Born Earl Silas Johnson IV, 7 February 1934, Algiers, Louisiana
Singer / songwriter / guitarist / producer.
Earl King was a major New Orleans R&B artist. Although he was very popular in Louisiana, he is not as well-known as he deserves to be. His father, Earl Silas Johnson III, was a renowned blues pianist who died when Earl was only two. Earl Jr enjoyed singing in church so much that he started a street-corner gospel group, but when he was about fifteen he turned to the blues and took up learning the guitar. He met Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones), who became his mentor and his biggest influence. Slim's pianist was Huey Smith, with whom Earl got on so well that they shared a split session when each made his recording debut for Savoy on June 1, 1953. Earl recorded four songs, from which "Have You Gone Crazy"/"Beggin' At Your Mercy" were released on Savoy 1102, under his real name, Earl Johnson. But Savoy didn't give the record any promotion and Earl decided to go with Specialty. He knew Johnny Vincent, whose duties for Specialty included promoting, scouting and recording talent throughout the South. Vincent's biggest success was with Guitar Slim and "The Things I Used To Do" (1954). Starting with "A Mother's Love", Earl had four singles released on Specialty during 1954-55, with "'Til I Say Well Done" issued as by The Kings. "A Mother's Love" (a big record in the southern R&B market) was going to be issued as by King Earl, but when the labels were printed someone reversed the order and Earl now had his new professional name.
When Johnny Vincent started his own label, Ace Records, in 1955, Earl went with him. His first release on the label was "Those, Those Lonely Nights" (Ace 509). As Vincent found Cosimo Matassa too expensive, the song was recorded in Lillian McMurry's primitive Trumpet studio in Jackson, Mississippi. In spite of Huey Smith's piano being badly out of tune, "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" became a # 7 R&B hit and a cover by Johnny 'Guitar' Watson on RPM also did well, peaking at # 10. Johnny Vincent chose to record Earl's second Ace record at Houston's ACA Studio, with Edgar Blanchard's band backing. "Little Girl"/ "My Love Is Strong" was technically an improvement, but didn't click like the first Ace release. Two remaining tracks from this Houston session were issued on the Ace subsidiary Vin, under the name "Handsome Earl".
By 1956, Earl's sessions were being conducted back in New Orleans at Cosimo's Studio, often using the likes of Lee Allen, Red Tyler, James Booker and Charles Williams. Earl's records attained a more, balanced, professional sound and in my opinion, his Ace recordings from this period (1956-59) represent his best work, with several excursions into rock n roll. My personal favourite is "Everybody's Carried Away" (Ace 564), a hard-driving ode to rock n roll, but it wasn't even the A-side of the record and went totally unnoticed at the time (1959). Altogether, King had nine singles released on Ace.
While at Ace, Earl developed an interest in arranging and producing. In an interview with Jeff Hannusch, he said "Johnny Vincent really couldn't be considered a producer. His idea of producing was saying 'Put some shit into it.' So I started getting some ideas of my own. I never got credit for it, but I produced 'Just A Dream' for Jimmy Clanton. Johnny rejected that song, he just couldn't hear it. It was Ace's biggest record."
After leaving Ace, Imperial's Dave Bartholomew became interested in Earl's talents as a writer and a recording artist. Earl was with Imperial from mid-1960 till the sale of Imperial to Liberty in 1963. Both Bartholomew and King enjoyed their collaboration. Earl's first release on the label, "Come On (Parts 1 & 2)" (a.k.a. "Let the Good Times Roll") more or less became his signature tune. The humourous "Trick Bag" may have been Earl's best record from the Imperial period, but curiously it was the reverse, "Always A First Time" (Imperial 5811), that charted (# 17 R&B, 1962).
After Imperial, Earl went without a recording contract for the remainder of the 1960s (some songs from a failed audition for Motown emerged later) and started concentrating on songwriting and producing, the latter mostly as an A&R man for Duke Records. As a songwriter, Earl had his biggest hits with "Do-Re-Mi" by Lee Dorsey (# 22 R&B, # 27 pop) in 1962 and "Teasin' You" by Willie Tee (# 12 R&B, # 97 pop, 1965). He also wrote "Hum Diddy Doo" and "Teenage Love" for and with Fats Domino (both recorded in 1962) and "Big Chief" (the nickname of Earl's mother) for Professor Longhair (1964). Earl was a prolific writer, with 180 titles in the BMI database. In 1972, he did a "funky" album with Allen Toussaint and the Meters ("Street Parade") that was intended for Atlantic, but the deal fell through. When it was finally released by Charly in 1981, it confirmed that Earl was still a talented artist to be reckoned with. The album was reissued on CD as "New Orleans Blues" in 2005 by Tomato Music.
In 1977 Earl cut an LP called "That Good Old New Orleans Rock n Roll" for the Swedish Sonet label, but being recorded in one day as it was, it was rushed and the results weren't always satisfying. The late 1970s saw Earl back gigging regularly. There were further albums for Hammond Scott's Black Top label : "Glazed" (1986), "Sexual Telepathy" (1990), "Hard River To Cross" (1993) and "New Orleans Street Talkin'" (1997), which I haven't heard. Although limited by declining health in his later years, Earl King continued to perform until his death on April 17, 2003, from diabetes-related complications, at the age of 69. As is tradition with the Crescent City's most beloved artists, he was carried home with a traditional jazz funeral procession complete with street parade and a second line, a fitting tribute to a man who defined the city's musical heritage.
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