Unlike fellow blues guitar Kings Albert, B.B., and Freddie, New Orleans' Earl King never received the mainstream recognition he deserved. King was a better songwriter than his more famous contemporaries, his angular staccato guitar playing tweaked the T-Bone Walker stylings that also informed his peers' work, and King's warm vocal phrasing was equally distinctive. When he died in April, he was rightfully hailed in New Orleans, but sadly underappreciated outside city lines.
Blame part of the oversight on the maddening state of his back catalog. While King cut four fine contemporary albums for Black Top in the '80s and '90s, his early sessions for labels such as Ace and Specialty were only sporadically available as pricey import collections. And despite the bonanza of CD reissues, King's work remained surprisingly scarce, especially two of his finest creative bursts: his '60s sides for Imperial Records, and a 1972 album originally slated for release by Atlantic that was never released due to contractual issues.
Now the wait for these King masterpieces is over. Two CD reissues, Come On: The Complete Imperial Recordings (Okra-Tone), and Street Parade (Fuel 2000 Records) are now available in U.S. record stores.
King's Imperial sessions, recorded from 1960 to 1962, show his gift for creating inventive New Orleans R&B and deep blues. Three of Earl's most prized performances stem from these sessions: the originals "Come On (Parts I & II)" and "Trick Bag," and his firebrand cover of Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do." On Slim's "The Things I Used to Do," King honored the barbed-wire guitar sound and impassioned vocals of his mentor, showing he could be an explosive showman on demand. With "Come On (Parts I and II)," he displayed his ability to approach standard forms from unique angles. Where traditional blues shuffles usually adhered to the rave-up style of Freddie King's "Hideaway," Earl King used a stutter-step rhythm of lower-register notes for "Come On," and it helped make him a guitar hero's guitar hero, as both Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan would later cut versions of the song in honor of King.
"Trick Bag," meanwhile, was a King songwriting masterpiece, a story song that took the universal theme of infidelity and colored it with a character named Willie kissing King's girl from "across the fence." King's attention to detail and unexpected turns of phrase shone brilliantly throughout his Imperial work, especially on "Mama and Papa," "Nervous Breakdown" and "Something Funny." Producer Dave Bartholomew brought his own gift to the table, often punching up the tracks with simpatico horn charts and the rolling piano associated with his Fats Domino collaborations. That approach was complemented by stellar backing performances from a roster of seasoned contemporaries. Pianist James Booker and arranger Wardell Quezergue are just two of the local icons who grace these tracks, and in the environment of Cosimo Matassa's legendary J&M Studio, they helped King produce some timeless New Orleans R&B that still sounds as fresh as if it was cut yesterday.
King's Imperial sides had elements of funk, but they're no indication of the serious syncopation King would throw down for his 1972 album, Street Parade. Simply put, Street Parade is one of the great New Orleans funk albums of all time, an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the Meters' classic '70s work.
That's not surprising considering that the Meters were the backing band for the Street Parade sessions, cut at Sea-Saint studios, where the Meters and producer Allen Toussaint were making their indelible mark on the New Orleans music scene. With guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., keyboardist Art Neville and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste meshing behind King's zigzagging guitar work and evocative lyrics, Street Parade is one of those rare albums that simultaneously captures New Orleans music and personality in one package. The title track is one of the great irresistible Carnival anthems, with King chronicling a Mardi Gras parade and the Meters backing him note for note. "I get excited when I hear the drums," cries King, and Modeliste responds with some of his vintage parade beats, while a hypnotic two-note guitar figure frames each King lyric.
The whole album is sublime, but "Some People" is the best reminder of King's singular genius. The King composition is an invocation of humanity and diversity, in the guise of a love song. Consider these lyrics: "Some people were born to be the President/ Most of us were born to work and pay our rent/ Some people was born for office work/ Others were born to be broke as dirt/ Some people were born to be movie stars/ Other people were born to work in bars." This is gorgeous, humble poetry, all wrapped by King's pleading chorus, "C'mon baby, let me make you understand: I was born to be your man."
"Some people were born with a story to tell," he sings. Earl King was a born storyteller, and these two CD reissues finally restore two missing chapters from his formidable musical autobiography.
- After more than three decades, Earl King's classic album Street Parade finally sees the light of day.