By Cree McCree I Jan. 17, 2023
The elder statesmen of New Orleans blues — Little Freddie King and Guitar “Lightnin” Lee — are both octogenarians. But King has seniority and bragging rights over friendly rival guitarist Lee, a native New Orleanian who just turned 80.
“We’re not grown until we get 80,” King explained at his home in the New Orleans’ Musicians Village shortly after he mesmerized the overflow crowd celebrating his 82nd birthday at BJs, his longtime 9th Ward headquarters. “So, thank God I made 82.”
Little Freddie King is also the undisputed monarch of New Orleans blues whose down-home, gut-bucket style emerged from the fertile crescent of the Mississippi River. Born Fread E. Martin in Bo Diddley’s hometown of McComb, he crafted his first guitar from a cigar box tossed out by two “big shots” in a Cadillac while he was walking home from a seven-mile trek to the nearest store. The guitar was a project born out of necessity — after his guitar-picking father gave him a whipping and revoked his picking privileges for breaking the old man’s strings.
“I just play what come to me from my heart,” King said about a sound that evolved over decades of hard living and hard drinking. (He got sober 48 years ago.) “And it come out clear, there’s no false sound to it. I’ve been dead so many times, it’s crazy.”
Again and again, King snatched life from the jaws of death, surviving a bloody litany of shootings, stabbings, electrocutions, near-fatal accidents and killer hurricanes, all while gigging almost constantly and recording a prodigious catalog of work that dates back to 1971, a year after he started his 50-year run at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Blues Medicine serves as King’s latest release on Made Wright Records, a label he jointly owns with his drummer/manager, Wacko Wade. Back in 1993, Wade abandoned his career as an R&B drummer to play with King. In 2021, King was also enshrined on 180-gram vinyl by Newvelle Records, shortly before the prestigious jazz label recorded Jon Batiste, who King calls “that Black kid from Kenner.”
Sporting a red vest, vintage tie and trademark flat-brimmed straw hat, the ever-dapper bluesman welcomes friends to a home bursting with memorabilia, outrageous stage wear and a world-class guitar collection that includes a custom Dr. Bones model. Back in the kitchen, the one-time TV repairman and auto mechanic tinkers with his Flying V guitar, the sole survivor of his Hurricane Katrina-destroyed home. Even after such tragedy, King spins fantastic tales about his long, almost-mythic life.
Let’s go back to the very beginning, when those big shots threw away that cigar box.
When I spotted that box in the ditch, I said, that’s just what I need to make my own guitar. So I bring it home and cut holes in it with bottle glass, pulled pickets off the fence for my neck and made little tuner keys out of hickory. Then the horse started swishing horse flies off his tail, and when I hear that sound I said, wow, maybe I make strings out of them hairs. So I pulled some out, put ’em on and tightened ’em up. And when I plucked it, it made a sound! [laughs] But those hairs are delicate, so I kept going back for more until I pulled a great big bald spot in the horse’s tail. And I said, “Uh-oh, now I’m gonna get another beating. But when my daddy got home he got so high on that corn liquor that he didn’t pay no attention. He just run out like Gene Autry, jumped up on the horse and went down through the woods. So I missed that whooping.
They say a cat has nine lives, and you may have already outlived nine.
Yes, Lord, I’m telling you. One time, I went to the hospital with a hemorrhage, but the doctors couldn’t stop the bleeding. So I prayed, “Lord, please spell my life a little longer.” The next morning, when the vampires come, that’s what I call the nurses, I said I ain’t got no blood. The good Lord stopped me from bleeding. And they brought about 30 or 40 doctors and nurses to see me because they couldn’t believe it.
You keep amazing people, like that time you nearly electrocuted yourself.
I was high, and I had to tune this man’s TV and forgot it was plugged in. So when I grabbed it, boom! This big, blue-and-purple ball of fire popped outta my mouth. [laughs] Then my heart started beating fast and funny. So I called the cab and went over to Charity Hospital and the doctor said, “What’s your problem?” I said, “I just got hit by 500 volts.” And he said, “You didn’t get hit by no 500 volts, because you would be dead.” I said, “Well I ain’t dead.” Then I passed out and fainted.
That’s pretty scary. What was your scariest close call?
My bicycle accident [in 2017]. I had to play at [the nightclub] DBA that night, so I goes down early to get my cigarettes, going as fast as I can go. When I got halfway there, I didn’t see this lumber piled on top of a garbage can, and all that wood hit me and bust me up inside. I was in the middle of the street so I said, “Jesus, please help me.” And wasn’t five minutes before a white dude come by in a Cadillac and said, “Mister, you hurt? Want me to call the paramedic?” I said, “No, just pull me out the street, so another car don’t come by and finish me off.” Another guy helped me get up, and I got a piece of the same lumber that nearly killed me and made a crutch out of it.
Then I called Wacko [Wade], and he took me to the emergency room. They wanted to operate but I didn’t want to stay, so he took me home, and I laid on the couch for three days squeezing this little rubber ball to get my fingers back. I had to. We were going to play a New Year’s Eve show at this jazz festival in [Orvieto] Italy. I played wearing a neck brace, and I couldn’t bend my fingers right. But I just pushed through and faked it. Sounded good! We played the whole week at a cafe that packed ’em in. 300 people a night.
I love the title of the new album, Blues Medicine, because all music, and the blues in particular, really does have the power to heal.
That’s the inside we put in. It’s better than the doctor’s prescription, a dose of medicine that will make you well. All the songs [on the album] are brand new, except for two. “Dust On The Bible” was originally done by Hank Williams, and “Caress Me Baby,” that’s a Jimmy Reed song. But they should be considered new because of the way I play them.
They’ve been Freddie-fied. There’s no mistaking a Little Freddie King song.
The gutbucket, see, is really tribulation from stress and hard times. You don’t have nowhere to stay. You got to lay out there and sleep with your head on a hollow log. Get up the next morning for breakfast you gotta drink muddy water. So that’s gutbucket blues, all that heart and soul.
You’ve spread that heart and soul all over the world. Got a personal highlight?
Bourbon Street in Sao Paolo [Brazil]. It’s a real high-end club with ladies in long dresses and high heels that also has this free block party for the people of Sao Paulo. We play on a small stage by the club, but they put up big-screen TV sets so the party stretches for blocks. That’s a good one, mmm-hmm. 80,000 people. DB
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