Album Review: Freddie King – The Complete King Federal Singles

Freddie King was a big man with a big guitar sound. An important figure in the history of blues, he’s also one of the most accessible artists in the genre; his influence upon rock artists has been such that when rock-tuned ears hear him, it feels right, familiar somehow. His good-timing approach owed a lot to the jump blues of Louis Jordan, but his fiery electric guitar leads pushed things forward.

The arrangement style and production of his singles has something to do with that as well. From his first Federal single in 1960, “You’ve Got to Love Her With a Feeling” (#93 pop) he took on a bright, forceful style that dared listeners to ignore him. But it was that single’s b-side, “Have You Ever Loved a woman,” that would much later become well known to rock audiences through a cover by Derek & the Dominos (featuring King acolytes Eric Clapton and Duane Allman).

“Hideaway” (#5 r&b, #29 pop) became an instant classic upon its release, too, and quickly became a part of many blues bands’ set list. Most notable perhaps was the cover by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (with a young Clapton on lead guitar).

The liner notes for Real Gone Music’s excellent 2CD set The Complete King Federal Singles features a fabulous and lengthy liner note essay by Bill Dahl. Dahl goes to some length to point out (somewhat hilariously, though not in an intentional way) that a number of King’s best-loved songs were often pieced together from licks taken from other songs. But – and rightly so – Dahl never lets that discussion detract from King’s estimable importance.

The instrumental “San-Ho-Zay!” is a fun and memorable tune that easily transcends the blues genre; its undeniable crossover appeal gave King a hit on two charts: #4 r&b, and #47 pop.

Due to the arc most recording careers take, coupled with the chronological approach employed in collections such as this one, the set is front-loaded with hits. Though the collection spans King’s tenure on Syd Nathan‘s label (1960-67), the string of hits ended quickly, with “Christmas Tears” in 1961. But the quality music continued: another b-side, 1962’s “The Stumble” may be the greatest song King ever wrote (or sorta-wrote) and recorded. Though Peter Green would use much more distortion when he covered it a few years later (as lead guitarist for Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), King’s original is a thrill.

In bids for commercial acceptance, King (like so many other artists of the era) made some perhaps ill-advised stylistic leaps: “Do The President Twist” is a fun — if goofy — novelty with oddly thunderous bass guitar. But 1963’s “The Bossa Nova Watusi Twist” was actually a minor (#103 pop) hit, King’s last for Federal/King. But the great songs kept coming: “Driving Sideways” and “Someday, After Awhile (You’ll Be Sorry)” (both 1964) also became part of the Bluesbreakers’ set (those guys again!).

Presented in nice-n-loud crystal-clear audio, The Complete King Federal Singles belongs in the catalog of any blues lover, as well as anyone who digs the bluesier side of 60s rock’n’roll. Freddie King successfully bridged the two styles, while remaining true to the blues tradition. Neat trick, that.

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