Earl whistles along with Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and the Meters, than becomes a mike stand.
Earl King was born Earl Silas Johnson, February 7, 1934 in New Orleans and grew up in the Irish Channel, at 2834 Constance Street (I shared an apartment at 1430 Constance for a while). His father, who was dead by the time Earl was two, played blues piano and was an occasional preacher. His mother, known as “Big Chief” (later the inspiration for the tune King wrote for Professor Longhair) sang in the Antioch Baptist Church, where Earl too put in some time singing in the choir as a tyke. By age fifteen he was playing blues guitar, forming a group called the Swans that won the amateur talent show at the Dew Drop Inn (Ernie Kador, later K-Doe was the emcee) one night, grand prize: $5, cash money. Soon he fell under the spell of Guitar Slim (“the performanist man I ever knew”, he recalled, inventing a word in the process), then on top of the blues world with The Things I Used To Do, a tune Earl would keep in his setlist until his final days. He took a few guitar lessons from the flamboyant showman, who gave him a Les Paul guitar.
His other guitar tutor was Huey “Piano” Smith, who according to King, “Can play guitar exactly like Guitar Slim”, although Smith has never recorded on guitar, and never played it onstage.
When Guitar Slim was laid up after a car accident (he ran his Caddy into a bulldozer) in the mid-50’s, promoter/Dew Drop owner Frank Pania sent Earl King out on the road in his place, not bothering to tell anyone that he was sending a substitute, Earl appeared as Guitar Slim, and having learned every nuance of his style, no one in the audience was any wiser. In Atlanta, they showered him with dollar bills and carried him offstage in triumph.
It was around this time (1953) Earl, under his real name Earl Johnson cut his debut disc for the Savoy label. Backed by a dream band made up of Huey Smith on piano, Lee Allen on tenor sax, Roland Cook on bass and Charles “Hungry” Williams on drums, he waxed a solid R&B rocker called Have You Gone Crazy backed with a Fats Domino styled ballad Beggin’ At Your Mercy. These sides sold naught, which was all for the best since Savoy’s owner, Herman Lubinsky was a cheap prick who never paid anyone, anyway. Back in New Orleans, Earl took a regular gig at the Tijuana Club on South Saratoga St. as well as gigging with Huey Smith at the Dew Drop on LaSalle.
That year he had caught the ear of Johnny Vincent, A&R man for Specialty Records (the man who’d signed Guitar Slim), and Earl cut his first session for Specialty in March of ’54, again backed by Huey Smith and Lee Allen along with Alvin “Red” Tyler on tenor sax, and the monstrous Earl Palmer on drums. Four sides emerged from this session, all in the Guitar Slim vein– A Mother’s Love b/w I’m Your Best Bet Baby, which became a minor Gulf Coast hit, and What Can I Do b/w ‘Til I Say Well Done.
A Mother’s Love was to be issued under the name King Earl, but when a printer’s mistake reversed the order, Earl Johnson had a new name– Earl King
A second Specialty session produced No One But Me b/w Eating and Sleeping, and issued under the name The Kings– Sitting and Wondering b/w Funny Face, his final disc for Specialty.
Soon after, Specialty owner Art Rupe sent Johnny Vincent packing. Vincent promptly returned to his home in Jackson, Mississippi to strike out on his own with the Ace label.
Since Guitar Slim was said to be none to happy to have his protege and imitators discs competing with his own for the same label’s promo attentions, Earl King would follow Johnny Vincent to Ace.
In 1954, Earl and Huey Smith were sent by Vincent to Jackson, Mississippi to record under the aegis of Trumpet Records’ Lillian McMurray at her tiny, one track studio, backed by Joe Dyson’s band.
The first issue from that session, the gloriously out of tune swamp blues ballad Those Lonely, Lonely Nights b/w Baby Get Your Gun was a big regional seller, and would have been a national hit if Johnny Guitar Watson’s cover version on R.P.M. hadn’t received more promotion, and better national distribution, hence outselling the original. As much as I love Johnny Guitar Watson, I prefer Earl King’s version. Actually, I favor the b-side, which rocks harder than any of his previous sides thanks to Huey Smith’s two fisted piano pounding.
The follow up Mother Told Me Not To Go b/w Is Everything Alright show King growing into his own style, and evolving as an excellent songwriter (“He was a bitch of a writer” remembered Johnny Vincent, who well understood the real money in the music biz was in song publishing more than record sales, it still is). His next release would come out on Ace’s Vin subsidiary and be credited to Handsome Earl– Everybody’s Got To Cry b/w I Met A Stranger.
Also in 1955 came two more singles on Ace proper— Little Girl b/w My Love Is Strong and It Must Have Been Love b/w I’ll Take Yo Back Home. None of these discs were hits, but they were all good local sellers, and Vincent kept recording Earl King for the next five years releasing roughly one disc every year, in order came You Can Fly High b/w Those Lonely Lonely Feelings, Well O’ Well Baby b/w I’ll Never Get Tired, Everybody’s Carried Away b/w Weary Silent Night, Buddy It’s Time To Go b/w Don’t You Know Your’re Wrong, and on the Rex subsidiary Darling Honey Angel Child b/w I Can’t Help Myself, issued to compete with his first Imperial disc, since it was an embryonic demo version of the same tune. A couple of great tunes were remained in the vault, including I’m Packing Up, a secular re-write of the Ward Singers’ gospel classic that is one of King’s best rockers and the swamp pop ballad Nobody Cares. They would eventually be issued by the UK Westside label in 1997, although his Ace sides are currently out of print since Westside went under.
Johnny Vincent had recognized that Earl King was a multi-talented artist, and soon was placing his tunes with other singers and using King as a producer and arranger in the studio (Jimmy Clanton’s mega-hit Just A Dream is one that King claimed to have produced, uncredited), but by 1960 Vincent and King had parted ways.
What should have been Earl King’s big break came in 1960 when he signed with Lew Chudd’s Imperial Records, the label that brought Fats Domino to stardom and had recorded many of the greatest New Orleans R&B and rock’n’roll records of the era including Archibald, Sugar Boy Crawford, Smiley Lewis, and Dave Bartholomew’s band (who backed most of these artists in the studio). Working with Batholomew as producer, his first session for Imperial, from the fall of 1960 produced a two part minor hit– Come On pts. 1 and 2 (Let The Good Times Roll), followed by a cover of Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used To Do b/w Love Me Now, using a band that featured James Booker on piano and future Meters’ bass player George Porter Jr. Come On would be particularly influential, showing Earl King’s fully developed unique style at its best (Jimi Hendrix would cover it on the Electric Ladyland album). Six months later in the spring of ’61 he was back in the studio, backed by Dave Bartholomew’s band. Many of the first string, famous names (Lee Allen, Earl Palmer) in Bartholomew’s band were gone by that point, relocated to L.A. and big time session man paychecks, but Bartholomew always had great bands and those heard on Earl King’s discs included Wardell Quezergue on trumpet (who co-arranged with King), James Booker on piano and the underrated Robert French on drums. The first single from this grouping was the excellent Come Along With Me b/w You’re More To Me Than Gold. His next Imperial single You Better Know b/w Mama and Papa appeared in ’61, followed by Case Of Love b/w Come Along With Me which had appeared earlier the same year as the flip side of a re-recording of A Mother’s Love. Earl King ended ’61 with what would become his signature tune and should have been a monster hit– Trick Bag, the flip side of which Always A First Time had a brief chart run. Trick Bag would become an R&B standard, but by the time it was released Lew Chudd was fast losing interest in the record business and had put Imperial up for sale. The disc got little in the way of promotion, although it remains a gulf coast juke box favorite to this day, down there it’s probably Earl King’s best known song.
Commercial success never happened for Earl King. A brief fling at Motown resulted in one un-issued session and contract hassles . He produced, wrote and recorded a few soul discs for the small New Orleans labels NOLA and Watch, wrote tunes for Smiley Lewis (I Hear You Knockin’), Professor Longhair (Big Chief), Lee Dorsey (Do-Re-Me), Fats Domino (Teenage Love) and the Dixie Cups (Ain’t That Nice) as well as having his tunes covered by lots of people including the aforementioned Hendrix, Dr. John, Robert Palmer, et al. His next shot would come in ’72 when Atlantic signed him, and had Alan Tousaint produce an LP with the Meters in support, unfortunately they’d never release Street Parade (the title track came out as a single on Kansu and was something of a local hit in New Orleans) which was finally issued in ’81 by Charley in the U.K., Street Parade was a great record, it might have made some noise if it had been released and promoted when it was originally recorded, why Atlantic never issued it is unclear. His final years saw him cut three albums for Black Top– Dazed, Sexual Telepathy, and Hard River To Cross, all three suffer from mediocre production, but they all have a few hidden gems, my favorite is Time For The Sun To Rise, a world weary tune about seeing the sun come up from the wrong end, after yet another night of partying.
While at Black Top my friend, the late Kelly Keller, got to know Earl pretty well, so once in a while I’d tag along when she’d visit him. He hung out at a donut shop, and that’s where we’d go see him, or else drop by his house. He was a nice man, full of the lore and history of New Orleans music, always with a funny anecdote about whoever’s name we’d bring up. The last time I saw Earl was in 2001, he was playing at a club in the French Quarter called Storyville.
We’d spent the day before hanging out with him and his was funny, but quite frail, he was diabetic, and his penchant for drinking and drugs wasn’t helping his health one bit. When we got to the club we saw him sitting at a side table, resplendent in a red suit, watching his band warm up. He didn’t remember us. I can understand him forgetting me, but Kelly was a close friend, he looked at her as if he’d never seen her before. It wasn’t long before we realized he didn’t even know who he was. He was so fucked up, when it came time to play, he walked onstage, forgot to plug in his guitar, and simply wandered around the stage for a minute or two (it felt like an hour), before shaking his head, mumbled an apology into the mike and stumbled offstage. Back in his seat, the club owner came over to tell him he wasn’t going to pay Earl as he’d have to refund the money to the paying customers. Earl just stared straight ahead, not acknowledging what he’d just heard (or didn’t hear). It was so sad I just wanted to go home and throw up. A few months later, while touring New Zealand he had to be hospitalized and sent home. In 2002 local New Orleans radio station WWOZ announced on the air that Earl had died, but it was a bit premature, he was just missing for a few days. On April 13, 2003, however, he really died, from the complications of his diabetes. He got more attention in death (including finally getting a cover story in Offbeat, the local New Orleans entertainment magazine) than he had gotten in life for many, many years. But that’s always the way, isn’t it?