Earl King (February 71934 – April 172003) was a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, most active in blues music. Being a composer of well known standards such as "Come On" (covered by Jimi Hendrix), and Professor Longhair's "Big Chief", he is considered to be one of the most important figures in New Orleans R&B music and beyond.
King started to play guitar at age 15. Soon he started entering talent contests at local clubs including the Dew Drop Inn. It was at one of those clubs where he met his idol Guitar Slim. King started imitating Slim, and his presence gave a big impact on his musical directions. In 1954, when Slim was injured in an automobile accident (right around the time Slim had the #1 R&B hit with "The Things That I Used To Do"), King was deputized to continue Slim's band tour, representing himself as Slim. After succeeding in this role, King became a regular at the Dew Drop Inn.
His first recording came in 1953. He released a 78 "Have you Gone Crazy b/w Begging At Your Mercy" on Savoy label as Earl Johnson. The following year, talent scout Johnny Vincent introduced King to Specialty label and he recorded some sides including "Mother's Love" which created a little stir locally. In 1955, King signed with Johnny Vincent's label, Ace. His first single from the label "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" become huge hit reaching #7 on the R&B chart. He continued to record during his stay at the label which lasted for 5 years, and during the time, he also he started writing songs for other artists such as Roland Stone and Jimmy Clanton.
In 1960, Dave Bartholomew invited King to record for the Imperial label. At Imperial, he was backed by host of musicians including Bob and George French, James Booker, and Wardell Quezergue, not to mention Dave Bartholomew. It was at this label he recorded his signature songs "Come On" and "Trick Bag". (the former of which remained a much covered standard for decades especially for Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Anson Funderburgh. The latter has also been widely covered including the version by the pop singer Robert Palmer.)
Imperial went belly up in 1963, and for the remainder of the 1960s King went without a recording contract. During this time, he mostly concentrated in producing and songwriting for local labels NOLA and Watch. His compositions from this era includes Professor Longhair's "Big Chief", Willie Tee's "Teasin' You", and Lee Dorsey's "Do-Re-Mi". He also went to Detroit for an audition with Motown Records and recorded a few tracks in the mid 60's. (3 tracks from the session appeared on CD "Motown's Blue Evolution" released in 1996.)
In 1972, he was joined by Allen Toussaint and the Meters to record the album "Street Parade". Though Atlantic initially showed interest in releasing it, they eventually declined. The title cut "Street Parade" was released as a single from Kansu label at the time, but the rest had to wait till 1982 to see the light of the day when the album was finally released by Charly in UK.
During the 1970s, he recorded another album "That Good Old New Orleans Rock 'n Roll" which was released by Sonet in 1977. He also is on "New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1976" album.
In the early 1980s, he met Hammond Scott, co-owner of Black Top Records and started to record for the label. The first album "Glazed", backed up by Roomful of Blues was released in 1986. Second Album "Sexual Telephathy" came in 1990. It featured Snooks Eaglin as a guest on 2 tracks, and also Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters backed him up on some tracks. His third from the label "Hard River To Cross" (1993) was backed by stalwarts such as George Porter, Jr., David Torkanowsky, and Herman V. Ernest, III, and probably the most solid effort among his Black Top releases. Though he sounds well on this release, his health slowly went downhill thereafter, and he did not record again before he died in 2003.
In fall of 2001, he was hospitalized for an illness during a tour to New Zealand, however, that did not stop him from performing. In December of the same year, he toured Japan, and he continued to perform off and on locally in New Orleans until his death.
He died on April 17, 2003, just a week before the New Orleans Jazz Fest. His funeral was held during the Fest period on April 30, and many musicians including Dr. John, Leo Nocentelli and Aaron Neville were in attendance. His Imperial recordings, which have been long out-of-print, were reissued on CD soon after he died. The June 2003 issue of a local music magazine OffBeat paid a tribute to King by doing special articles on him.