It was the eve of the final day of the 1991 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Maple Leaf Bar was so crowded one could scarcely breathe or get a beer. Blazing a trail to the bathroom was out of the question.
Onstage, the inestimable Earl King was celebrating his 56th birthday. Never a shy performer, King was in full bloom that night: riding the guitar, high-kicking and driving his band nuts with impromptu changes. As he sang his bluesy, sexually charged brand of New Orleans R&B, the consensus was that his voice never sounded better. Even his famous wavy hairdo was in a heightened state--sticking out in all directions like a Medusa do. As the set came to a climax with a stomping, sing-along version of his biggest hit, "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)," the birthday celebrant blacked out. Earl's face-first, "t-t-timmmmber" stage dive was a sight to behold. Carried from the club through a crowd stunned by the musicus interruptus, he came to as soon as he hit the night air. Sitting up and blinking eyes that looked like they were straight out of Ren and Stimpy, King blurted first: "This don't let them out of paying us our bonus!"
There aren't many performers left who are as much a part of New Orleans music history as Earl King, who was born Earl Silas Johnson. An active recording and performing artist since the mid-50s and the short-but-sweet era of New Orleans R&B, King's got 40 years' worth of stories to tell. Reminded of the Maple Leaf plunge, King laughs and launches into stories about other explosive Crescent City performers.
There's the one about Guitar Slim and his habit of dying his hair bright green, blue or purple to match his suits. In the days before instant media, King says he even got away with impersonating Slim onstage for a week while the guitarist was recovering from a serious auto accident. King also remembers how the late Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney lionized in the film JFK, remained a villain to musicians for almost extinguishing the club scene in the early 60s. On the sad side, King can recall seeing pianist Smiley Lewis on the street just before he died of stomach cancer. Once a burly 240 pounds, Smiley had withered to 100 pounds.
"What was really amazing about Smiley was that his voice was so strong that he could sing over an entire band without a microphone," King says. "When I saw him near the end, I didn't recognize him or his voice." Unlike many of his contemporaries who flared brightly and died young, King is a survivor. Musically, he's lived through revolutions brought on by the Beatles, disco and rap. King's only problem with being a living repository of New Orleans musical history is that he says it makes him feel old. Along with Ellis Marsalis, Dr. John, Art Neville and a few others, King is one of the godfathers of New Orleans music.
"Yeah, I've been hangin' in here a long time, that's for sure," King says during a telephone interview from his home in New Orleans. The music-business adage "shoulda been a hit" might have been coined with King in mind. He's had more success over the years as a songwriter than a solo performer. Unlike Fats Domino or Frankie Ford, King never cracked the national charts because most of his singles were recorded for Ace Records and its infamous owner, Johnny Vincent. Vincent had too many irons in the fire and often failed to properly promote many of his artists. Worse still, he usually didn't pay them, either. King and Vincent parted ways in 1959, but by then rock n' roll had eclipsed R&B as the hottest-selling popular music. Most of those singles have become hits for other performers. King's first hit, "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," recorded in 1954, is remembered today for the versions done by Johnny "Guitar" Watson or Mickey Gilley. In the mid-70s, Robert Palmer made a hit out of another King number, "Trick Bag." And Jimi Hendrix recorded the most-renowned version of "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)."
King says it doesn't bother him that other people have made his songs famous. He says he loves Hendrix's cover. In fact, he's even given some of his best tunes away. His most famous gift of song was to Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair.
"In 1964, I gave 'Big Chief' to Fess," King says, speaking of the tune that helped revive Professor Longhair's flagging career. "Got the name from what people used to call my mother. She was big." "Big Chief" went on to become one of Longhair's biggest hits and a song synonymous with Mardi Gras. But that's not where the story ends. "When we went into the studio to cut it, Fess couldn't get the vocals together," King continues. "The producer was gettin' irritated. He said to me, 'Get in that booth and put down that vocal. We'll track Fess later. Let's just get outta here.'"
Needless to say, the Fess vocals were never added to the tape. It's King's voice that can still be heard on the CD today.
"Fess was such a mild person, so easygoing," King recalls. "He needed something at that time. He looked like he was on his last legs. 'Big Chief' seemed to revive his spirits."
Fess died on January 30, 1980, less than 24 hours before Crawfish Fiesta, the album that subsequently rejuvenated his career, was released.
It's ironic that while he's played kingmaker to more than one New Orleans legend, King is still waiting for his own time on the throne. Part of Earl King's problem has been his more-famous guitar-playing namesakes--Freddie, Albert and B.B. He's not related to any of them.
"People asked me every day if I knew Freddie or if I'm B.B.'s cousin. It gets tempting," Earl says, chuckling. "I've never done it seriously or anything, but I suppose we've all made up stories about being related just to embarrass the other one. It does get confusing."
Despite his relative anonymity, Earl King's star has been on a steady rise over the past few years. In 1986, he received his first Grammy nomination for Glazed, a collaboration with Roomful of Blues.
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Not long after that he signed with Hammond Scott's Blacktop Records, the latest in the long line of New Orleans-based record labels that have played such a key role in the city's rich musical history. In 1989, the first fruits of that association, the album Sexual Telepathy, showed that King's expressive voice and gift for songwriting had remained undiminished. One of the most elaborate (and expensive) projects Blacktop had attempted to that point, Sexual Telepathy featured three separate back-up bands. Besides the Blacktop All-Stars--which included the Meters' George Porter Jr. and guitarist Snooks Eaglin--King recorded with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. For the cräme de la cräme, he made a trip to Austin and cut a session with the stellar house band at Antone's, a famous blues mecca. Only the promise of working with King could have convinced three bands of that caliber to appear on a single project.
These days New Orleans music is in the midst of one of its periodic comebacks. King hopes that New Orleans R&B, an often-forgotten niche in the city's musical history, will finally get its due. King is preparing to go into the studio for the first time in four years. He has no idea what will be on the new record. He's not sure of the band he will record with, either. But none of this is worrying Earl King. Like that woozy night at the Maple Leaf, he's nothing if not resilient.
"On the new record, we'll mix old songs with some new things I've worked up," King says. "And you can bet we'll be steppin' on the gas.