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Remembering the King

Travels in Holland. The little black book. Playing "Trick Bag" at a porno convention. Musicians and friends recall the life, legacy and laughter of the late Earl King.

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Earl King knew lots of things about lots of things. He knew about numerology, the art of the fine coiffure and the Rosicrucian Order. Most of all, he knew about music.

King knew the music history of New Orleans and the antics and stories that composed it -- and he put those in his own music. His songwriting is unparalleled in this city, both in the songs he performed -- "A Mother's Love," "Trick Bag," "Your Love Means More to Me than Gold," "Medieval Days," "Time for the Sun to Rise" -- and the songs he generously gave to other people, including Willie Tee's "Teasin' You," Professor Longhair's "Big Chief," and Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon's "I'll Make Your Life Sunshine." He maintained a positive outlook and was helpful to fellow musicians and anyone who would engage him. He got along well and was respected by everyone -- which is quite a compliment, given how cutthroat and difficult the music business in New Orleans can be.

What I'm going to miss most about him is the way he would chuckle to himself as he thought about the characters he'd known and the things they had done at the Dew Drop Inn, the Tijuana, Tipitina's and other exotic locales. Earl knew the secrets of New Orleans and the wonderful magic that makes this town unique. That was part of his mystique. When I first started working on a radio documentary about him, I would tell people that he was the subject. Many people, most of them not from New Orleans, would need an explanation of his music and personality. However, every so often, when I'd say, "Yeah, this documentary is about Earl King," someone would open their eyes wide and whisper, "Earl King! Wow!" It was as if I had told them that I had the map to Jean Lafitte's treasure.

That is what Earl did for many of us. He was a man full of riches, and he gave them to us in song and story. I'm going to miss him a lot. I am not alone in this regard, and in the course of the past week, I have been talking to many people about their memories of Earl King. Here is some of what they told me:

Walter "Wolfman" Washington: "Basically, when I first started at the Dew Drop Inn, I met Earl. He was telling me about this little book. He had a book, and he had checks on all the cats that came through there. I said, "Look, Earl, you got anything on me?" He said, "Not yet, but I'm fixing to get one." He wrote stuff on everyone in a little black book. I never checked back up on that."

Edward "Kidd" Jordan: "My favorite Earl King story? You can't write that in the paper, but I'll tell you this one. When we were in Detroit, we were walking down the street, and we see this little booth where you put in the dime in and make a record, and Earl said, 'Let's go make a record.' Me, Earl and Smokey (Johnson) went in the booth, and Earl wrote a song on the spot about Esquerita (the 6-foot-tall singer/piano player famous for his pompadour and outrageousness). Earl was singing, and me and Smokey were singing background. I don't remember what the lyrics were. It was kicks. Esquerita got mad about it, but it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. That was the best."

Cosimo Matassa: "He used to hold court at the K&B on St Charles and Louisiana at the lunch counter there. People would come there to see him and talk to him and see what was going on. It was amazing. That was the place to find him. And when he was in the studio, he was really into what he did. He was really involved. He didn't let things slide. He wanted to do good things and do things well.

"To me, the most amazing thing was how he wrote songs that other people did that fit them so well. Almost anything he wrote for someone else was that way. The songs told their stories, and the stories were appropriate for the guys singing it to tell. Songs like 'Teasin' You' for Willie Tee and 'Big Chief' for Professor Longhair. And then you look at how different those songs are, and yet how appropriate they are for the situation and the performer. The single best thing about him was that he was a great writer."

Deacon John: "The last time I talked to him we were talking about the Iraq war, and he said, "I don't know why these people are all fighting over there. They're all Republicans. I don't know why they all can't get along. They're all Republicans.

"He also had a passion for generic guitars. Earl would come on the gig with a generic Japanese guitar that he would bring on the gig in a paper case. I'd always let him play my guitar."

Timothea: "Earl King changed my whole life. I chased Earl down at the Tastee Donut shop in 1982, and I was still messing around with drugs. I begged him to help me do my first album for my comeback from my childhood. I hadn't sung in 10 years, and after stalking him for about two or three months, he agreed to do it. And this is not a funny story. This is a miraculous story. Earl helped me, and I never shot drugs again. He had such an influence on me that I never shot dope again, and he got me started in the music business again. Every album I do, I do one of his songs. He was more than a writer or a singer or a guitar player. He was the master. He was a great human being."

Tad Jones: "I have a lot of stories, but this is the last one. He's in the hospital, and he was in this great room. He had a view of the river and downtown. The bathroom was so big that I asked Earl, "Can I move in here?" So I walk in, and his friend Ed Davis is there. He's watching Jerry Springer. Earl had been knocked out for three or four days on this detox medication. So he's just like groggy and talking shit for three or four days. So I walk in, and he's got Jerry Springer on there, and Jerry Springer's topic of the day was male penises. Earl and Ed are laughing their asses off. As I walk in and Springer's on and Earl laughing at male penises and I say, "Earl, you're obviously much better. You're back to life and your old self again. I'm so glad to see you're well." That's my last Earl King story.

Aaron Neville: "Earl King used to have a newspaper on LaSalle Street by the Dew Drop where he used to write about different people. He'd be getting dirt on all the guys, and they'd come by and read about it the next day. I was hoping that Earl wrote a book because he was the historian of the New Orleans music scene. The first song I ever sang in public with my brother's band was an Earl King song, 'A Mother's Love.'"

Curtis Obeda (leader of the Butanes, which frequently backed and toured with King): "Our show in Venlo, Holland, was not until the following day and we all looked forward to a day in Amsterdam. Earl and I had been discussing this day for months. Himself a painter, Earl loved Vincent Van Gogh. The Van Gogh museum was currently under some construction/renovation, and we weren't certain it would be open. If we couldn't see the Van Gogh museum, we had agreed that the Rembrandt house would be our day's destination.

"Our driver, Gerald, asked us if we wanted to get drugs or see the naked girls first. We said we had drugs and hookers back home and requested a trip to one of the museums. Apparently, Gerald had never had such a bizarre request before, and he embarrassedly mumbled to us that the museums were all closed, and he didn't know where they were anyway and began to drive us directly to Venlo.

"We didn't quite catch what he said and didn't figure it out until we were out of the city. I began to protest, but Earl just shrugged it off and we settled in for the long drive across the country. After a short time, Earl requested we stop to get something to drink for the long drive. Gerald explained he could not speak the same language as the locals. Apparently, there are numerous dialects spoken in Holland, and even though we were only a half an hour outside of town, it would be difficult to communicate. Earl seemed very confused by this. I told him it was like when he crossed the river to Algiers. He liked that one.

"Finally, we spotted a farmer by the side of the road, and Gerald got out of the car to find out where the nearest package store was. The dialogue between Gerald and farmer was not going smoothly, so we got out of the car with Earl yelling 'beer, beer,' and the rest of us pantomiming being drunk. The farmer immediately laughed, pointed out directions and waved us on. After a few false turns, we arrived and purchased beer and the only bottle of Tanqueray I ever saw Earl with. We had a few drinks, and along the way Earl stuck his camera out the window numerous times to photograph 'the light.' By the time we arrived at our Venlo hotel, we knew more about windmills and cows than we should ever know."

Eddie Bo: "Well, you've heard about the newspaper he ran at the Dew Drop. Earl was a great storyteller. He could talk to you from the end of the gig at midnight until six in the morning. He used to hang at the Tastee Donut. We called it his office. He would hang there all day and get his phone calls there, and everybody knew who he was. We all looked at him as a very good entertainer and a spokesman for the city, and now the spokesman is dead. Mac Rebennack and I were hanging, and we were talking to Earl before he died and he was saying he was tired. This guy from New York was ripping him off and ripping me off, and he was tired of the bullshit."

Jimmy Bolero: "I played with Earl for years. He was a fun-loving guy. We used to travel around so much and hang together. We used to go to museums and stuff. That would knock him out. He was a serious guy as well as a fun-loving musician. He was a very astute person, like a Renaissance guy. People tell stories about how Earl was a wild, drinking kind of guy. He wasn't like that around me.

"My favorite thing about Earl -- well, there's a weird joke. It's about the guy who is messing around with farm animals, and somebody asks him, 'What's it like to mess around with these sheep?' and he says, 'Not baaaahhhhhhhd.' So every time Earl called me on the phone, he'd say, "Not baaaahhhhhhhd." Every time he saw me, he'd say, 'Not baaaahhhhhhhd.'

"I got a picture of me and Earl and Ervin Charles at Storyville when we were playing a porno convention, and we've got all these strippers on the stage. You can imagine Earl King playing 'Trick Bag' with all these hookers around. The song took on a whole new meaning.

"Earl King was a many-faceted man, and there will not be another person like him to come down the road for a long time, maybe ever. Earl believed in reincarnation, so some of his fans have this idea to take some of his possessions like they do when the Dalai Lama dies and find the child born this week who recognizes Earl's guitar or neon blue suit or his baseball hat. Then we'll know that Earl's back."

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