In 1952, while employed at the steel mill, an eighteen-year-old King occasionally worked as a sideman with such bands as the Little Sonny Cooper Band and Earl Payton’s Blues Cats.
In 1953 he recorded with the latter for Parrot Records, but these recordings were never released. As the 1950s went on, King played with several of Muddy Waters’s sidemen and other Chicago mainstays, including guitarists Jimmy Rogers, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Eddie Taylor, Hound Dog Taylor, bassist Willie Dixon, pianist Memphis Slim, and harpist Little Walter.
In 1956 he cut his first record as a leader, for El-Bee Records. The A-side was a duet with a Margaret Whitfield, “Country Boy and the B-side was a King vocal. Both tracks feature the guitar of Robert Lockwood, Jr., who during these same years was also adding rhythm backing and fills to Little Walter’s records.
King was repeatedly rejected in auditions for the South Side’s Chess Records, the premier blues label, which was home to Muddy, Wolf, and Walter. The complaint was that Freddie King sang too much like B.B. King. A newer blues scene, lively with nightclubs and upstart record companies, was burgeoning on the West Side, though.
Bassist and producer Willie Dixon, during a late 1950s period of estrangement from Chess, had King come to Cobra Records for a session, but the results have never been heard.
Meanwhile, King established himself as perhaps the biggest musical force on the West Side. King played along with Magic Sam and supposedly did uncredited backing guitar on some of Sam’s tracks for Mel London’s Chief and Age labels, though King does not stand out anywhere.
Playing style and technique
King had an intuitive style, often creating guitar parts with vocal nuances.He achieved this by using the open string sound associated with Texas blues and the raw, screaming tones of West Side, Chicago blues.
As King combined both the Texas and Chicago sounds, this gave his music a more contemporary outlook than many Chicago bands who were still performing 1950s-style music, and he befriended the younger generation of blues musicians.
In his early career he played a gold top Gibson Les Paul with P-90 pickups through a Gibson GA-40 amplifier, later moving on to Gibson ES-355 guitars, using a plastic thumb pick and a metal index-finger pick to achieve an aggressive finger attack, a style he learned from Jimmy Rogers.
He had a relatively more aggressive and creative style of improvisation than others such as, B.B. King and Albert King, considered by many to be a more exploratory and less traditional approach.
Despite an often avowed desire to play slide guitar, King confessed that he could not due to his large fingers preventing him from a light enough touch.
King was always progressive with his blues playing style. His early instrumental hits (Federal/King Label) help coin the term “Pop Blues” King 70’s recordings with Shelter and RSO Records showcased his powerhouse Rock Blues style.
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