Sunday, October 17, 2010

Earl King's Hard River To Cross

Earl King was a significant member of the New Orleans music scene from the 1950s until his death in 2003. Born Earl Silas Johnson IV in 1934, he started playing guitar as a teen and was initially a follower of Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, even filling in as Jones after Jones was injured in an automobile accident. He first recorded as Earl Johnson in 1953 for Savoy, Specialty issued “A Mother’s Love,” as Earl King, and in 1955 he was signed to Ace Records, where he recorded “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,” among other recordings. “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,” was a hit despite Huey “Piano’ Smith’s out of tune piano and was covered pretty closely by Johnny “Guitar’ Watson whose version siphoned off some sales for King. While on Ace, King emerged as a songwriter as well as performer, penning songs for teen heart throb, Jimmy Clanton as well as Roland Stone.

In 1960, Dave Bartholomew signed him to Imperial where he made a number of recordings backed by musicians including Bob and George French, James Booker, and Wardell Quezergue. Here he made some signature recordings such as “Come On,” and “Trick Bag,” The former tune has been interpreted by Jimi Hendrix, Dr. John and Stevie Ray Vaughan while the latter has been reworked by The Meters, Dr. John. His contract with Imperial expired in 1963 but he continued to write songs. His compositions from this era included Professor Longhair's "Big Chief", Willie Tee's "Teasin' You", and Lee Dorsey's "Do-Re-Mi". Recordings for Motown and Atlantic when unissued at the time, while Sam Charters produced “That Good Old New Orleans Rock 'n Roll” for Sonet in 1977 (subsequently it has been issued on CD). King started recording for Black Top in the 1980s and made three CDs for them, the last being “Hard River To Cross” in 1993. King continued to perform before passing in 2003 of diabetes related complications. This writer had the opportunity to see him several times in the DC area. (Much of this bio info is adapted from Wikipedia. The Wikipedia bio does have the suggestion that Earl may have co-written some songs with Dave Bartholomew including Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knockin’” as Pearl King, but has there is no citation for this. I have never heard this claim prior to seeing this nor why would Earl need to do this.

The following review of Earl’s Black Top CD, “Hard River To Cross,” appeared in the July/August 1993 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 183). I likely received a review copy from Black Top at the time. It is available as a download if not available as a new CD.

Earl King certainly remains one of New Orleans' more distinctive artists, having evolved from a disciple of Guitar Slim to one of the Crescent City’s most important songwriters, and a distinctive performer. Hard River to Cross, his new Black Top release, is another welcome helping of his unique, often quirky, but always intriguing music. King’s recent songs show a maturity in themes and lyrics that provide for tasty, funk-laden blues and soul, and still retain a distinct “New Orleans” flavor. Most of the songs here are new, like the title track, Seduction Lady and Big Foot, although he does a few remakes of such older gems as Medieval Days, You Better Know, and You’re Love Means More to Me Than Gold, as well as Guitar Slim’s It Hurts To Love Someone. King has never been a flamboyant guitarist in the manner of Guitar Slim, rather his carefully crafted, thoughtful solos serve to enhance his lyrics and vocals rather than dominate them. 

 For those wanting a bit more info on Earl King, I suggest reading Larry Benicewicz's obituary.

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