'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says “Farewell” to New Orleans blues guitarist/songwriter/singer Earl King who died in New Orleans on 17th April 2003.


Born Earl Johnson (or Solomon Johnson as at least one reference book states) in New Orleans on 6th February 1934, as a young teenager, around the age of 14, was when Earl began to get really serious about the guitar. He was infatuated with the sounds created by his blues guitar heroes that included T-Bone Walker, Clarence Gatemouth Brown and the electrifying gospel sound of the wonderful Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It was, however, the Mississippi born Guitar Slim who was simply not just a musical influence but lit a fuse that fired his imagination to create the persona that would become Earl King. Slim devised an outrageous stage act that included dyeing his hair blue and green, often with matching suits; he also possessed a remarkable guitar tone. Stunts like charging through the audience and out into the street whilst still playing attracted the attention of the young man.

Earl King in 1990

By the very early 1950s Earl had not only become a disciple of Slim but also a close friend. In 1954 Slim was briefly sidelined from touring with Ray Charles through a road accident and Earl was called in to deputise. Still using his name (or the name of Earl Johnson), he cut his first track for the Savoy label in 1953, ‘Have You Gone Crazy’ which has another friend (and soon to be yet another New Orleans legend) on piano, Huey Piano Smith.


He moved next to Specialty where the label boss intended promoting his signing as King Earl until a typesetter inadvertently reversed the name so, as fate dictated, Earl King would be the name that would pass into blues history. Several sides were recorded, still very much in emulation of Guitar Slim, including ‘A Mother’s Love’ in 1954. It was with the Ace label a year later that he would have success; although only a regional hit the song would be forever associated with him - ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ (1955).


1960 would See Earl label hopping once again, this time to Imperial. Under the guidance of the great Dave Bartholomew King enjoyed R&B hits with ‘Trick Bag’ (1961), allegedly the story of his pianist father’s attempts to tame a wild woman, and in 1962 ‘Always A First Time’. Around the same period he wrote ‘Big Chief’ for Professor Longhair; throughout his long career he wrote material for many artists, often reading like a who’s who not just of the Crescent City artists but blues and R&B acts generally. Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, The Dixie Cups, Dr John, The Neville Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many others all benefited from his songwriting skills. Arguably his most famous song ‘Come On (Let The Good Times Roll)’ was featured on Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 album ‘Electric Ladyland’.


Earl King was nobody’s fool; unlike so many of his generation he retained full publishing rights to all of his material and when the going got tough through much of the 1970s as it did for many blues artists he had little to worry about, simply living off the royalty cheques. Often his writing wandered afield from conventional blues structures as can be heard on examples such as ‘Time For The Sun To Rise’ and conventional subject matter ‘Mediaeval Days’. He also filed many long hours as a session guitarist. The 1980s would find Earl back on track working with the Rhode Island based band Roomful Of Blues on an album entitled ‘Glazed’ that won a Grammy nomination in 1986. Four years later on the Blacktop label came the acclaimed ‘Sexual Telepathy’ and again on Blacktop in 1993 with ‘Hard River To Cross’.


The 'Tales From The Woods' editorial board witnessed Earl King in action a few times during the course of the 1990s; very early in that decade on a humid summer’s evening at London’s world famous 100 Club and a few years later a couple of hundred yards away in Charing Cross Road at the Astoria (whose future seems to be very much in the balance). On this wonderful evening Earl was part of a package that included the New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas and, heading the bill, Bobby “Blue” Bland. Towards the end of the decade he was playing on his home territory at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Earl is gone but he would still want us to let the good times roll.