Earl King

Unorthodox rhythm and blues guitarist

Earl Silas Johnson (Earl King), guitarist, singer and songwriter: born New Orleans 6 February 1934; died New Orleans 17 April 2003.

Earl King was a key figure in the development of New Orleans rhythm and blues. A prolific songwriter, responsible for Mardi Gras anthems such as "Big Chief" and "Street Parade", he was also an accomplished, if unorthodox, guitarist, confidently playing the instrument behind his back whilst walking out into the audience, if he felt like it.

He was born Earl Johnson in New Orleans in 1934, and he was 14 when he started to play. His early influences included T-Bone Walker, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and the electrifying gospel musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It was, however, the bluesman Guitar Slim who fired his imagination. The Mississippi-born Slim had devised an outrageous stage act that included dyeing his hair blue and green and dressing in garish suits, but it was his remarkable guitar tone and the use of stunts, like charging through the audience and out into the street whilst still playing, that attracted the youngster. Johnson became both disciple and close friend of Guitar Slim and when, in 1954, Slim was briefly sidelined from touring with Ray Charles by a road accident he was able to step in virtually unnoticed.

Johnson made his recording début in 1953, cutting "Have You Gone Crazy?" for Savoy with his old friend Huey "Piano" Smith accompanying on piano. He then moved to Speciality, where the label boss Art Rupe intended promoting his new signing as "King Earl" until a typesetter inadvertently reversed the names. As Earl King, he recorded several sides in emulation of Guitar Slim, including "A Mother's Love" (1954), before he signed with Ace and enjoyed a regional hit with "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" (1955).

In 1960 he hopped labels once again, to Imperial. Under the guidance of Dave Bartholomew, King enjoyed R&B hits with "Trick Bag" (1961), the true story of his pianist father's efforts to tame a wild woman, and "Always a First Time" (1962).

In common with many other New Orleans acts, King found that his career waned as the Sixties drew to a close. He did, however, maintain a steady touring schedule and in 1969 Jimi Hendrix featured his "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)" on the album Electric Ladyland. Unusually for an R&B writer of his generation, King retained full publishing rights and when not performing lived off of his royalties. The acts that benefited from his skills as a writer included Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, the Dixie Cups, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dr John, who became his frequent collaborator.

In 1986, King worked with the Rhode Island-based band Roomful of Blues on an album, Glazed, that won a Grammy nomination. It was followed by another acclaimed album, Sexual Telepathy (1990), and then, in 1993, by Hard River to Cross.

Earl King was modest about his achievements:

Most people say, "Well, Earl, you sing the blues", or however they want to categorise it. I just sing songs. I'm a writer, so whatever gymnastics jump through my head, I write about it.

Paul Wadey

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