Although he was born near Gilmer, Texas, on September 3, 1934, Freddy King spent his musically formative years in Chicago. From 1950 to 1963, the handsome guitarist contributed to changing the blues of Windy City from ensemble tradition to the new, more aggressive sound of the West Side - with his sensational guitar skills and roaring vocals.
Freddie Christian (King was his mother's last name; Federal Records later changed the spelling of his first name to Freddy) learned guitar early on under the guidance of his uncle Leon King. The 78's of Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan made a big impression on the boy. He moved to Chicago in December 1950; great for his age, he was let into the local blues bars and could see his heroes up close. The brilliant guitarists Jimmy Rogers, Robert Jr. Lockwood and Eddie Taylor gave him important musical tips.
"He tried to learn to play," said Rogers, who died in 1997. "He'd come in and sit down and watch us play, me and Muddy." Freddy did a good job of what he saw, "He then went back home and practiced until those licks sounded quite good to him." King developed a hot two-finger guitar technique with a plastic thumb pick and a metal pick on the index finger. "That's how I played, and he watched me," Rogers said. Freddy played in various local formations and joined the Blues Cats of the young bluesharp player Earlee Payton in 1956. "Payton left us," recalled their bassist Robert 'Big Mojo' Elem, who died in 1997. "After that, Freddy King was the bandleader."
King made his record debut in 1956 with the groovy That's What You Think for John Burton's tiny El-Bee label, but then had to wait four years for his next recording opportunity. Meanwhile he worked his way to the top of the new West Side movement, together with Magic Sam. "Everybody said,'Man, you gotta see Freddy King," says his West Side guitar mate Eddy Clearwater.
Another young Chicago guitarist, Syl Johnson, played a mediating role when Freddy finally found accommodation at Syd Nathans' Federal sub-label in Cincinnati's King Records. "He heard I was signing with Federal, so he wanted to try to get on the label," says Syl. "He gave me a demo and I sent it to Sonny Thompson." Sonny, a Mississippi-born pianist who reached the top of the R&B charts in 1948 with his two-part instrumental Long Gone for the Miracle record company before switching to Nathan's King label, headed the Chicago office of Federal and King. Thompson signed Freddy for Federal and produced his debut session in Cincinnati on August 26, 1960.
As usual Thompson also took over the piano, Bill Willis played bass and Philip Paul drums. No less than three hits were recorded on this day, the biggest was the only instrumental number. Hide Away was named after one of Freddy's favorite pubs on the West Side, Mel's Hideaway Lounge. "It's been a real hotspot for a long time," Rogers said. The piece consisted of a series of borrowed riffs, which were joined together to form a seamless whole.
The basic theme was taken over by King from slide guitar wizard Hound Dog Taylor, who called his creation Taylor's Boogie. "He was the first one to start playing it," says Clearwater. "Then Magic Sam played it." He recorded his own version for Mel London's Chief logo in 1961 and named it Do The Camel Walk. But Sam didn't use the two choruses Freddy played on his bass strings that came straight from Jimmy McCracklin's 58 hit The Walk, and the 12 bars from Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn. The wide open break chord came either from Lockwood or Freddy Robinson.
"We played it about three, four, maybe five or six times and we thought,'Okay, we're getting ready to record it,'" Willis, who died in 2010, recalled. "The old man (Nathan) said,'I got it!'" Crazy old Syd had captured a #5 R&B-/#29 pop smash hit - and the definitive electric blues guitar instrumental piece.
Bill Dahl Chicago, Illinois
PLUG IT IN! TURN IT UP! Electric Blues 1939-2005 - The Definitive Collection! Volume 3: 1960-1969