Compared to unrelated contemporaries B.B. and Albert King, Freddie King has received considerably less recognition, especially among newer blues fans. That said, the “Texas Cannonball” is still mentioned in many Best Guitarist lists, and his body of work served as a great template for some of the ‘60s and ‘70s’ leading rock and blues musicians.
There is still some confusion as to Freddie King’s birth name. But most have him born as Frederick Christian on September 3, 1934, son of Gilmer, Texas residents J.T. Christian and Ella May King. Freddie started learning how to play the guitar at the age of six, and by 1952, his family had moved to Chicago’s South Side, where the would-be blues giant would hone his chops and contribute to the city’s burgeoning blues scene. It has been said that Freddie adopted the surname King in the mid-‘50s as a tribute to B.B. King.
Exposed to the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, King soon became a fixture in the Chicago club scene. Still, he received numerous rejections from Chicago’s leading “race music” label, Chess Records, thus failing to join his musical idols on the same label. He did sign with Federal Records in 1960, and it was there where he recorded some of his most enduring numbers, including “You’ve Got to Love Her with a Feeling”, “The Stumble” and “Hide Away.” King was as adept on lead vocals as he was on the guitar, and he would also go on tour on occasion for R&B singers such as Sam Cooke and James Brown.
After his stint with Federal Records, King would sign with Atlantic Records subsidiary Cotillion, recording two albums produced by legendary saxophonist King Curtis in 1969 and 1970. Following Cotillion, King signed with Shelter Records, where his connection with pianist/singer (and Shelter owner) Leon Russell gave him a solid backing band of session veterans. King recorded three albums under Shelter in the early ‘70s, then moved on to RSO, where he recorded 1974’s Burglar, an album produced by the legendary Tom Dowd. Burglar showed a different side of Freddie King, as he was now tackling more funk-oriented material, but retaining his natural feel for the blues.
Unfortunately, the busy life of a touring musician was taking its toll on King by the time the mid-‘70s rolled around. Poor eating habits and drinking were also playing a part in King’s physical decline, and by 1976, he began to suffer from stomach problems. Only 42 years old, King passed away on December 28, 1976 from acute pancreatitis.
The ultimate form of recognition finally came this year, when Freddie King entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And as mentioned, he’s influenced many of the greats with his unique fusion of Texas and Chicago blues styles. His influence can be heard on the works of guitarists like Eric Clapton (who covered “Hide Away” with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers in 1966), Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan and many other blues-influenced musicians then and now.