DAVE DAVIES, host:

Of the three great blues guitarists name King - B.B., Albert and Freddie - probably the one who did the most to shape rock guitar styles was the least known: Freddie. His most important work has been unavailable for some time, but recently, Bear Family Records released "Taking Care of Business," which covers most of his career.

Rock historian Ed Ward has his story.

(Soundbite of music)

ED WARD: Texas claims Freddie King as its son. But although he was born on a farm near Gilmer in 1934, his real contribution came as one of the young musicians from Chicago's West Side who challenged the Muddy Waters Howlin' Wolf South Side musicians starting in the late '50s. Guitarists like Otis Rush and Magic Sam played an aggressive, virtuosic blues that attracted a younger crowd, and Freddie King ran with them.

King was always an innovator, and on his very first record, made for the tiny El Bee label in 1956, he used Robert Big Mojo Elem on electric bass, an instrument Elem played in Freddie's band, but few others in town used.

(Soundbite of song, "That's What You Think")

Mr. FREDDIE KING (Musician): (Singing) Well, now, it's all over 'cause now you say we're through. You've gone and left me. You say you found somebody new. That's what you think. That's what you think. You can lay off a while, but you sure can't quit me now.

WARD: Freddie's big break came in 1960, when King Records opened an office in Chicago. Sonny Thompson, a seasoned veteran of postwar rhythm and blues, was the talent scout, and after learning that Leonard Chess didn't think Freddie was worth signing, snapped him up and took him to the label's home in Cincinnati to record. The very first session in August resulted in the song that has been linked with Freddie King's name ever since.

(Soundbite of song, "Hide Away")

WARD: "Hide Away" was a tune everyone on the West Side played, probably written by Hound Dog Taylor. Freddie's version, named after one of his favorite clubs, Mel's Hideaway Lounge, entered the Top 10 in the rhythm and blues chart, and even got to 29 on the pop charts. Freddie King had a white following almost from the beginning. Freddie and Sonny Thompson wanted to prove he was also a singer, and his next session had the hit to prove it.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Tore Down")

Mr. KING: (Singing) Well, I'm tore down, I'm almost level with the ground. I'm tore down. I'm almost level with the ground. Well, I feel like this when my baby can't be found. Well, I went to the river to jump in. My baby showed up and said, I will tell you when. Well, I'm tore down.

WARD: "I'm Tore Down" again rocketed into the rhythm and blues Top 10, but the pop market ignored it. Freddie only saw the charts one more time during this period, with a Christmas record that charted for one week. But King kept recording him and more and more he was on the road with revues, barnstorming the country. When he was home on the West Side, he and his band worked seven days a week if they wanted to.

The thing was, although Freddie's records sold steadily, they didn't sell a lot. His contract with King was up in 1966, and Freddie parted ways with them. He'd already moved his wife and six children to Dallas and used that as a base from which to tour.

Meanwhile, Eric Clapton recorded "Hide Away" with Mayall's Blues Breakers in England, the first British guitarist to show his explicit debt to Freddie. Freddie returned the favor by going to England and touring, showing the Brits how it was done.

In 1968, Atlantic Records in New York started a new label, Cotillion, for saxophonist King Curtis to record who he wanted. He wanted Freddie King, and so in July, Freddie entered the studio for the first time in two years. Curtis assembled an amazing band, and they got to work.

(Soundbite of song, "Let Me Down Easy")

Mr. KING: (Singing) Let me down easy. Tell it to me slow, yeah. Come on and whisper something sweet into my ears now. Baby, we're going home. I said our (unintelligible) are coming baby for a long, long time now. Please come on and stay right here with me, baby. Whoa, baby, don't leave me behind.

WARD: It's hard to say why the two singles and two albums on Cotillion didn't sell, unless they were too sophisticated for the rock market and too old-fashioned for the new soul market. But for me, they remain the peak of Freddie King's output. The valley was to come: Leon Russell, flush with success from kick-starting Joe Cocker's career, signed Freddie.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Going Down")

Mr. KING: (Singing) I'm going down. I'm going down, down, down, down, down. Yeah, I'm going down, yeah, I'm going down, down, down, down. Yes, I've got my big feet in the window, got my head on the ground.

WARD: Russell's intentions were no doubt sincere, and Freddie tried, at their best like "Going Down," the recordings were oil-and-water blues-rock, and at their worst, generic '70s blues sludge. Freddie King stayed with Russell until 1972, then moved on to RSO Records, run by Eric Clapton's manager. These recordings aren't on this set.

Freddie King was living hard by this point, drinking copiously, and always downing a couple of Bloody Marys before stepping on stage because, as he told a journalist, they've got food in them. In 1976, playing a club in New Orleans, King passed out in the middle of a solo. He went back up to Dallas and played a gig in New York on Christmas. But he canceled a show scheduled for the next night, returned to Dallas and went into the hospital. He died, riddled with ulcers and suffering from pancreatitis, on December 28th, 1976, at the age 42.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in Southern France. He reviewed Freddie King, "Taking Care of Business."

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