Born: 1943 in Prairie Point MS
Died: March 8, 2009 in Old Memphis AL
Although he was never the best-known of contemporary blues artists, and seemed to eschew fame and fortune in favor of simple music and community activism, Willie King's gentle influence on the music will be felt for years. King's trademark sound was a mix of raucous, juke-joint Delta blues; gruff, soulful vocals; and socially-conscious lyrics that he called "struggling blues."
A Single-String Diddley-Bo
Born in rural Mississippi in 1943, Willie King's parents split when he was an infant, and King and his brothers and sisters were raised by their sharecropper grandparents. Music was prevalent in his household while King was growing up, and the young musician was exposed to both gospel and blues music, which would later influence his unique sound.
King built his first musical instrument, a single-string diddley-bo, by nailing a bailing wire to a tree in his yard. He eventually progressed to guitar after the plantation owner lent him the money to purchase a Gibson acoustic when King was 13 years old. Influenced by the music of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, King performed his first gig at age 20 at a Mississippi house party, for which he reportedly earned a $2 payment.
The Civil Rights Years
Figuring that he could make more money than he was in the South, King moved to Chicago in 1967 to pursue a career in music. The young guitarist spent a year gigging around the South and West side clubs trying to get a foothold in the business before moving to Old Memphis, Alabama, just across the Mississippi border from his birthplace.
King took on work as a salesman, traveling the rural back roads of Alabama selling shoes, cologne, and other incidentals. It proved to be a seminal experience for the bluesman - after speaking with so many struggling and downtrodden customers, he became involved in the Civil Rights movement and the left-leaning Highlander Center. King's political awareness seeped into his songs, as he wrote material inspired by the activism of musicians like Josh White, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte. King released his self-produced debut album, I Am The Blues, in 2000.
While performing at a 1987 festival in Eutaw, Alabama, King met Rooster Blues label founder Jim O'Neal. As quoted on King's website, O'Neal says that King's "juke-joint musical style and political lyrics knocked me down." The two kept in touch through the years, and after O'Neal moved his label's operations from Chicago to Memphis, they got together and recorded King's 2000 label debut, Freedom Creek, which catches the bluesman caught live on tape with his band the Liberators at Bettie's Place juke-joint in Prairie Point.
King would follow up Freedom Creek in 2002 with Living In A New World, also released by Rooster Blues and featuring liner notes by political activist, blues historian, and former manager of the MC5, John Sinclair. He would later release two albums on his own Freedom Creek Music label, including the popular 2004 album Jukin' At Bettie's.
The Rural Members Association
Equally important to King as his music was his founding of The Rural Members Association, which sponsors classes in music, woodworking, food preservation, and other African-American traditions, and has provided transportation, legal assistance, and other services for those that need them since its inception during the late-1980s. During this time, King also forged relationships with area youth through a blues education program.
In 1997 King launched his annual Freedom Creek Festival, a two-day festival held on his Alabama farm on the border with Mississippi. Through the years, the festival has attracted some of the biggest names in blues music to perform. King himself toured sporadically, occasionally appearing at festivals, preferring to stay close at home and kick out the jams at Bettie's Place.
Awards & Accolades
Although he had been playing the blues for almost four decades, King released only six albums throughout his career. He has been honored with a number of accolades and awards, however, nominated six times for a W.C. Handy/Blues Music Award and winning a handful of Living Blues magazine awards, including "Best Blues Artist" in 2001, 2003, and 2004. King also received a 2004 Artist Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and was selected for the 2009 Alabama Folklife Heritage Award before his death.
King appeared in Martin Scorsese 2003 film Feel Like Going Home, which was aired on PBS. Down In The Woods, a documentary film about King's life and work, was made by Dutch filmmakers Saskia Rietmeijer and Bart Drolenga of Visible World Films. Nominated for a 2007 Blues Music Award, the film features interviews with the bluesman along with timeless Willie King performances.
Recommended Albums: King's Freedom Creek will become known as his enduring classic, but you can't go wrong with any of King's lively, intelligent albums.
Willie King Discography
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