One of the giants in the history of New Orleans R&B, "EARL KING" has died this past April 17, at 69, finally succumbing at St. Charles General Hospital to the debilitating effects of diabetes, a condition against which he had been struggling mightily for the last several years. But despite his physical problems, he had continued to tour up until near the very end and his remarkable stage presence belied the true gravity of his illness. “Drinking is about my only comfort against the constant pain,” he was wont to say recently.

Ironically, although he was an integral part of the Crescent City’s glory days of R&B-writer, arranger, producer, and, last, but not least, guitarist of uncommon magnitude - he remained strangely obscure outside of the confines of the Big Easy, while his material was being covered elsewhere by more celebrated figures like the Dr. Johns and even Jimi Hendrix. Perhaps it was because he was dubbed the “Clown Prince” of New Orleans that he was not taken seriously - a reference to his scene stealing concert antics which were the stuff of legend and in which he cut a striking figure with his well - coiffed pompadour remaining perfectly in place while he pranced about recklessly. Or maybe it was his philosophy of life - a weird and wonderful melange of voodoo superstition, astrology, and mysticism - that made even his close associates often look askance at him. But make no mistake about it, as far as his trade was concerned, he was stone cold sober. “Music is my whole life and it’s the most important thing to me,” he confided to me (he liked me as a fellow Aquarian) a couple of years back at a performance at Whitlow’s on Wilson (Boulevard) in Arlington, VA, wherein he was backed by another former Black Top artist, drummer Big Joe & his Dynaflows. And in this regard, Earl King was always true to his word.

Earl King was born in New Orleans as Earl Silas Johnson IV on February 7, 1934 in the Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans at 2834 Constance St. His father was a well respected blues pianist, but died when Earl was just two. His mother, whom he nicknamed “Big Chief,” a noted gospel singer at the nearby Antioch Baptist Church, raised him and gave him an early musical indoctrination in the spiritual realm. Nevertheless, as a teenager, he soon discovered that his tastes were more inclined toward the secular variety of music, and he would run off to the "reefer bars," like Big Mary’s, along Tchoupitoulas Street to catch a glimpse of his new found heroes such as guitarist Smiley Lewis (born Overton Amos Lemons) or barrelhouse pianist Isidore “Tuts” Washington, who, along with drummer Herman Seale, formed a popular trio and first recorded for Deluxe in 1948. Offered encouragement by local voodoo peddler, Victor "Doc" Augustine, whose shop on Dryades was a meeting place for musicians, he soon struck up a friendship with another regular, Huey Smith. It was not long before Earl, forming his own trio of schoolmates, including Roland “Cookie” Cook (who later changed to bass and recorded for both Ace and RCA) on piano and John Davis on drums, was winning talent contests at clubs like Frank Pania's classy Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle or the blue collar Tiajuana on Saratoga.

The former club, another haunt of musicians both local and on tour, was most influential in his musical development in that it presented him the opportunity to observe and absorb the strident guitar technique of Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones. Jones, in fact, became his mentor and spiritual advisor, giving him his first professional guitar. Earl soon had mastered his teacher's licks so precisely that Pania, also a booking agent, dispatched him to execute concerts that Jones could not make, especially in regions where he would not be recognized. The ruse worked for a while, as no one became the wiser. His guitar playing in the meantime had progressed to the point that he felt he could record and, with the aforementioned boogie pianist Huey Smith, won an audition, a huge “cattle call,” as they were known back then, staged by Lee Maghid, talent scout for Herman Lubinsky’s indie Savoy label of Newark, NJ, at Cosimo Matassa’s famed J&M Studio, at 838 N. Rampart (at Dumaine).

The session of June 1, 1953 yielded a solitary single "Have You Gone Crazy" / "Beggin' At Your Mercy" (1102) which proved a failure, like all of Lubinsky's efforts in South Louisiana, including Huey Smith’s first attempt (at this same split session) at recording, “You Made Me Cry” / ”You’re Down On Me” (1113, in which Earl supplies guitar), and vocalist Dave Dixon’s “My Plea” / ”Over The River” (1126). It was of little consolation to these aspiring musicians that these recordings sold so poorly that they became instant collector’s items and now are numbered among the rarest and most sought after in the recorded history of New Orleans R&B music.

Nonetheless, Earl’s guitar playing had not escaped the keen ear of another frequent customer at the Dew Drop, Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio), who served in the same capacity as Maghid, but with Art Rupe's L.A. - based Specialty outfit, another R&B indie, which was taking root in New Orleans and would soon thrust Little Richard into the public’s consciousness. In fact, Johnny Vincent was the producer on one of the most memorable blues recordings of all time - Guitar Slim’s (Eddie Jones) “The Things That I Used To Do” (Specialty 482), featuring guest artist Ray Charles on piano. After the Savoy fiasco, the always opportunistic Johnny Vincent arranged three separate recording dates at Cosimo's in 1954, protracted sessions which would result in four separate singles all executed in the traditional 12 - bar blues mode.

Among these was the solid seller, "A Mother's Love" (495), which amply displayed his still strong affinity for the signature, discordant Guitar Slim delivery. Specialty, in the process, also managed to reverse his label name from King Earl to Earl King due to a typo and the moniker stuck thereafter. When Vincent had a falling out with Rupe, he quickly invited Earl to become a charter member of his newly formed Ace label, based in Johnny's home town of Jackson, MS. But by this time, Earl's style had changed drastically. Due to frequent junkets through Acadiana (Cajun country of southwest LA) - Crowley, Lafayette, and Opelousas - he had come in contact with the newly emerging swamp pop genre of singing and his first single for Ace, recorded at Lillian McMurry's (of Trumpet records fame) primitive studio on Farish St. in Jackson, reflected this evolving ballad influence. "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" (509) is what Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) dubbed the "classic South Louisiana two chord" (E flat, B flat), complete with the all the trimmings, like the characteristic triplets. It sold nearly 100,000 copies and marked Earl's first departure from the regular twelve bar blues pattern. Indeed, it fared so well on the R&B charts in August of 1955 that it prompted Johnny Guitar Watson to “cover” it with a slicker version on RPM (436), another R&B indie run by the Bihari Brothers in Beverly Hills, CA. Although close chum Huey Smith’s rolling piano was in evidence on the session, Vincent saw fit to add "featuring Fats (Domino)" under Earl's name in the hope of boosting sales. And no ploy to this end, as will be seen, was beneath Vincent’s dignity. Earl's productive tenure with Johnny Vincent lasted five years, from 1955 - 60. In all, eight separate Ace singles were released (most being recorded in New Orleans), as was one on Vin, a subsidiary label - “I Met A Stranger” / ”Is Everything All Right” (1003). On this latter platter, Earl recorded under the pseudonym of "Handsome Earl." This was yet another common practice back then when an act was hot, like a John Lee Hooker, who recorded variously throughout his career as Delta John on Regent, Texas Slim and John Lee Cooker on King, the Boogie Man on Acorn, Johnny Williams on Staff, John L. Booker on Chance, John L. Hooker on Modern, and Birmingham Sam and His Magic Guitar on Savoy. The disguise was thin, but the scheme normally accomplished its goals, as copyright infringements weren’t as much of an issue in that era. Although none of Earl's subsequent tries matched the first in sales, all proved strong regional sellers.

Toward the end of his hitch with Ace, Earl also recorded two singles for the black entrepreneur Don Robey and his Duke/Peacock label of Houston, TX, who was by now aggressively courting the New Orleans market and eventually succeeded in landing pianist James Booker, who had a winner in the instrumental “Gonzo” (Peacock 1697) in 1960, and singer Ernie K-Doe, who came aboard in the mid-60s, after his string of blockbusters on Minit (including “Mother-In-Law”) had run their course. But Robey’s first major conquest in the Crescent City was recording Earl King (whom he had occasionally booked previously through his Buffalo Agency), not as a solo artist, but as a part of a five member du-whop group, the Uniques. Perhaps camouflaged in this fashion, he was able to circumvent his contract with Ace and pursue his own interests elsewhere. But this may have been a moot point as “Somewhere” (1677 in 1957) and “Picture Of My Baby” (1695 in 1960), both his compositions, were not substantial enough chartmakers to elicit any lawsuits from Johnny Vincent.

By the time the 60s had rolled around, Earl, through the intercession of trumpeter and producer, Dave Bartholomew, had joined up with Lew Chudd's Hollywood, CA - headquartered Imperial label, which also boasted an array of New Orleans stars such as guitarist Snooks Eaglin, singer/songwriter Bobby Charles (“But I Do,” “Later Alligator,” and “Walking To New Orleans”), Huey Smith, and Smiley Lewis and Fats Domino, both in the twilight of their long careers with this outfit. Two more compositions "Trick Bag" (5811, with a cameo by Benny Spellman as he had contributed to “Mother-In-Law”) and "Come On (Let The Good Times Roll)" (5713) scored heavily in the area and are now considered blues classics. A similar "Darling Honey Angel Child," recorded previously by Earl for Vincent, was released as Rex 1015 (the renowned engineer, Cosimo Matassa’s label, distributed by Ace) to dilute the sales of the latter Imperial number by confusing the buying public.

Such was another common practice of the period - anything to achieve the upper hand. Before Earl’s stint with Imperial ended in 1963 with a total of seven singles, including one on the auxiliary label, Post, he included a loving tribute to his late former teacher, Guitar Slim, by reprising his classic, “The Things That I Used To Do” (5730).

Interestingly enough in 1963, after Lew Chudd sold out Imperial records to major label, Liberty, a whole caravan of New Orleans artists, including Joe Jones, Johnny Adams, and Earl were invited to try out for Berry Gordy's Motown records in Detroit. The deal fell through when Joe Ruffino, who claimed to have both Jones and Adams under contract to his Ron/Ric label, threatened Gordy with litigation. Now somewhere moldering in the Motown vaults are sixteen sides by Earl King, more than enough for an album, probably destined never to see the light of day.

By mid-60s, Earl had tried his hand with a variety of labels including Amy - “You’ll Remember Me” (942), a logo that was instrumental in furthering Lee “Workin’ In The Coal Mine” Dorsey’s career - and New Orleans - based Hot Line - “Poor Sam” (908) - with little to show for it. However, his talent as a tunesmith never waned. Among his writing credits during this time frame were Lee Dorsey's "Do-Re-Me" (Fury 1056), drummer Smokey Johnson’s instrumental smash “It Ain’t My Fault” (NOLA 706), Willie Tee's (Turbinton) Atlantic chartmaker,

"Teasin' You," and Professor Longhair's (Henry Roeland Byrd) "Big Chief.” In the latter “wall of sound” recording (Watch 1900), a monumental tour de force of arrangement by Wardell Quezergue (formerly of Imperial’s Wardell & the Sultans) and which was dedicated to his mother, Earl both whistles and assumes the vocal duties, accompanied by a huge, 16 piece assemblage of the greatest New Orleans musicians of that era, including trombonist Waldron “Frog” Joseph, alto Clarence Ford, tenor Nat Perilliat, pianist Edward Frank, percussionist Smokey Johnson, and Dr. John on guitar.

By the 70s, New Orleans music was experiencing a drought as far as creativity was concerned, especially after the sudden demise of Cosimo Matassa’s local label Dover/Nola and national R&B hits like Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” (Stax 0088, 1971), the Meters’ “Chicken Strut” (Josie 1018,) and King Floyd’s “Groove Me” (Chimneyville 435, 1970) were getting fewer and farther in between. Nonetheless, Earl, the eternal optimist, never surrendered his hopes and dreams of returning to the spotlight. Now working as a staff writer, studio musician, producer, and consultant to Marshall Seahorn and writer Allen Toussaint at their much renowned SeaSaint Studio, still on Clematis St. in Gentilly, a close suburb of New Orleans, Earl recorded a whole album's worth of his own compositions, which in spite of their promise, were ultimately to be rejected by Atlantic records. A single from that series of sessions, "Street Parade Pts. 1&2 (101)" released on Kansu, SeaSaint’s house label and which was co - owned by Earl (and its solitary release), actually turned out to be a perennial Mardi Gras favorite, but overall the project proved to be a major disappointment.

Later in the 70s, Earl kept active with both writing and performing and had become an institution at the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, appearing on a 1976 anthology LP. In 1977, he recorded an LP for Samuel Charters' Swedish Sonet label and tried his luck with a procession of labels including Wand, Island, and Seminar, but to no avail. It not only was a difficult period for Earl but also for blues in general, as disco then was all the rage and monopolizing the airwaves. It was a storm that all bluesmen had to weather until the 80s brought about a revival in interest in the blues. Indeed, the climate of the 80s was much kinder. In 1981, the powers that be decided to release the old tapes once intended for Atlantic as an LP. Entitled Street Parade, it was picked up by the UK oldies label Charly. In 1983, the French acquired the rights to Earl’s 60s Imperial material and released the entire inventory as an import, Trick Bag on EMI America (17238). And national tours were soon in the offing, beckoning this erstwhile homeboy. One performance in particular, the 1980 Monterey (CA) Jazz Fest, remained one of his greatest triumphs and officially kicked off his comeback. And it would be just a matter of time before Europe would be calling.

By 1988, Hammond Scott and his now defunct Black Top records recognized this genius in their midst and invited him to record in conjunction with another Black Top group, Roomful Of Blues, originally formed in the late 70s in Rhode Island by guitarist Duke Robillard. Glazed (1035) was not a critical success, nor was the single leased to Floyd Soileau’s Maison de Soul in Ville Platte, LA - “Mardi Gras In The City” (1039). In fact, this collaboration was panned by the reviewers, including Bill Dahl, who wrote, “This coupling of funky Crescent City guitarist Earl King with the East Coast - based Roomful Of Blues wasn’t exactly made in heaven (the band excels at jump blues; at second line beats, they’re fairly clueless). Nonetheless, the CD was significant in that it reestablished Earl as a major player in the world of blues, as it rejuvenated his career.

However, Earl’s next try in 1990 on Black Top, Sexual Telepathy (1052), whose title was a take off on Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” received a resounding thumbs up from all, thanks in part to a sympathetic rhythm section led by the Meters’ bassist George Porter and Big Easy standout drummer Kenny Blevins, as well as a “funkier” horn section. As part of the collection, Earl reprises former gems like “Always A First Time” (Imperial 5811) and “Weary Silent Night” (Ace 564), as well as new efforts like the novelty, “Happy Little Nobody’s Waggy Tail Dog.” As always is the case, the listener must keep an open mind with Earl’s flights of fancy and come to expect the unexpected.

Earl’ third CD for Black Top in 1993, Hard River To Cross (BT 1090) was also critically acclaimed, since Earl was again accompanied by veterans of the New Orleans’s music community, like the aforementioned George Porter, drummer Ernest Lay III, and gifted guitarist Snooks Eaglin. Among the standout tracks on this winner is the laugh inducing and bizarre, “Big Foot,” and rollicking tribute to the Big Easy, “No City Like New Orleans.”

Hammond Scott, in fact, had so much faith in Earl’s abilities that he rewarded him with one of Black Top’s last releases, New Orleans Street Talkin’ in 1997. But by then, in all honesty, no one could have single - handedly rescued from the auction block what was once one of blues’ greatest labels ever.

Also the 90s, in addition to his Black Top efforts, Earl was attracting attention from other labels. Although not necessarily majors, more and more companies were willing to take a risk, finally taking notice of this exponent of classic New Orleans R&B. Among them were the Japanese P-Vine which gathered all of Earl’s Ace and Specialty sides and handsomely repackaged them in 1993 as Those Lonely, Lonely Nights. Another was the stateside soul label, Westside, which in 1998 released Earl’s Pearls, which covered pretty much the same territory as the former.

As the new millennium dawned, Earl found himself in a familiar position, still trying to establish himself, and he must have felt that fate had conspired against him. The blues, like the stock market, after riding high in the 90s, again had experienced a downturn and left many labels in its wake, including his own, Black Top. Back to square one, he still was touring but, despite his remarkable recording history, on one was willing to take a chance on him.

Earl King will always be remembered as a quirky, idiosyncratic writer who loved word play and turning “second line” rhythms inside and out. A true pillar of the New Orleans R&B community for decades, he worked largely behind the scenes, but seemingly was acknowledged only by his peers as a true architect behind the music. But, unfortunately as in the case of so many artists, his true genius will not be universally appreciated and recognized until well after his passing. Earl gave it his best shot but just couldn’t hang in there long enough to see it happen.
Larry Benicewicz (Text and photos)

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