If you were to roam the streets of Gilmer, Texas and ask anyone about Freddie King, you would be hard pressed to find a local who would recognize one of the most famous blues men of our time. Regardless of all his major hits from the 60’s and touring alongside guitar legend Jimi Hendrix for years, he is virtually unknown in his own hometown.
He was born on September 3rd, 1934 in Gilmer, Texas to Ella Mae King and J.T. Christian. At the age of six, Ella Mae bought him a guitar and she, along with Freddie’s uncle, began to teach the young boy how to play.
When King was in his teens, the family wanted to move to Chicago as Freddie’s mother had two brothers that wanted to become musicians. They would make it as far as Dallas where Freddie’s father insisted he finish high school before making the journey north.
During these times in the 30’s and 40’s, there was an enormous movement to leave the southern states and move north. Chicago was a big target for the black community as it offered jobs and was soon becoming a highly black populated city full of diversity, music and culture.
To be black in Texas, and obviously a lot of other southern states, was a pretty tough road to hoe. Unlike Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, there were not as many blacks living in Texas. States with highly populated blacks could feel better about trying to change things by marching in the Civil Rights Movement as there was power in numbers. There were no marches in East Texas and quite frankly, if anyone stepped one toe out of line they would find themselves swinging from a tree. Historically, Texas (Shelby County) hung more black people than any other state/county in the U.S.
During these hard times, East Texas offered very little for blacks so a lot of them moved to the urban areas in search of a better life. This would be true for Freddie and his family as soon after graduation they would move to Chicago in 1949.
Freddie wasted no time at all sneaking into South Side nightclubs where he would hear legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and T-Bone Walker leading to the formation of his first band, the Every Hour Blues Boys.
King would finally sign with a small label in Chicago called Federal in 1960. This landed him instant fame after his single “Hide Away” which got him on tours with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and James Brown.
His big break, however, would finally be in meeting King Curtis who would introduce him to Jack Calmes. Jack soon became King’s manager and landed him a gig alongside Led Zeppelin in 1969. A move that would push King to instant stardom and put him on stage with every major rock band touring during the 60’s and 70’s. King had now moved over to the white market which only B.B. King had been able to do with his hit, “The Thrill is Gone” in 1969. But Freddie was on a much faster train than B.B. King. A train that would finally run out of track in 1976.
Freddie was laid to rest in Dallas after suffering a heart attack at the age of 42. To this day, there has been no other musician from East Texas that has hit the level of stardom that Freddie accomplished in such a short period of time. Sharing the stages with Clapton, Hendrix and Jopplin, he left our modest woods and would become an icon known simply as “The Texas Cannonball”.
God bless Freddie King.