During the 50s, New Orleans was a hot-bed of new, exciting, funky dance music, and some of the songs from that era have come down to us as classics, usually as cover versions made by world-class artists. Earl King was one of the great R&B singer/guitarists from those days, who had some big hits of his own, and a long career playing in his home town, but he also wrote songs that caught the spirit of the age.
Earl Silas Johnson IV was born in New Orleans in 1934 and learned to sing in Church. By the age of 15, he had learned to play guitar and, realising you could get paid to play the Blues, he gave up Gospel and started haunting the bars of the 9th Ward and entering talent contests.
He met Guitar Slim while he was playing joints like The Dew Drop Inn, and began to imitate his style. Earl’s first record, cut when he was only 19, was ‘Have You Gone Crazy?’ on the Savoy label when he was billed as Earl Johnson. In 1954, Slim was injured in an auto accident, and Earl finished a planned tour for him, so similar was their playing. Switching to Art Rupe‘s Specialty label the following year, Earl’s first release for them was ‘Those Lonely Nights’ which made No.7 in the R&B charts. Also in 1955, he co-wrote ‘I Hear You Knocking’ with Dave Bartholomew (under the name Pearl King), which was a big record for Smiley Lewis. Earl continued to record good-selling singles for Specialty, earning a national reputation as a singer and songwriter, but in 1959 he switched labels again to Ace Records, where he cut a version of his song ‘Come On’.
Earl’s definitive ‘Come On’ for the Imperial label;
Dave Bartholomew soon persuaded Earl to sign for Lew Chudd‘s Imperial label, where he cut the definitive version of ‘Come On’, which has been covered’ with slightly changed lyrics by Jimi Hendrix, Dr. John and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Working at Imperial, Earl was often backed by fine musicians like James Booker and his singles, like the amusing ‘Trick Bag’, often made the charts. After 1963, Earl did not record much, but he wrote hit songs for Fats Domino, Professor Longhair (‘Big Chief’) and Lee Dorsey (Do-Ray-Me) spending some time with Motown records in Detroit, writing songs and even cutting a few tracks of his own. In the 70’s Earl teamed up with Allen Toussaint back in New Orleans to record a superb album ‘Street Parade’ with The Meters backing up, but except for the title cut released as a single, it remained unissued for a decade.
Earl at the Heritage Festival with his ‘Trick Bag’;
Earl King Discography
The Black Top albums are great and there is an expensive compilation called ‘Earl’s Pearls’, but this Sonet re-issue has Earl’s ‘Come On’, ‘Trick Bag’ and more New Orleans gems.
Earl remained sidelined for a while, running his record store on Dryades St. although he appeared at the Heritage Festival and cut an album of New Orleans classics for the Sonet label, but a meeting with Hammond Scott, boss of Black Top Records got his career up and running again. In 1986, Earl cut ‘Glazed’ backed by The Roomful of Blues, which got his songwriting mojo working again, and found his Gospel-toned voice in fine form. The follow-up ‘Sexual Telepathy’ combined a funky New Orleans band, with more great new songs among the familiar re-makes of his early hits. A third outing for the label ‘Hard River to Cross’ had Snooks Eaglin on three tracks, and continued the high standard. Earl’s fame had spread abroad as a result of these albums, and he toured the world, but in 2001 he was hospitalised while on tour in New Zealand. He continued to play in his beloved New Orleans until he passed away from complications related to his diabetes, in April 2003.