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The dancing crowd at Bettie's swirls around Willie King as he plays on Sunday night. King has played Bettie's on Sunday nights for close to 15 years.
- Bynum, from August Wilson's play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," 1988
Listen up. The music took him from the juke joints of Alabama to big concerts "up North" in the United States and to huge crowds in Europe. Yes, the sad news came out of dusty roads of Montgomery, Alabama. Willie King, another great black blues guitarist, is gone. Debbie Bond, one of his band members, said King, 65, died of a heart attack on his way to the hospital. Did you know him. If not, why didn't you?
Why is it that we pay so little attention to our great musicians until they are past their prime , if then?
Why is it that oftentimes we don't know, or don't hear of, our own artists who have given such great gospel, blues, and Jazz to us and the world?
He was born in Prairie Point, Mississippi soon moved to be with his sharecropping grandparents in West Alabama. When he was 9, he began doing what a number of would-be-great blues guitarist did-- begin playing a one-string guitar. The string is usually nailed against a wall with a tin can at the top or put on a stick and cigar box. But it wouldn't take long for King to get a six-string guitar and begin playing. Soon, he would be playing in juke joints all around West Alabama.
King played around West Alabama for years and didn't become known elsewhere until 2000, the year his album"Freedom Creek" was released. The songs were strong with a drive and a tone that reminded the listener of the voice of the late great Howlin Wolf and the guitar sound of Hubert Sumlin, the Wolf's lead guitarist for years. And the entire album had that down-home, Mississippi-Texas feel; and, when it was over, you found themselves saying, "Now that was the blues!"
Released on the Rooster Blues record label, Freedom Creek received universal rave reviews. Soon, King would record several more albums and tour The United States and Europe, giving the fans what they wanted: good down-home blues. Along the way, King received several awards, including the "Best Blues Album" and "Best Contemporary Blues Album" by Living Blues magazine. And Living Blues named him Blues Artist of the Year in 2004.
But King's blues guitar was not only down-home. It was unique. Unlike other bluesman, many of King's blues were infused with political themes set within the traditional blues frame. Rick Asherson, King's keyboard, said of King:
"Willie once described his type of blues, which deal with things a lot of blues don't deal with, as ‘struggling blues,' and by that he didn't mean the usual things. He meant struggling with the injustices in life in the rural South." Peter Guralnick, author of two books about Elvis Presley, said that, in songs like "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," King "...combined the standard blues elements, but he sang about more than the standard blues subjects." He said he saw King perform live in juke joints and was surprised to see dancers and non-dancers singing political songs along with him, something almost unheard of in the blues.
King also visited schools. He felt a deep responsibility to make the younger generation more aware of their musical history. He would talk about the blues and demonstrate it on his guitar. In fact, the annual Freedom Creak Festival that King organized grew out of his work with youth in his community.
King's music and organizing work in his community inspired Dutch filmmakers Saskia Rietmeijer and Bart Drolenga do a documentary on him called "Down in the Woods." The DVD captures King not only in concert but in his community and on his farm.
He also appeared in the Martin Scorsese film "Feel Like Going Home."
Al Head, director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts and friend of King for more than 20 years, said King played the blues the way it is supposed to be played, "the right way." "When King played," he said, "...You can see on his face and hear in his guitar and you say, 'Hey man, that's what blues is all about.'"
A great bluesman died today. Did you know him? If not, why didn't you?