How a Runaway Became a Blues Legend
An Interview with Little Freddie King
Music-lovers, blues aficionados, and 'big easy' locals will attest to the legendary status of this southern blues icon. Self-described as "the world renowned, pistol packin', chicken pickin', string pullin', show stoppin', freight train hoppin', connoisseur of women," Little Freddie King is a unique act to experience before ya' die.
At 75, Lil' Freddie is a jubilant, heartfelt and energetic character. He carries the old-world aura and the vivacious gusto of a ‘delta blues’ musician, operating with an undeniably firey work ethic. His voice is craggy, worn and soulful. His visual aesthetic is uniquely funky. You could spot Lil' Freddie coming from a mile away, normally suited in one of his groovy, colorful blazer jackets. King is fitted with the colorful wardrobe of a New Orleans ‘jazz cat,’ and shows no signs that he’s getting any older.
In 2012, his album, ‘Chasin the Blues,’ won the award for best Blues album at the Independent Music Awards. Working for decades alongside many of Blues’ great legends, King reached a peak in international fame when he undertook a European tour with Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker, both of which are now deceased.
Still active in the local performance scene, King performs regularly at D.B.A Bar on Frenchmen Street, The Old Arabi Bar, and BJ’s Lounge in the Bywater neighborhood. He also performs annualy at the French Quarter Festival. A full schedule of his performance dates is available on his website.
When I first met King, it was outside ‘Le Bon Temps Roule’ on Magazine Street, a charming Uptown music venue. Due to the fact that I was under twenty-one and had left my I.D. at home, I couldn’t get into the venue, so I watched King perform through a crack in the opening doorway. Regrettably, this ticked off the bouncer. As a fan of the Blues, I grew up listening to King, and was eager to meet him. Between sets, King came outside for a smoke. He was draped in a dazzling black suit jacket knitted with multi-colored skulls, wearing a cream-colored sun hat. His weathered eyes hid behind thick black sunglasses. I approached him, and he quickly embraced me as a fan and friend.
I later followed King to a question-and-answer session and live performance at Tulane University, where King spoke and performed for a class led by Joel Dinerstein, associate professor at Tulane’s school of liberal arts.
A few weeks later, I sat down with King and his drummer, Wacko Wade, in King’s pleasant single-story home in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward. His micro-neighborhood, called 'Musician's Village,' an eight acre parcel of 72 single-family homes constructed in 2006 by New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. King’s walls were lined with awards, old photographs, and different artistic portraits of himself. In a recorded interview, King among other things, told me the riveting story of how he arrived to New Orleans at fourteen, after hobo’ing a train.
Enjoy the enthralling story of a living legend's early life.
Me: When you lived in Mississippi, who were your biggest influences?
King: My main influence was actually was Lightnin Hopkins', BB Kane, Big Freddie King, and John Lee Hooker.
Me: When did you first know New Orleans was the place for your career to begin?
King: When I first set sight on New Orleans, I went to Libby Rosemoor High School in the Delta. They had a [field trip] down here to King Solomon’s Church. So, they give a bus ride. All the school kids come down on their school bus to the picnics. When I got down here, it blew my mind. I said, this place is whats happening! Everything’s poppin! Everything’s ballin, and everything is so convenient, its right on your mouth. I said, this is the place for me. When my mom got home, she said “how did you enjoy the picnic?”. I said I didn’t enjoy it, but I loved it, and New Orleans is where I need to be. I told her I was moving down there.
Me: How did your mom react to this proposition?
King: She said, boy, “don’t you never say nothing like that again. If you say something like that again, I’ll skin you alive boy.” I said, ok then mama, you don’t want me to go, I won’t go. She was working for a doctor in McComb Missisippi, and that evening she came back. She came home from work the next day and said, “you still here? So I don’t have to skin you alive. I know you, boy, because I had you. Once you get something in your head, you wind up doing it. Just know, I'm gonna skin you alive.” That night, I got thinking about my dad. He used to hobo the train [around the Delta and Southeast Lousiana].
Me: Well, you obviously still have the skin on your body, and you came to New Orleans when you were fourteen, alone. How did this go down?
King: I got it in my head to hobo the train. At around 3:30 the next evening, this train was coming through, I used to call it Big Black, it had the smoke coming out the top of it, the charcoal. I grabbed my little suitcase, it was a little white flowersack. I had a pair of pants, and a pair of shoes, and a shirt. So I run back up in the house. My mama was gone, so I run on the west side of the track, and lay down. The train had some open box cars, so I lashed on to the train. I was so small and little, I couldn’t have weighed 90 pounds. When I got in, I was flopping like a kite. I didn’t wanna fool around and go to jail. The first stop was magnolia box company. I thought “they were gonna get me.” There were cardboard boxes in the corner of the box car, so I hid underneath a box. So the policeman and conductor didn’t find me. I was getting close to Louisiana.
Me: How did you know where to jump off the train?
King: My brother lived here. He told me, once you get to Booker T Washington High School, you need to get off the there, because Magnolia Street is three blocks from there. Boy, there I was. I bailed off! When I hit the ground, I was spinning like a spinning top. Man, I don’t know how far I spinned and rolled. Tore my skin off my arms and knees and tore the clothes off me. When I got up, I was at Booker T Washington High School. Sure enough, there Magnolia street was.
Me: So did you find, your brothers house?
King: No. I was standing there, and all the houses were all on the same blueprint. I couldn’t find my [siblings] house. The houses were all painted the same color, Battleship grey. I didn’t know the address, but I thought, if I stand in one place, maybe ill get shot. I started walking around, and this policeman said, “hey boy, what you doing there, come here"
Me: So you couldn’t find your siblings house, and you were walking up and down Magnolia Street, lost and dealing with cops. How did you find your way?
King: Well the policeman said, “We’ve been watching you for a long time walking back in forth. What you doing, boy? You trying to rob somebody, or break into someones house, or steal something?” I told him I had never stole anything in my life, and wasn’t gonna steal nothing. I told him I was from McComb Mississippi. They let me go. I walked over to the next street. When daylight came, I got me a Banana Split at the Dairy Queen.
Me: How did you make money to survive in New Orleans?
King: There was a guy opening his gas station nearby, a big guy, I said “how you doing sir?” He told me, come here a minute. He said, “you aren’t from here is you son?” I told him I was from McComb, and he said, “you from Missisippi? we homeboys.” And he said, "come back tomorrow at 8 A.M. and I’ll give you a job." And I came back, and worked with him for the next four years. The next day, the same cop spotted me and said, “boy get in the car!”. I told him the names of my siblings. My sister worked at Tulane University. My brother worked on a banana boat. We waited and he said that if one of my siblings didn’t show up, he’d take me to jail. So here comes my sister, with a [Tulane] uniform on. She asked “what you doin with my brother?” The police told him, “your brother has been trying to find you.” They let me out. I was proud that my sister showed up.
Me: Wow. Thank God your sister showed up. Can you tell us a funny story or anecdote about you and your cousin Lightning Hopkins?
King: Yeah. We was playin at the henry Jazz Fest out there. So my [associates] sent shuttles to take us to the festival, then take us back home. So [they] brought me out there. Lightning was on stage there, performing when I got there. When he got down off stage, it was my turn. After I finished, Mike ran up and said, “you’re cousin wants to talk to you”.
Me: What cousin are you talking about?
King: I said, “what cousin you talkin about man?” I got a million cousins. He said, “your cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins!”. I didn’t know Lightning, but I liked his music and I liked him. But I didn’t think we were related, I wasn’t kin to him. But after I finished, I went back to find Lightning. “Took you so long! You actin’ like you didn’t wanna see your cousin. You act like you ain’t related to me,” Lightning said to me. I told him I love the way he played and sang. He told me I was his little cousin. So he runs down to me, and told me the names of my family members. He knew the name of my father, Jesse. I was just looking at him, and it rung a bill. He knew my grandfathers name, Henry. He told me he was from thirty miles east of McComb, where I went to school at. He said, “yo mama and my mama was sisters!”. He sure knew my people. Me and him wound up being second cousins! I grabbed him and hugged him, and didn’t want to turn him loose! I was so proud and happy. And that’s how I found out we were related.
Me: What was a place, outside of New Orleans, where you loved playing, and had a positive experience?
King: When I went on the west coast. Palo Alto, San Francisco, where Johnny Hooker was, we played at Soulfish Lounge, aka 'Johnny Hookers Blue Moon room.' Albert Cain was there, Bobby Bland was there, my homeboy Bo Diddley was there. Texas Alexander was there, we had a blast, it really was fun. The name of my time was the 'Mississippi Delta Blues band.'
Me: During Katrina, did you really ride your bike to safety from the storm?
King: That’s right, I was living on Laffite Street. When the storm was coming in, my buddy called me up and said, “Freddie, they’ve got a bad storm coming. The worst storm we’ve ever had. You’d Come out on Royal street to Mount Leon Hotel.” And I told him, "man, I’ve been through all the storms that have came here in New Orleans, and God took care of me. I survived it and waited it out." So I decided to wait it out. My buddy called again later in the night, and said there was a city curfew established, and I was like, ‘are you pulling my leg or something?.” My buddy said they got the National Guard and the Police out there. They said, if you’re in the place at 6 o clock, they aint gonna let you out. So I said, ill try to get out. I went to the kitchen and grabbed my mama’s bike. The wheel was too big, so I turned and got my racer. Down Laffite street I went, head up, going as fast as I could go. I made it to Mount Leon on Royal Street in ten minutes. I was lucky. God bless I didn’t break my neck.
Me: You had a 30-year hiatus of releasing music between when you released ‘Rock n’ Roll Blues’ in 1970, then Swamp Boogie in 1997. What cause you to get back into recording music in the late 90s?
King: The reason I got back into recording was because of my drummer, “Wacko” wade. He was my drummer, I didn’t have a drummer back at the time. After my [old drummer] passed away, I was working at an electronic shop, and a friend of mine said, “Your old drummer done died, why don’t you give us a job?,” and I told him, that doesn’t make sense at all! You’re a Dixieland man, and Diexeland and the blues don’t mix at all. But we gave it a try, and he called up Wacko, and Wacko came on over. His little Volkswagon pulled up, and he shook my hand and Wacko said, “My name’s Thomas wright,” and “I wanna be your drummer.” We’ve been together ever since, for 24 years now.