By Barry Yeoman
He stood at the kitchen window waiting. He had memorized everything around him: the pine walls, bare of wallpaper or even paint; the wardrobe where his widowed mother kept her churn for making buttermilk; the stove fueled by the firewood he cut each morning; the two coolers, one for dairy and the other for cakes and pies. He had branded them into his memory, these artifacts of a life that, after today, would no longer be his.
His mother was working in town. As she cleaned the house of the doctor and his wife, Josie Mae Martin didn’t know that her blue-eyed son was planning his escape from McComb, Mississippi. He had even assured her otherwise. But he had it all worked out: When he heard the chug of the southbound freight train, heard its piercing whistle, he would dash out the side door, run around the L of the house, and grab from its hiding place the 50-pound flour sack he had stuffed with a pair of shoes, two shirts, and a pair of pants. He would bolt to the west side of the Illinois Central tracks, squat behind a bush, and wait until he saw an open car.
He thought he knew how to do this. He had heard his father tell stories about “hoboing” the trains on his way to jobs picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta to the north, or cutting sugar cane in Vacherie, Louisiana, to the south. Before his death, Jessie James Martin and his friends would sit around drinking and talking about the fine art of eluding detection in a boxcar, traveling around the roughest parts of the South without suffering a detour to the local jail. The boy always listened closely, culling their stories for tips. “My daddy did it,” he thought to himself. “I can do it, too.”
He didn’t know what would await him at the New Orleans end of his journey — a 14-year-old boy with “not nary a copper cent” in his bib overalls — or if he’d make it at all. And he surely couldn’t have guessed what the next six decades would bring: the grubby floors of back-of-town nightclubs; the ruinous infatuation with Taylor Cream Sherry; the cuttings and shootings that would threaten to cut short his life; the sounds of a brass band without a horn in sight; the marriage marked by violence, forgiveness, more violence, and grace; the cheers of crowds in far-off countries; the fall from God and eventual return; the apocalyptic storm that marooned him five hundred miles away; and, by the time he reached his 70s, the exquisite silence of weekend mornings, broken only by the sound of tour buses rolling past his home.
All he knew, on this most anxious afternoon of his adolescence, was that he wasn’t going to miss that train.
The man holding the Epiphone electric guitar wears sunglasses, two-tone shoes, and a pumpkin-and-black suit with a matching shirt and necktie. Curly wisps of hair—gray, like his pencil mustache — stick out from beneath a brown felt Homburg hat. A white sash hangs over his left shoulder, decorated with a row of crude smiling skulls. Between two of those skulls, in what looks like a child’s calligraphy, is the name by which everyone knows him: Little Freddie King.
Now 73, King hasn’t lived in McComb, Mississippi, since the 1950s, when he jumped off that still-moving freight train three miles from this very spot: a poorly executed leap that left him scraped up and so dizzy that for the first few minutes in his new hometown, he couldn’t move from the edge of the tracks. From this wooden bar in Uptown New Orleans, named Carrollton Station after the nearby streetcar barn, his childhood home is 100 miles and almost 60 years away. Yet for him, it remains palpably close. It’s the rootstock of his music and the source of many of his best stories, like the one he’s recounting tonight.
“I was a little boy, running around outside,” he tells the crowd — buoyant, mostly white, some young, some old. “And I was on the lazy side. I didn’t want to do no work.
“My daddy, he said, ‘Boy, come on around this house. I’ve got a job for you.’ So I followed my daddy to see what he wanted. He had a whole big wagonload of corn dumped there behind the house. And he had those great big 50-gallon drums. He said, ‘Boy, you shuck all that corn. Shell all of it and fill them drums up there. Then you take it and go feed the chickens. That’s your job. You better do it.’
“I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Boy, you ain’t gonna do that? Well, you’re going to have to answer to the business end of this rattan vine.’” The first syllable of rattan comes out hard, like a gruff but friendly bark: “this RAT-tan vine.”
King likes to prolong a good tale, to keep his audience twitching and laughing, poised just on the edge of busting into dance. His story goes on for a while, with more defiance from the son and escalating threats from the father until the boy finally relents in the name of saving his own behind. “So I started feeding the chickens,” he says. “Every time I threw some corn out there, I said, ‘You a bad chicken.’ As the years passed by, I got to thinking about it. I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna make a song about that. That dog-gone bad-chicken song.”
King lets out a series of galline squawks, louder than it seems like his small body can produce, but indeed emanating from his throat. His band amps up. Buckle-kneed Bobby cradles his harmonica with both skinny arms; bass player Skeets stands stiff-backed and serious; Wacko Wade holds down the percussion. Then King launches into his beloved “Chicken Dance” song, and the floor starts to rattle with the collective stomps of dozens of sneakers, flip-flops, and fancy boots covered in rivets and studs.
Little Freddie King, born in 1940 as Fread Eugene Martin, is one of the last country bluesmen still performing in New Orleans. In a city known for traditional jazz, for the brassy secondline music that fills the streets on Sunday afternoons, and for the distinctive rhythm-and-blues that helped sire rock’n’roll, King’s music is altogether different. It reeks of damp cotton and feels so emotionally charged that the frequency of light seems to change when he picks up his guitar; the air turns grimy and explosive all at once. Rhythmic structures break down: A 12-bar phrase in a King song can fill 13 bars today, 11 tomorrow, and change flavor as his mood rises and falls. He calls it “gutbucket blues,” borrowing a phrase Louis Armstrong used to describe music that’s low-down and dirty, like the buckets that collected innards at old Louisiana fish markets.
King’s songs tell personal stories from a life that has been torrentially difficult, and for much of his adulthood those songs have sustained him. To watch him — small and deferential, a perfect gentleman — walk onto the stage and make his guitar sneer and growl is to watch a man achieve catharsis in a way that, more than anything, resembles religious ecstasy. “It’s just the same like if you’re in church, and you’ve got a sister there or a brother or an amen corner over there, and they started shouting, they can’t control it hardly,” he says. “That’s the thrill and the feeling and the soul that I have coming out with the music.”
After a lifetime of struggle, he is at the peak of his career; more important, he is at the peak of his contentment. He’s cut more albums in the past decade than in the rest of his life combined, most recently the 2012 disc “Chasin tha Blues.” He performs at international festivals that draw thousands of fans, and is a fixture at New Orleans’ famed Jazz and Heritage Festival. Young women flirt with him; Europeans bring vinyl LPs for him to autograph. In Musicians’ Village, the Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood where he lives in a shotgun double apartment, he’s regarded as an elder statesman, and there are frequent knocks on the door from fans and fellow artists.
He’s more than that, though: King is one of the last living links to an era when live music poured from the corner taverns that were ubiquitous throughout New Orleans’ African-American neighborhoods, fostering a musical culture that developed from the ground up. He is also one of the few survivors of what has become a footnote to the Great Migration of Southern Blacks: the country bluesmen like Boogie Bill Webb and Jewell “Babe” Stovall who carried their tradition farther south rather than north.
“He’s one of the last of the blues generation to migrate to New Orleans” — refugees from rural poverty who formed “a subterranean subculture of downhome Mississippi,” says Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues and research director of the Mississippi Blues Trail. “He represents the roots and rawness that’s missing from a lot of blues today — or what passes for blues. He’s the real thing.”
That King flourishes today is testament to his survival skills. He has weathered an outsized share of poverty, addiction, loss, and danger, several times outrunning death by inches in the trajectory of a bullet or a blade. While many of his peers died without having their lives chronicled, King is very much alive, telling marvelous and credible stories that, along with his recordings, offer him the chance to outrun death one more time.
- McComb: King hops the train
- Tylertown: home of Tommy Johnson
- Clarksdale: Jessie James Martin picks cotton
- Belzoni: Jessie James Martin picks cotton
- Amite County: King’s first home
- Central City: young King lives with sister
- Laurel: King works at a sawmill
- Magnolia: train stops at a box factory
- Booker T. Washington High: King jumps off the train
- Miss Orange’s Bar: King plays with his feet in the air
- Lloyd Givens’ yard-sale parties
- Irene’s: King’s first gig
- Skeet’s Auto Electric: King works for decades
- Biloxi: Doris Chest’s home
Crouched on the west side — the white side — of the railroad tracks, Freddie Martin spotted an open boxcar. Trains slowed down as they approached McComb from the north, so he was able to grab onto a ladder and hoist himself up. But he couldn’t immediately maneuver himself inside. He hung on tight, “flopping like a kite,” until he mustered the strength to heave himself into the car. Finding a large piece of cardboard, he dragged it into a corner, and covered himself, lying as still as possible. At a box factory in Magnolia, Mississippi, the train stopped, then crossed the state line into Louisiana. It stopped a few more times before entering the marshlands that skirt the western edge of Lake Pontchartrain. When he saw the sign for Kenner, home to New Orleans’ airport, Freddie knew he was within 15 miles of his destination. He started preparing for his jump.
He was safely away from McComb, the blue-collar town that civil-rights organizer Bob Moses would later call the “worst part of the most intransigent state” in the South. It was founded in 1872, its longleaf pines hacked away by a New Orleans railroad magnate looking to expand the company’s offices and maintenance facilities. During Freddie’s childhood, it was still, above all, a railroad town. The Illinois Central had a repair shop there; until the late 1980s, a whistle that was audible throughout town signaled the start and end of shifts. Jobs were unionized, which meant an African-American railroad worker could earn a respectable living compared to his neighbors. The two races, however, belonged to separate unions.
The railroad also delineated McComb’s racial geography; its north-south tracks cleanly bisected the city. “On the west side of town were paved streets; a few blocks of retail stores, and the white suburbs, spread out under a canopy of shade trees and embroidered with flowers,” Moses wrote after he arrived in McComb to set up a voter-registration school. “On the east, Burglund, the all-Black town with its shabby stores, ramshackle houses, and dirt roads. The general air of grinding poverty was broken by the occasional brick house of somebody who worked for the railroad.”
With the schools and neighborhoods sharply segregated — not to mention public facilities like movie theaters — much of the interaction between the races took place in the white homes that employed African-American maids, nannies, and yardmen. Black labor was so cheap that even some working-class white families hired women and men from across the tracks. White children often spent more time with household employees than with their own bridge-playing mothers. But, as children, they learned there were limits to that intimacy, and stories from that era are often tinged with a conflicted bittersweetness. Billy Neville, a retired white businessman who was born in McComb in 1940 (the same year as King), adored his family’s cook, Rena Anderson, so much that when her house burned down he gave her the entire 32 dollars he had saved from his newspaper route. “She was more like a family member than an outsider,” he says. But Neville also knew that “Miss Rena” could not use the same bathroom his family used, but rather had her own in the back of the house, heated and carpeted but still painfully separate. After Sunday lunches, when someone in the family would drive Anderson home to Burglundtown, she always sat in the back seat. “It’s sad,” Neville says. “But that’s the way it was.”
Beyond the domestic sphere, the institutions of segregation were crushingly effective. During King’s early childhood, Mississippi was represented in the U.S. Senate by Theodore Bilbo, a Klansman who famously called on “every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no nigger votes.” Local officials obeyed that charge. When Nathaniel Lewis, a Black veteran and train porter from McComb, tried to register to vote in 1946, he correctly answered all the questions that the county circuit clerk asked him about how government works. The clerk was determined to keep Lewis from registering, though, so he then asked the porter to describe the Democratic ballot, which Lewis had not seen. “You go and brush up on your civics and come back,” the clerk said. The one African-American registered voter who did show up at McComb’s polls that summer, a 79-year-old man, was promptly arrested.
“As a relatively young city, McComb had missed out on slavery and most of Reconstruction,” historian John Dittmer wrote in Local People, his book about Mississippi’s civil-rights struggle. “But that collective memory was deeply imbedded in the consciousness of local whites, and Jim Crow had been the arbiter of race relations in this isolated industrial community for nearly a century.” The city had a 10 o’clock curfew for African-Americans, which became an issue when the Veterans Administration announced plans in 1946 to build an all-Black hospital there. Aside from the fact that it would be segregated, national civil-rights leaders objected to the location the VA had chosen. “McComb is a viciously anti-Negro city — Negroes are not even allowed on the streets at night — and the selection of this site by the Veterans Administration represents the extension of its anti-Negro policy,” Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York wrote to President Harry Truman. “Now it is planning to send Negro veterans who are suffering disabilities for fighting foreign fascism to one of the most fascist towns in Mississippi.”
Josie Mae and Jessie James Martin tried to shield their son Freddie and his five sisters from the political and economic deprivation faced by Blacks in McComb. Keeping mostly to themselves, they taught their children to walk away from trouble. Occasionally Josie Mae would recount her experiences with racism, but more often she encouraged her children to follow her lead and take refuge in their faith. The family attended a Baptist church in nearby Summit, sometimes every day during revival weeks. “Hardships and hard times come through, but she wasn’t a person to complain,” says Doris Chest, Freddie’s younger sister. “She would all go to God with it.”
Theirs was a spirit-filled Christianity, complete with shouts and visions. By the time Doris was 14, she was seeing and hearing a white-robed heavenly choir — “so beautiful, ain’t no white down here like it” — and speaking in tongues. She wondered aloud how she could make her mother see the choir, too. “Baby, that’s for you to see,” Josie Mae would respond. “That’s not for me to see.”
The real gift for seeing spirits, though, belonged to Freddie. As a child, he was walking home from his cousin’s house, carrying a slingshot he had crafted after hearing the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Along the country road he saw a bleach-white tomato worm, which he says began charging at him. “You better stop!” he shouted. “I’m gonna shoot you.” Instead of stopping, he says, the worm turned into a calf. When he tried to repel the animal with his slingshot, a force knocked the weapon out of his hand. Later, Josie Mae told her son that he had experienced his vision at the very location where two male neighbors had argued over an adulterous liaison. In the heat of their squabble, the cuckolded man had decapitated his wife’s lover with an axe. After that, King says, “every time it rained, the blood would come up in that ditch. That’s the truth.”
Their father, Jessie James Martin, often woke up at 4:30 a.m. to listen to his radio. Some mornings Doris would rouse herself from bed to join him. After she crawled onto his lap, he would pull out his Bible and turn to the Book of Ecclesiastes. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” he would read to his daughter. “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” The verses proved prophetic: Jessie died when his children were still young. In the financial upheaval that followed, the family lost its homeplace in Amite County and moved one county east into McComb.
As Freddie Martin approached adolescence, race relations in and around McComb showed no signs of improving. In 1949, a Black 68-year-old had her skirt pulled up and was beaten with a cat o’ nine tails for failing to give prosecutors information they wanted about an African-American defendant. Two years later, the county sheriff and four other officers were indicted for torturing a 23-year-old Black man in a wooded area south of town, using switches and a leather strap to extract a confession for a gas-station robbery he didn’t commit. Those incidents came a full decade before the civil-rights era, during which Black leaders faced shootings, arrests, and so many property attacks that McComb became known as the “bombing capital of the world.” Over the line in Amite County, two voting-rights activists were murdered during the early 1960s, one by a state legislator and the other allegedly with the complicity of the local sheriff. Neither official was prosecuted. By then, young Freddie was gone.
If there was one consolation for African Americans in McComb, it was the local music scene. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, residents would descend on Summit Street, which paralleled the train tracks the length of Burglundtown. “It was a wide open city,” businessman Bennie Joseph told the Blues Trail’s Jim O’Neal. “They had clubs, gambling, whores, everything. And they’d have corn liquor.” Summit Street bragged of a successful hotel, as well as a theater building that also housed a drug store and an ice cream parlor. There were bars and restaurants aplenty: the Ritz, Harlem Nightingale, Brock’s Mocombo No. 2. And because McComb was a stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of Black entertainers before desegregation, it drew the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Fats Domino, as well as the city’s own prodigal son, Bo Diddley. “People come [from] all over to McComb,” Joseph said, “from Chicago all the way to New Orleans.”
Local musicians would perform on Summit Street, too, including Jessie James Martin, who brought his son along when he played guitar and harmonica. McComb didn’t have its own blues style, unlike Tylertown, 20 miles away, where a micro-universe had formed around the falsetto-singing, Sterno-drinking, highly melodic bluesman Tommy Johnson. Jessie’s own style was influenced by the percussive rhythms and moaning vocals he heard in Delta towns like Clarksdale and Belzoni, where he sometimes traveled to pick cotton.
Listening to his father, Freddie ached for just a fraction of the man’s talent.
“Daddy, you gonna learn me how to play?” he asked.
“I can show you but I can’t learn you,” Jessie replied, as he demonstrated three basic chords. “You gotta learn yourself.”
Without an instrument of his own, Freddie had no way to practice those chords. Yet he was itching to become a musician. One day he borrowed his father’s guitar on the sly. When he returned it with a broken string, he paid for it with a beating. A few weeks later, his mother sent him to the grocery store for butter and sugar. On the way home, Freddie noticed two “big shots” — well-off white men — tossing a wooden cigar box into a ditch. “This is exactly what I need to make my own guitar,” he thought. He rescued the box, cut a hole in the middle, then pulled a pine board off a picket fence for the neck. He crafted his own frets from haywire, and tuning keys from hickory branches. All he needed were strings. Looking around, he noticed how his father’s horse made a sound when it swished away flies with its tail. He had an idea.
“All right, Mr. Horse, take it easy now,” he told the animal. “I’m going to try one of your hairs and see how it sounds.” He yanked out a strand, then strung it through the bridge and a tuning key and tightened it. When he plucked it, it approximated music rather well. He felt pleased with his ingenuity.
“I need five more strings, Mr. Horse,” Freddie said, tugging again at the tail hairs. The fully strung guitar “made a great sound — you know, very delicate: If you hit it a little hard — bop! — it break right quick.” So he pulled a few more hairs, promising the horse not to remove any more. “He acted like he understood — like human, like me,” King says. “So I kept pulling hair; I kept pulling hair; and I pulled a great big bald spot in his tail.”
He apologized to the horse, he says, then pulled out one more hair, and when he did, “I met that great big foot. Bam! He kicked me. I hear bells ringing. Birds squeaking. I don’t know how long I was out.” His father didn’t notice the missing hair at first, but when he did, King says, “I got another whupping then and there.”
Most of King’s childhood was consumed not with music, though, but with work. When his father wasn’t doing migrant labor, he sharecropped cotton and corn near their Amite County home. King was in the fields with his father from a young age. Picking cotton made his fingers bleed; his neck and shoulders ached from spending so many hours bent over. “Then your back is breaking in two,” he recalls. “We’d have to get down on our knees and crawl to relieve some of the pain.” Some days they started at dawn and spent their last hours harvesting by moonlight, never letting up their brisk pace.
King’s father taught him that cotton picked in the early morning was most profitable because the dew made it heavier. The boy figured it would weigh even more if he poured his drinking water onto it. His father caught on quickly. “Come here, bud,” Jessie called out to his son. “Let me tell you something: Because we gettin’ cheated, don’t you cheat nobody. You be honest.”
King knew he was not cut out for farm labor. A school field trip to New Orleans helped him imagine a world of modern conveniences, with easier jobs and everything within walking distance. Plus, his sister and her husband already lived there. When he told his mother that he wanted to move away, she imagined her son being kidnapped and killed by big-city strangers. He didn’t argue with her. He just bit his tongue and bided his time.
With the freight train approaching its destination, King knew he would never again worry about the sharp pricks of cotton bolls against his hands or the lower-back spasms in the fields. He wasn’t alone: Between 1915 and 1970, six million Black Americans, many of them rural sharecroppers, left their Southern homes and moved to less repressive places with greater economic opportunity. The Illinois Central tracks were one of the Great Migration’s major conduits; they carried migrants north to industrial cities like St. Louis and Chicago. Only a few headed south to New Orleans. But the Crescent City had the advantages of being close to home, blessedly urban, and (while still segregated) considerably more tolerant than southwest Mississippi.
The train crossed the parish line. A few more minutes to go. He couldn’t ride all the way to the terminal; there, he’d surely get caught. From his brother-in-law, Freddie knew to look for Booker T. Washington High School, built in 1942 as the city’s first brand-new high school for Black students. From there, he had directions to his sister’s shotgun house in the working-class neighborhood of Central City. When he saw the side of the Art Deco school, he leapt out of the boxcar, unsure how to position himself to minimize injury. “Man, I was like a spinning top,” he recalls of his landing. “I tore all the bark off my arms, my knees. And I was drunk, I guess, about two hours before I could come back around in my brain to settle out right.” But he collected himself, found nearby Claiborne Avenue, then counted off the streets as he walked toward the river: Willow, Clara, Magnolia. Turning right on Magnolia, he quickly realized that all the battleship-gray houses looked alike. He didn’t know his sister’s address; he had never really thought about numerical addresses when he lived in McComb. He wondered how he would ever find her and her husband.
After a few nights of catnapping on the street and sweet-talking the police, Freddie ran into his sister as she was returning home from work. With a place to live in Central City, and a job he had already secured at a nearby gas station, the teenager set out to teach himself to play the blues. He used his modest wages to buy a Silvertone guitar at Sears Roebuck with an amplifier built right into the case and tried to follow the songs he heard on the radio. “It was too fast for me,” he says. “My chip in my computer” — his brain, that is — “couldn’t pick it up.” So he returned to the department store and bought a record player. Then he bought two vinyl records, one by Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins and the other by Mississippi native Jimmy Reed, from a truck that passed near his house. When he played them at 33⅓ rpm instead of the regular 45, they slowed down enough that he could tease out the notes. It was still difficult; he had to play a song hundreds of times before he could replicate it on his guitar. But before long, he managed to teach himself those two songs.
The 1950s and ’60s were a period when many bluesmen were leaving Mississippi for the opportunities that cities like New Orleans promised. The Crescent City was hardly a utopia when King arrived. Its restaurants, hospitals, and buses were all segregated — “a modern, streamlined slavery that replaces ankle irons with ‘For White Only’ signs,” an NAACP official told the Louisiana Weekly, a Black newspaper. But it was not nearly as stifling a climate as Blacks in Mississippi were still experiencing. Moreover, things in New Orleans were changing for the better. In 1958 the city’s transit system desegregated. The first Black children enrolled in white schools in 1960, albeit to jeers, threats, and a white boycott. The following year, the biracial Citizens Committee of New Orleans started negotiating the desegregation of local businesses, which proceeded without substantial violence.
One of the arriving musicians had a direct link to Freddie’s childhood in McComb: Babe Stovall, a street singer from nearby Tylertown who could play the guitar behind his head and who used to perform with Freddie’s father on Summit Street. Freddie remembered those days fondly, and reconnected with Stovall, who was 33 years his senior, when they were both living in New Orleans. He met other Mississippi transplants, too: Boogie Bill Webb, a cat-loving longshoreman who, along with conventional blues guitar, played everything from vaudeville tunes to gospel; Polka Dot Slim, a harmonica player who favored the more relaxed swamp blues; and Arzo Youngblood, who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward but kept his raw singing rooted firmly in the Mississippi countryside. New Orleans never reached the critical mass to develop an explosive blues culture like in Memphis or Chicago. But there were enough rural Blacks moving into town for a subterranean scene to form.
“The blues was always in New Orleans,” says Ernie Vincent, a guitar player best known for his 1972 funk hit “Dap Walk.” “You gotta stop and think about it: The majority of people that was here, they was all from the countryside. They worked hard, they farmed, and they played blues on the weekend. And that’s what made B.B. King so popular here, Bobby Blue Bland, John Lee Hooker. They played that on the radio stations constantly, especially on the Black radio stations.”
One place where bluesmen gathered, including both Vincent and the young King, was the Conti Street home of shopkeeper and bootlegger Lloyd “Curly” Givens, whose weekend yard-sale parties were legendary.
Givens’ house was easy to find: You just had to follow the smell of fish that his wife, Marie, was frying in the kitchen, or look for the musical instruments and snazzy used clothing he was offering for sale in his yard. Indoors, the corn liquor flowed, and men played dice on a plywood board that Givens had set up in a bedroom. “It was like a little ballroom, just like you would have in the twenties, a red-light deal,” Vincent says. Eventually Givens would haul out his guitar out and start playing some country blues, inviting his guests to play along. “Oh, man, we had a wang-dang-doodle,” King says. “That’s where the blues was when it wasn’t in the clubs. We played more there than out.”
When King was 19, before he had gathered even his first shred of confidence as a guitar player, he was offered a gig playing at a Central City bar called Irene’s. It was a gray corner building with a balcony upstairs; the second floor offered lodging to longshoremen. Downstairs sat a club, open 24 hours on weekends, with red-tiled floors and pictures of horses and flowers on the walls. Posters of famous musicians hung behind the bar. “All the blues people liked to go up there,” says Leroy Williams, the bluesman better known as Guitar Lightnin’ Lee. “The girls all dressed up. The cats all got their Sunday stuff on, on a Saturday night, of course. Everybody sitting around, waiting for the band.”
King knew Miss Irene’s husband, Frank, from working together on the riverfront and warned him that he was still green as a musician. Frank hired him anyway.
King was young and nervous. “Everything would come into my mind: You’re not going to make the note right. You’re not going to play the song right for to satisfy the fans out there.” To build his courage, he’d drink wine from the bar or some of the bootleg corn liquor that was sold upstairs. Sometimes he’d bring his own bottle from a nearby liquor store. “I’d get me a fifth of Muscat and sip on it and get kinda high, and that would build my courage and my nerves up,” he says. “And that’s how I got around all the people, all the excitement, and it didn’t take effect on me.”
Of course, it did have an effect. His playing suffered when he drank heavily, which he soon began to do often. When someone pointed this out to him, he’d get belligerent. “Why don’t you come up here and play it your damn self?” he’d shout, then threaten to quit until Frank talked him down. Sometimes he realized he was drunk: “I’d look down there and I’d be dog-goned if it wasn’t 36 strings on the guitar. I didn’t know which one to hit.” He’d sleep off the alcohol, but return and repeat the next day.
Once he started to drink, addiction came fast and hard. “I got to a place where I really couldn’t do anything unless I had me a drink,” he says. “And then I was drinking so heavy and so much of it that I was killing myself.”
King also found himself “backsliding” from the devout Christianity of his childhood. “I know the Good Lord forgives us of everything, except self-murder and sin against the Holy Ghost,” he says. “But if I’m drinking, I know I can’t be going into no church. I know that was wrong.” His sister Doris Chest, who had hewed close to her faith, says she never saw him drunk. But she heard stories from him, and worried. “Father God,” she would pray, “I ask you to protect my brother. I’m asking you for hedges around him in the highways and byways. And Father God, I ask you to cover him in your blood.”
Even as his drinking ramped up, King managed to hold his life together enough to make a living. Starting in his teens, he worked a series of blue-collar jobs during the week, like countless other New Orleans musicians. He toted bananas at the riverfront. He roofed and insulated houses. He wired airplanes. He repaired televisions. He fixed motors at a chicken factory. He even unloaded cowhides from ships and loaded them onto transfer trucks. “Man, that job’d whoop you to death,” he says.
When he was in his 20s, King secured a job with a family business called Skeet’s Auto Electric. Skeet’s inhabited a junk-strewn shotgun building on Claiborne Avenue across from what is now the Superdome, with an added-on shed divided into seven stalls and a closed garage in back. As a bench mechanic there, he would build alternators, starters, and generators on-and-off for the next three decades. “He was a good worker when he was there,” says his former boss, Anthony “Skeets” Anderson. King would usually arrive on foot, and later by bicycle. Often, he showed up carrying a bottle of cheap wine, which he stashed in the toilet tank to keep cool. He would sip throughout the day, sometimes until he was intoxicated and quarrelsome—“a holy terror,” says Anderson, a plainspoken man with a shaved head and bulbous nose who became King’s bass player and lifelong friend. Sometimes King would disappear, as he did one afternoon as Anderson was closing shop, unaware his employee was still inside. “So we locked up and went home, and he fell asleep in one of the back rooms on a bunch of old tires,” Anderson says. “I had a guard dog, and he was afraid of the dog, so he spent the night back there without trying to get out.”
Freddie’s reputation as both a musician and a showman was growing. He borrowed the name of Texas bluesman Freddie King after the two played together, adding the word “Little” at the beginning. Soon, “Little Freddie King” was a regular at joints like Miss Orange’s Bar, a small club on Conti Street in the Tulane/Gravier neighborhood. It was there one night in the 1960s that he first met Guitar Lightnin’ Lee. That night Lee was dressed snappily — blazer, ascot, nice shoes — when King walked in straight from his construction job, wearing a hardhat and dirty rubber boots. His fellow Mississippians Arzo Youngblood and Boogie Bill Webb were there, and they told Lee to lend King his guitar. Lee handed it over reluctantly, then winced as King lay down on the floor, stuck his feet straight up in the air, and began playing Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom (I Believe My Time Ain’t Long).” As King played, mud fell from his boots into the guitar. “Oh my Lord,” Lee says. “I thought it was the end of the world.” A crowd gathered as the horizontal King tore up the room. “He had my guitar hollerin’ and screamin’,” Lee recalls. “I thought there was something wrong with it.”
Youngblood wasn’t surprised. “What I told you!” he shouted at Lee. “What I told you!”
Record producers took notice, too. One session, recorded in the 1960s by a local gospel label, was never released and eventually lost. Then came a young New Orleanian named Eldridge Johnson III, whose eponymous great-grandfather had invented the motorized gramophone. Johnson was the founder of Snakeroot Productions, a short-lived local blues label, and in 1971 he sought out King and his friend Harmonica Williams. The resulting LP, Rock N Roll Blues, was identified in its liner notes as possibly the city’s first “recent recording of amplified blues.” Its most enduring legacy is the chilling song “Born Dead,” sung by King’s friend Newton Greer. “A Black man in Mississippi, Lord, he just may as well be born dead,” Greer sang.
“It’s one of the rawest, nastiest records around,” Ike Padnos, who produces a local music festival called Ponderosa Stomp, says admiringly of the album. “People always talk about lo-fi, where it’s distorted and sounds good, and that’s what you want a blues record to sound like.” King says he never received royalties from the sales, a sadly common story for African-American musicians from that era. But this was during the blues revival, a time when college students and other middle-class whites were discovering traditional African-American music. Sometimes they showed up at King’s home unannounced, hoping to meet an authentic bluesman. “He looked like he had crawled out from underneath a mattress,” recalls one of those early fans, Paul Goldsmith, an anthropologist who at the time was a long-haired Tulane student. Whenever Goldsmith and a friend visited King, the guitarist would send the young men for some cheap “white Port,” which he consumed “like his afternoon coffee.” But later, when King performed, all that rumpledness disappeared. “He really zoomed,” Goldsmith says. “It was hot stuff.”
Others remember the bluesman the same way. “He was a wild man,” says Anderson, his boss from the alternator shop. “He’d get that buzz on and he’d dance and jump and clown around. Then he’d get too far gone and he’d start fighting.” Two of King’s friends, inspired by that temper, gave him the nickname “Killer.”
- Central City: young King lives with sister
- Pauger Street: Amy is assaulted
- Shrewsbury: King plays the wooden bars
- Golden Feather: King meets Amy
- Dew Drop Inn: once an elegant nightclub
- Musicians’ Village: King’s home
- Carrollton Station: King plays today
- Booker T. Washington High: King jumps off the train
- Miss Orange’s Bar: King plays with his feet in the air
- Lloyd Givens’ yard-sale parties
- Irene’s: King’s first gig
- Skeet’s Auto Electric: King works for decades
- Busy Bee: the Bucket of Blood
- Ruth’s Cozy Corner: scene of stabbing
- Scene of shooting
- BJ’s Lounge: King plays today
- d.b.a.: King plays today
- Hotel Monteleone: King rides out Katrina
- Mid-City: King’s home before Katrina
The New Orleans of the mid-20th century took its nightlife seriously. “There was a saying: There’s a club on every corner and a church in the middle of every block,” George Green, who started as a sound technician in the 1960s and worked various jobs in the local music industry, told me a few years ago. (Green had just written a memoir of the scene called “Say Good-bye to Old New Orleans.”) Some of those clubs were tiny — maybe a bar and a couple of tables — but they were everywhere. One man, Green said, turned the garage behind his house into a licensed watering hole. The clubs would build momentum starting Wednesday night. Then they’d stretch the weekend with free dinners on what they called Blue Monday. On the menu were hearty meals like fish and potato salad, or meatballs and spaghetti, designed to drum up business on what would otherwise be a slow weeknight. “That was every Monday: Where are you going? I’m going back by the Hurricane. They got fried chicken back there. OK, I’m going out front by the Shadowland. They got red beans and rice,” Green said. “Tuesday, everybody would lay out, try to get it together. Wednesday, it starts. Friday night, we’re full steam. Saturday’s New Year’s Eve.”
The bars were spread throughout the city’s African-American neighborhoods: Treme, where the scents of sausage, cigarette smoke, and baking bread filled the block outside the jazz club Hollie’s; Central City, where gamblers rolled their dice in the back room of the Sportsman’s Lounge on Dryades Street while an underage John Moore played R&B in front (he would later become the bandleader Deacon John); and Shrewsbury, a riverside district outside the city limits — part countrified, part industrial — where King played his Mississippi blues in one-story wooden lounges.
Then there was the Busy Bee, the epitome of every rough-and-tumble bar where King ever played. It was around the corner from his job at Skeet’s Auto Electric, in a once-lively section of Tulane/Gravier that was later torn down to make room for a hospital. A grocery filled one side of the brick building; the other had a barroom where patrons gambled, shot pool, and slurped bowls of yakamein, a New Orleans-style quasi-Chinese beef broth loaded with spaghetti, green onions, and hardboiled egg. Photos of musicians like Louis Armstrong covered the green and gold walls. The acoustics were “terrific good,” says King, who dates his time there to the 1970s.
“It was a swinging place,” says Milton Frazier, a towering 74-year-old friend of King’s who plays guitar under the stage name Alabama Slim. (They call themselves cousins.) “It was a little funky joint. You know how they smell, with liquor and smoke and all that stuff. People’d just go and have a good time.” But it was also “a rough joint,” Frazier adds. “Sooner or later, there was a fight that was going to break out somewhere.”
Two hours into King’s first night at the Busy Bee, he says, a man barged into the bar. He was carrying a baseball bat, which he proceeded to crack over a customer’s head. “Blood was going every which way,” King recalls. “The paramedic come and drug him out of there. I said, ‘Oh, this is the wrong place for me.’” The next night, one woman stabbed another in the back, he says, then cut her throat. “She fell right there in front of where I was standing with my guitar playing.” From then on, violence erupted so often that King told the owner, “You got the wrong name for this here club. The name of this club is the Bucket of Blood.” (He later immortalized the bar with a song by that title.)
Fearing for his life, King threatened not to return. But the owner kept swinging by in his Cadillac to visit King on weekends, then drove the bluesman to the bar just before show time. Instead of quitting, King learned how to take cover. In the corner sat a big Rock-Ola jukebox. Whenever a fight broke out, King would duck behind it for safety. “That’s how I would keep from getting shot and getting hit by a bottle,” he says. “I was behind the record player.”
The Dew Drop Inn sat two miles uptown from the Busy Bee, but the two clubs might as well have existed in parallel galaxies. Opened in the 1930s by a barber named Frank Painia, it drew acts like Little Richard, Billie Holliday, B.B. King, and Ray Charles. The Louisiana Weekly called it “New Orleans’ swankiest nightclub,” a superlative that would stick with it for decades. Customers sat at white-linen tables and were served by uniformed employees. They watched floor shows that included comedians, ventriloquists, and exotic dancers of both sexes. Emceeing the evening was Irving Ale, who had moved to New Orleans from rural Vacherie, then learned how to put on an evening gown and transform himself into the outrageous performer Patsy Valdalia. (Her last name was a pun; prostitutes were called “onions,” and the Vidalia is a sweet onion.) “She’d have long white gloves with a great big hat, just dressed to the nines with high-heels and stockings,” recalls Deacon John, the bandleader. She would greet patrons with a plea to “drink hardy and stick with your party.” Then she’d take her turn on the stage, often flinging up her skirt and belting out, “Why not take all of me?”
The Dew Drop had an elegance that transcended its actual physical condition. “A little old shabby hole in the wall,” Carol Fran, an 80-year-old blues pianist and vocalist who performed there, says in retrospect. “It was a little bitty place but it looked like the biggest place in the world then. Upstairs they had a hotel, where if it rained you needed an umbrella. But it was heaven for everybody.”
During segregation, the hotel became a sanctuary for African-American musicians. Painia offered lodging to traveling bands, and some of the other rooms he rented to locals. They paid seven dollars a week in the 1950s and lived off 35-cent plates of red beans and rice. When the big-name shows ended, the jamming began, sometimes until nine o’clock in the morning. “Nobody slept,” says Ken Jones, a resident at the time, “because they figured they’d miss something.”
The Dew Drop was a step up from the neighborhood bars where King usually played. But before it closed in the 1970s, he had developed the skills and the nimbleness to move back and forth through the porous curtain separating those two worlds. Initially he filled in as a sideman to better known musicians like R&B guitarist Earl King. During the inn’s final years he played there with Harmonica Williams, his partner in the album Rock N Roll Blues.
Like many who passed through the Dew Drop, King was fascinated by the sexual fluidity of the place: the way it embraced the bouffant- and rhinestone-wearing piano player Esquerita along with crossdressers like Valdalia. When he saw his first transvestite performer there, King couldn’t believe it was a biological male. “So I went into the dressing room, and he was dressing. And then I found out that it was a man, because he had more hung on him than I had.”
Later King would wise up. Female impersonation was common in New Orleans’ mainstream Black culture; once, King says, he watched a bandmate fall under the spell of a particularly alluring transvestite. “Killer, don’t mess with that one over there,” King’s friend said. “I want that one.”
“Hey man, you can have her,” King replied. “That’s not a real woman. That is a she-he.”
“Oh, no, Killer. You don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s a woman. I’m gonna bring her to the room with me.” They left that night hugging and kissing.
The next day, King was setting up his amplifier at a bar in the Marigny district when he saw his bandmate walk in, puffing on a cigar. “What’s done got you mad?” King asked. “I see the cigar, but I don’t see your teeth; you’re not smiling.”
“Killer, just like you told me,” his friend replied. “When I went to try to put it in, he had three times what I had. You ought to see me getting out of there.”
King’s nightclub performances earned him a steady gig at Jazz Fest starting in the 1970s. That garnered him even more attention. He landed a tour of Europe with John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley around 1976, followed a few years later by a tour of community colleges in the Western United States. But he always returned to the neighborhood bars of his adopted hometown. At one of them, he met the woman who, both for better and for worse, would shape the rest of his days.
He couldn’t help but notice this woman. She would show up every weekend at the Golden Feather, a bar and restaurant on St. Bernard Avenue near the old Circle Food Store. She would sit at a table and order a bowl of homemade gumbo, listen to King play, and send the band a round of drinks. She was as ample as King was diminutive — five-foot-three and 180 pounds — with dark skin and a pear-shaped face, and he found her beautiful. Sometimes she would dance — sexy, “like leaves shaking on a tree.” Around two o’clock, she would go home. By then he had been married and divorced within months in what he calls a fleeting mistake. He missed a woman’s company.
“Here you go, little old man,” she would say, presenting him with a half-pint of gin. She’d then request her favorite songs, like the Elmore James version of “Dust My Broom.”
He wondered if this woman — Amy Green, he’d later learn — was single. He felt “ashamed” to ask her outright. His harmonica player assured him that Green had separated from her common-law husband, then left him behind in Mississippi when she moved by herself to New Orleans. King worked up the courage to sit with her during a break. “I’ve been watching you,” he confessed.
“I see you be looking at me,” she replied.
“I need a girlfriend,” he blurted out. “I’m not asking to marry you, but I wanted to know: Would you be my girlfriend?”
“I don’t know, little old man,” she said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
The next week, as she left the bar, he slipped into the taxi beside her.
“Where are you going, little old man?” she asked.
“My name’s Freddie,” he said. “I’m not no little old man.” (In fact, he was two years her junior.) “I’m gonna find out who that you got in your house.”
“You can’t do that,” she said, but she let him stay there next to her in the cab as it made its way to her home in Treme. That night, she made King sleep on the sofa. When she left for her early-morning shift at the shrimp factory, she told King he could sleep in. When she got home, he was still there, stringing his guitar. She was famished and planning to eat a luncheon-meat sandwich. But he had been to the grocery at Marais and Governor Nicholls and surprised her with a dinner of country food instead: chicken, sweet peas, mustard greens, potato salad, candied yams, cornbread. “Lord have mercy,” she said. “You can do more than drink and play a guitar.”
He became her boyfriend, and followed her when she decided to move back to the timber town of Laurel, Mississippi. Unwed couples were banned from the apartment building where they lived, and she grew tired of hiding his clothes, so they got married. To earn money, King took a job at a sawmill grading, stacking, and trimming wooden boards. It was the hardest work he ever had done, but “I hung in there just like you’d stick a hook in a fish.” They stayed in Laurel for several years and then moved back to New Orleans.
As King recounts it, he and Amy were both serious drinkers by the time they returned. Alcohol would make her intensely jealous, especially when she saw female fans hug and kiss him. “Get away from my baby,” she would admonish them. Then she would accuse him of cheating.
When King was off playing, Amy didn’t like to drink by herself. “And people that know that, they’d come by to get a free drunk, and tell a lie on me,” King says. She would ply them with beer as they reported spotting King with this or that woman. “So when I do get home, it’s a war. Then we battle. Then I’d go to jail. Or we’d battle, and maybe the next weekend she goes to jail.” Her jealousy extended to his male friends, too. “Whenever I would knock on her door, ‘Whatchoo want? Get away from here. He ain’t coming out,’” recalls Guitar Lightnin’ Lee. The message was clear, he says. “Man or woman: Leave her husband alone.” The fighting continued unabated until the afternoon in March 1986 that would mark the bloodiest day of King’s life.
In King’s telling, he was coming home from picking up a check at the Jazz Fest office when he made a detour at a local watering hole to pay his debt. There he ran into an old buddy, clandestinely holed up with a mistress. King said hello, had a drink, and then left for home. A few blocks later, he needed to empty his bladder, so he stopped into another bar. “I didn’t want to use the people’s bathroom and don’t buy nothing,” he says, so he ordered his usual Taylor’s Cream Sherry. He stopped twice more during the half-mile walk, getting increasingly loaded each time. Along the way, he says, several people called Amy to report his whereabouts, telling her, he later learned, that “Freddie’s down here with an ass-pocket of money, treating everybody and giving these bitches and whores money.”
“A lie goes further than the truth right away,” he says.
As he was leaving the last bar, Ruth’s Cozy Corner in Treme, he ran into a friend’s wife, who asked King if he could buy her a beer. “You had to ask me that?” he recalls saying. She and her husband had bought Freddie and Amy many beers; of course he’d return the favor.
They walked back inside Ruth’s. King bought the woman a can. It had been bright outside, and his eyes were readjusting to the darkness. Temporarily blinded, he didn’t notice his wife standing against the wall by the jukebox. He felt a tap on his back and wheeled around, only to see Amy’s face. Then he felt a knife penetrate his shoulder. They both ran outside, and he reached into his pocket for his own knife.
“I’m gonna cut you back like you cut me,” he declared. But he was drunk and “bleeding like a hog,” while she was sober. She ducked and his knife plunged into the wooden exterior wall. As King was yanking out the weapon, Amy made a run for it. Their home was just a block away.
He followed her, vowing revenge. By the time he got there, she had locked the doors. Inside, she grabbed his revolver, which he had stashed partly loaded behind a flower vase. He kicked down the door, heard gunshots, and blanked out.
The five bullets that hit Little Freddie King tore up his stomach and came frighteningly close to his spine. (Oddly, the police report mentions only one shot, but King has the scars to refute the police version.) That the surgeons could save his life seemed like a miracle, and as he recovered, he found his childhood faith starting to awake from its dormancy. “I’ve been dead lots of times,” he says. “The Good Lord blessed me, and held me, and brought me back again. I can’t thank Him enough.”
Amy Green Martin, meanwhile, was arrested and charged with aggravated battery, a felony. “I have high blood pressure,” she warned an officer just before she was locked up for two days pending bail. From there, the courthouse record grows spotty, stating merely that the criminal charge was refused and there was no prosecution.
But to this day, King can fill in the details that the official paperwork omits. His story, if true — and his ex-boss Anderson corroborates it — describes a legal remedy as unorthodox as every other aspect of New Orleans life. In King’s words, the judge offered leniency to Amy under one condition: “If you go and babysit your husband, and take care of him, and give him first-choice treatment, then we won’t give you time.”
Grateful to be spared a prison sentence, Amy did as she was ordered. “She came to the hospital to see me every day till when they discharge me,” King says. “She did everything she could do till I got back up on my feet, thank God.” He recalls this as a turning point in both his marriage and his life. “We never had another fight,” he says.
King’s friends say their rancorous marriage grew more peaceful after the shooting. But not everything was hunky-dory. Amy never shook the fear of losing her husband. When she felt threatened, she behaved erratically. “She agreed to take care of him, but she was really mentally impaired,” says Anderson, who became King’s bass player in the 1990s. “I’d go to pick him up, and she’d say, ‘He’s not going with you tonight,’ and she’d pull a gun on me,” a gun that Anderson himself had refurbished and given to King.
“She was a crazy woman,” Anderson says. “What can I say?”
King tried to stop drinking liquor after the bullets ruptured his stomach. But addiction is a beast, and eventually he slipped back into it. Then one Sunday around 1989, he says, he was doing some work around the house. Climbing down from a ladder, he felt a tickle in his chest, followed by a wheezing sensation. He thought his asthma was acting up, so he took a puff from his albuterol inhaler, along with a couple of Tylenols. Then he lay down and fell asleep. When he awoke and sat up, blood was gushing from his mouth. “It was just like a hydrant,” he says. “I bled and I bled and I bled.”
Amy called for an ambulance. On the way to Charity Hospital, King begged God to spare his life. He wasn’t scared — everyone dies — but neither was he ready. As he arrived at the hospital and the doctors scrambled to fix him, he kept praying. Days passed. “And on the fourth day,” he says, “the Angel of God come in there and healed up that vein that was busted. I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus. No more blood. No more blood.’”
The brush with mortality finally scared him into sobriety. The bars offered too much temptation, so he pared back his music-making. When he did play, which was mostly at Jazz Fest, it was with a clearheadedness that had eluded him for decades.
“Not drinking really did me a big, big favor,” King says today. “I can think more better, and it come more better with my brain, and I could feel and hear more about my music. I feel I can produce it better because I don’t have a nerve problem. It made my nerves come better by the alcohol not destroying it.” Even without the taste of liquor, he could still summon memories of those drunken nights, which inspired his songwriting and performance for years to come.
His drinking years behind him, things began to fall into place professionally. In 1996, Orleans Records issued “Swamp Boogie,” King’s first recording since that vinyl LP 25 years earlier. Compared to what would follow, it was a subdued recording, like he was playing on his front porch and trying not to disturb the neighbors. The Nancy Jazz Pulsations festival invited him, along with other New Orleans artists, to perform as part of a three-week tour of northern France. And his current band came together, starting with his former boss Anderson and drummer “Wacko” Wade Wright. Anderson and Wright, both white, had played together since the segregated high-school CYO dances of the late 1950s and later backed some of the city’s R&B singers, Black and white alike. Completing the new band was harmonica player Bobby Lewis DiTullio, a former street musician who scored them a running gig at BJ’s Lounge in the Bywater district, where he tended bar.
Playing for King took a particular skill: He’s a “time breaker,” which means he randomly departs from the traditional 12-bar blues pattern. Playing together, the band learned how to adjust seamlessly to those rhythmic detours. Wright, an indelicate man with a prominent salt-and-pepper mustache, became King’s manager. The international offers began to pour in: Paris’ Chesterfield Cafe; Lugano, Switzerland’s Blues to Bop Festival; shows in England, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Canada. But King was hardly getting rich: The roof over his house on Pauger Street in the city’s Seventh Ward leaked, and he couldn’t afford proper dentures and glasses. Wright hooked him up with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a North Carolina-based group that assists older traditional Southern musicians living in poverty, and the foundation covered some of those bills.
He began recording more regularly. His new CDs won praise from critics, starting with 2000’s “Sing Sang Sung,” a rough-hewn collection that felt like King had stepped off the front porch and back into the honky-tonk. (It was recorded at a club called the Dream Palace.) “King’s fantastically sleazy pawn-shop leads drip all over songs like cheap grease and cigar smoke,” Offbeat magazine’s Robert Fontenot wrote of that album. “The slop bucket wheeze put out on his cover of King Curtis’s ‘Soul Twist’ is potent enough to turn George W. Bush into the Godfather of Soul. It is that country and that ghetto.”
As he entered his sixties, King was coming into his own as a professional musician. But he still had two more tragedies to weather before he could finally achieve peace.
Amy didn’t trust banks. She carried her savings with her, sometimes in plain view as she sat on their stoop on Pauger Street and drank beer with her neighbors. Their block was an open-air drug market — one of its residents inspired King’s song “Crack Head Joe” — and he warned his wife repeatedly to hide the cash inside.
“You’re setting yourself up,” he’d say. “Those dope fiends would kill their own mother, their own daddy.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna do me nothing,” she’d respond.
But King was right. One day, around 2002, a young man with plaited hair and a stick-up pigtail knocked on the door. He told Amy he was thirsty and asked for water. She refused him, but in the process unlatched the deadbolt to crack the door open. He pushed his way in, grabbed the same vase that once hid King’s revolver, and bashed her between the eyes to stun her. Then he reached into his pants for the iron pipe he had been carrying, and beat her until she was unconscious. Looking for money, he ripped off her blouse, then ransacked the rest of their home.
A neighbor called King and pleaded with him to hurry home. “I think she’s dead,” the neighbor said. When he arrived, “it was blood just like a creek in there,” King says. “Blood from the front to the back.” The mattress was cut open. The refrigerator was bloody where her head had hit. The floor was strewn with loose coins the assailant had left behind. Amy was unconscious — “dead for a while,” he says — and paramedics were loading her into an ambulance. King crawled in the back with her.
Amy stayed in the hospital for weeks before she recovered enough to be discharged. The assault had left her with permanent brain damage. Still, she was able to identify a photo of her attacker. King, still raw with rage, fantasized about pouring gasoline on him, then lighting a match and watching any semblance of the man’s previous life turn to cinder. “When y’all find him, please bring him to me,” he told an investigator. “I want to put the same punishment on him that he put on my wife.”
Now it was King’s turn to become the caretaker. Amy bounced from Pauger Street to hospitals around New Orleans to a nursing home in the city’s eastern reaches. “He would cook and feed her, and try to give her her medicine,” says his friend Milton Frazier. But the problems cascaded: Violent agitation that required restraints. A stroke. Out-of-control diabetes. A fall that re-fractured her jaw. The rare encouraging moment would be followed by new setbacks. Sometimes she was lucid, sometimes not. She grew “calm and humble, like a little bitty baby,” says Guitar Lightnin’ Lee. “I remember one day he told me, ‘Cousin Lightnin’, I always wanted me a little girl. I got one now.’”
Finally, Amy’s sister visited from Alabama and volunteered to bring her to a nursing home in Demopolis. Not long after, on a summer day, King received a phone call telling him his wife had passed away.
After Amy’s death, King had only photos and other keepsakes to remind him of their marriage. Even those would be destroyed by the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. Only one snapshot would survive, not in King’s home but in his manager’s attic. In it, Amy sits on the sofa in their home on Pauger Street, wearing a puffy red sweater and blue jeans, inspecting the nails on her left hand. Her dark, tight curls are piled high like a helmet. Two palm-leaf fans hang on the wall behind her. Alongside a lamp with a bare bulb, an old TV balances precariously on a too-small table. Amy is still a stout woman in the picture, but smaller, King says, than before the assault.
When she was alive, Amy inspired Freddie to write a song called “Mean Little Woman.” Time and sadness would burnish her memory, though. In later years, he would handle that photo like a fragile, irreplaceable treasure.
The calls from Milton Frazier were growing urgent. It was the last Sunday in August 2005, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had just ordered a 6 p.m. curfew in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina’s imminent landfall. “We’re facing the storm most of us have feared,” the mayor had said when he issued the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation order. Frazier’s wife, Dixie, worked as a seamstress at the Monteleone, a fashionable 19th-century French Quarter hotel with a brass and marble lobby. The couple was offered a room if she would stay on call to work during the storm if needed.
“We anchored down there, and it was just looking terrible,” says Frazier, the guitarist who calls himself Alabama Slim. With the wind picking up, he called King and asked him to join them in the safety of their hotel room.
King was sitting inside the duplex apartment where he had moved after Amy’s death: a corner building in a warehousy, chainlinky, flood-prone section of Mid-City near Bayou St. John. Watching the weather bulletins on TV, he felt confident that God, who had protected him through numerous storms and other crises, would spare him once again. “I don’t know, cuz,” he told Frazier. “I think I might ride it out.”
“Ride out, hell,” Frazier said. “You better get on up here.” But King demurred, and demurred again, until just after 5:30 p.m. “You ain’t got but a few minutes to get here,” Frazier told him, pleading this time. King had been lying on the floor, praying, but Frazier’s explanation of the curfew convinced him to leave. He threw a shirt and jacket into his backpack — echoes of his teenage escape from McComb — not realizing these would become his only possessions to survive the storm. He grabbed his ]mountain bike, then saw it would be too difficult to navigate in the wind. So instead he jumped on his racing bike for the two-mile ride to Royal Street. Six o’clock was closing in when he reached the Monteleone, locked his bicycle to a pole, and met Frazier inside the lobby. The two men went upstairs to the fourth floor.
That night, King bedded down on the carpet of the Fraziers’ room. As Katrina was making landfall, the building started to shake. Outside, glass panes and tin gutters flew through the French Quarter as rain pelted the streets. Then came the proverbial calm. “It’s all over with,” Frazier said.
It wasn’t over, of course. Much of the Lower Ninth Ward was about to be wiped out when the river breached the Industrial Canal levee. Near Lake Pontchartrain, the 17th Street Canal levee would breach, too, inundating a neighborhood called Lakeview. Eighty percent of the bowl-shaped city would be covered by floodwaters, and the regional death toll would rise to more than 1,800. Almost 300,000 dwellings would be destroyed in Louisiana alone, not to mention shopping centers, hospitals, and oil platforms. Yet on Royal Street, which survived relatively intact because of its higher elevation, none of this was initially evident when they looked out the window to survey the damage. The trio sighed relief and headed downstairs for breakfast.
They stayed a few days, until the hotel began running out of food, and then drove northwest to Texas, where Dixie Frazier had two sisters. One of her relatives took King to a South Dallas apartment complex that was accepting Katrina evacuees. He was given a carpeted two-bedroom unit, paid for by the federal government. He slept on the soft floor for two weeks until a relief organization delivered a mattress and linens. A local church furnished the rest. “They had such a heart,” he says. “I’ve been all over the world, just about, and I never seen nobody do such a blessing, such a favor, like what Texas did for us.”
King would live in Dallas for more than two years, almost twice as long as the Fraziers. Without his manager nearby to arrange gigs, he never played music there. He spent his days drinking Red Bull and playing the scratch-off lottery at the local grocery store. He wrote songs. Sundays he went to church. Occasionally he would ride the buses and light-rail trains just to look at the streets. When Wright arranged gigs for him in New Orleans, King would often take the Greyhound to get there, a slog of 12 or more hours each way with a connection in Houston. “It was rough as a piece of sandpaper with a dog sliding on it,” he says of those days. He despaired of ever finding his way back home.
Not long after his arrival in Dallas, King’s cell phone rang while he was shopping at the Wal-Mart with Alabama Slim. It was the office manager at his apartment complex, calling to tell him that a package had arrived with his name on it. He knew what it was: Music Maker Relief Foundation had arranged for Gibson USA to send him a red B.B. King Lucille electric guitar. Having lost everything in the hurricane, King was going crazy without an instrument to play. He hurried back to claim the delivery. “I’m telling you, I was just like a little bitty baby when Santa Claus is coming,” he says. “I couldn’t get home fast enough to bust the box open.” He played it well into the night and, when he was done, laid it on the bed beside him. That night, and for many nights afterward, he slept with his guitar as with a lover.
After so much upheaval, the blessings had begun to roll in: financial assistance from several charities; an amplifier from the Grammy spinoff group MusiCares; festival engagements in Portugal, Italy, and Brazil. The efforts awoke in King a deep gratitude, a sense that the outpouring after Katrina had made him “more greater than what I was.” His distrust in people, fueled by years of gossip, violence, and unpaid royalties, began to dissipate. His faith deepened, too. “For God to give me such a blessing, to spare my life and run me through all those tribulations, to put me back to work again, that makes it more better for me,” he says. “My soul and my spirit is more stronger.”
His sister Doris Chest, who lives in Biloxi, Mississippi, noticed the changes. While she was raising her family, Chest didn’t spend much time with King. But that changed just before Katrina, once her 13 living children had grown up and moved away. “God shifts me from one place to another,” she says, recalling the verse of Ecclesiastes their father used to read: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Praying with King, taking him to worship, Chest grew closer than ever to her brother. “He be saying: I had to learn the hard way, but I learned,” she says. “Through the years, through wrestling and tousling, he learned.”
The biggest blessing was the chance to come back to New Orleans. In 2007 “Wacko” Wade Wright, King’s manager, surprised King with a visit to his new duplex apartment in Musicians’ Village, a post-Katrina development of pastel-colored houses built on a barren eight-acre section of the Upper Ninth Ward. Wright had worked with Habitat for Humanity to secure one of a handful of rental units set aside for elder musicians. He also got the nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans to help with King’s relocation. The day of the move, Wright didn’t tell King where they were driving until they arrived in front of the house, where a street party was already underway. “Welcome to your new home,” someone said as King was presented with champagne, flowers, a Bible, and a set of keys.
“I wasn’t intending on to never come back down here to live,” he told the well-wishers who had assembled. “But y’all made me come back.”
He doesn’t sleep late these days. The tour groups start rolling through Musicians’ Village early in the morning aboard buses, vans, and faux trolleys. “That’s my alarm clock,” he says. When they pass by his house, or when an admirer knocks on his door, “I jump up like a little rooster and start again.”
His music is better than ever. It unfolds in layers. At its base are the blues rhythms that his father brought home from the Mississippi Delta. On top of that, he has figured out how to replicate with his guitar the sounds of New Orleans secondline brass bands.
Keep listening and you’ll hear Jimi Hendrix licks, too. The lyrics come straight out of a life lived hard, and from the lovers and drug fiends and farm animals that have crossed his crooked path.
Living outside on a cardboard box. Don’t know when it’s time to eat. Crack Head Joe, it’s time to wake up.
Since his return to New Orleans, there have been shows in countries as widespread as Switzerland and Guatemala. International crowds welcome him with a generosity that Americans never quite muster. “Over there, they definitely give you their heart,” he says. “They treat us so nice. And they’ll feed you to death. And they pay you top dollar. It’s a shame we got to leave our own home to go to Europe to get treated right.”
Still, in New Orleans, fans flock to bars and festivals where he’s on the bill. Some of those fans’ parents were not yet born when King hopped the freight train from McComb in the 1950s. Of the people he knew back then, and in the 1960s and ’70s, many are now dead. The older sister who sheltered him on Magnolia Street is gone. So are the transplanted Mississippi bluesmen: Babe Stovall, Boogie Bill Webb, Polka Dot Slim, Arzo Youngblood. King has outlived the bandmate who took home the female impersonator and the wife who tried to take his own life from him. Many of the neighborhood joints where he used to play have shut their doors or been torn down. Where the Busy Bee once stood is now the Interim LSU Public Hospital — the “Big Bucket of Blood,” King likes to joke. Irene’s is now a vacant lot. The Dew Drop Inn has been reduced to a ruin: bare plywood, chipping faux-stone veneer, bars on the doors and windows. Though much diminished, a remnant of the back-of-town blues scene remains, publicized almost entirely by word of mouth. Venues change frequently: One bar cranks up the live music as another shuts it down.
King is aware of being one of the last bluesmen of his generation in New Orleans and, as such, a repository of memory. He feels fortunate that his memory remains intact, ready to transport him back to both the hard times and the good ones. Once he starts telling his stories, he’s no longer a gray-haired king, holding court in his Upper Ninth Ward living room. Now he is a construction worker, lying on his back, boots in the air, mud raining down on a borrowed guitar. Now he is a man at the cusp of quitting alcohol, pleading for his life as the ambulance driver bears down on the gas pedal. Now he is standing before a crowd of Portuguese fans, opening a festival in an ancient university town. Now he is crouched behind a jukebox in a New Orleans barroom, dodging bullets for the chance to play his music. Now he is a child in Amite County, Mississippi, cursing the bad chickens and vowing, one day, to exact his vengeance with a song.
The Gutbucket King, by Barry Yeoman, is Issue No. 2 of The New New South, published December 2013. For more information, please visit newnewsouth.com. Little Freddie King’s web site is littlefreddieking.com.
Barry Yeoman is a freelance magazine journalist and radio producer based in Durham, North Carolina. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baffler, The Guardian, National Wildlife, The American Prospect, The Nation, Audubon Magazine, and many other publications. His web site is barryyeoman.com.
Additional photographs courtesy of Little Freddie King, “Wacko” Wade Wright, Axel Küstner, and Tim Duffy.
Initial research for this project was done for Still Singing the Blues, a radio documentary produced by Barry Yeoman and Richard Ziglar with major funding provided by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding came from 140-plus donors to a recent Indiegogo campaign. Special thanks to major donors Carol Anderson, Kate Bell, Thomas Fisher, David France, Pam Gutlon, The OpenNMS Group, Rebecca Skloot & David Prete, and Wendy Collin Sorin & Steven Sorin.
Special thanks also to Gray Beltran, Tom Bubul, Crystal Fawn, Olivia Koski, and the rest of the team at Atavist.