Crack Head Joe,” “Tough Frog to Swallow” and “Hot Fingers” rewarded Wright and King—as well as their fans—for sticking to their guns. Anxiety over the idea of King’s music being looped through a computer on two remixed tracks proved to be less of an issue. In fact, they grew to like them so much that they included three previously unreleased ones with new band tracks on Messin’ Around tha House. Fat Possum has since turned its attention to hard southern rock, and the label and King parted ways amicably. Still, “the idea behind the new album was a continuation of Fat Possum’s ideas,” says Wright, who’s well aware of the fact that blues purists frown on what they perceive as pandering to a younger audience.
Remixes or not, it’s still Little Freddie, and Wright remains amazed at his musical partner’s abilities.
“I call Freddie’s music trance blues,” he concludes. “You can sit down with him for a couple of hours and he’ll play rhythms and sounds that you’ve never heard before. It’s just hypnotic.”
Published June 2008, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 21, No. 6.