Interview, by Mike Stephenson, of this Chicago based blues artist took place in his apartment in Chicago in 2019. Many thanks go out to Jim Feeney for all of his help.
Hi, my name is Guy King and I was born October 3rd 1977 in Israel, a small itty bitty town in Israel; it had sixty eight families during that time although it’s a little bigger now. I started singing at a very early age, maybe three or four, and picked up my first instrument which was the clarinet and played it from when I was six or seven years old. When I stopped playing the clarinet my parents asked what I was going to play and I thought I was going to play sax, but by that time I had picked up the guitar. I am the youngest of four children, two brothers and a sister, and everybody played. Our parents made us all pick up an instrument. It was mandatory in the household, like going to school, mainly because my wonderful parents did not have a chance to play, as they couldn’t afford to and their circumstances were very difficult, and they loved music so they wanted to give us the opportunity that they did not have. We all played, my older brother clarinet, second oldest brother guitar and my sister played piano. I did play orchestral. I played in a big band since I was eight and I stopped because I was singing and already into other types of music, and I wanted to sing and play at the same time so I picked up one of my brother’s guitars, a nylon string, classical acoustic guitar, and started strumming and teaching myself how to play, with the help of people in my class, and we then formed a band and very shortly, after a few months, I was already playing significant guitar, and copying Eric Clapton solos and songs after three months. The band was playing some popular music from Israel, like from the late sixties and early seventies, before I was born, something like classic rock with some Brazilian influences and Beatle influences and all very melodic. It was nice stuff and I still listen to some of it today.
There was also some soulful music from the USA which was influential for me and I have to say I was into Eric Clapton and as I wanted to sing and play at the same time, which you can’t with a clarinet, so Eric Clapton was one of the sole reasons I picked up the guitar, and through him and a compilation CD my brother brought home and Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing album, which influenced me dearly, and a lot of Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong on the radio in the afternoon, are what I was listening to. It was almost impossible to get American music back then in Israel. We had a few records at the house and I remember two in particular, Michael Jackson and his Thriller album and David Bowie Let’s Dance. On the Eric Clapton compilation album called Story and on that album there was “Cocaine”, “Lay Down Sally”, “Sunshine Of Your Love”, “Rambling On My Mind”, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and “Further On Up The Road” and after I went through the hits and played along to them I heard the blues songs and they left a different type of mark on me and enough to read behind who these songs were about and when I saw Robert Johnson and I saw Freddy King I wondered who those guys were, so that started a journey of me tracing things back. So I give big, big credit to Eric Clapton. I was thirteen or fourteen at this time but before that I did hear a lot of Elvis and Buddy Holly, some Chick Berry and Little Richard. My parents liked Richie Valens and that type of music. I started listening by ear and copied what I heard and started playing the things that I liked.
So at sixteen they chose ten singers from the whole country in Israel, five girls and five boys, to go and represent Israel in the United States on a four month tour throughout all of the states and Canada. I took it mostly because it sounded a good idea and a great opportunity to come to the place where I was already into B.B. King and Albert King at that time, and I knew we would come through Memphis, and so I came here and started seeing things first hand. So this was in June of 1994 and we had a whole year of rehearsals and coming here reinforced what I was already going to do with my life. They let us play at some of the clubs like B.B. King’s club and when we were traveling I saw the B.B. King tour bus pass us by, so things like that got me, and singing in churches in Brooklyn Heights and Memphis I got to see things that I had only heard on tape before. I went back to Israel and finished high school and did three years in the Israeli army and right after my release I took my guitar and I was on a plane to Memphis. This was in April 1999 and that’s how it all started.
I stayed in Memphis for maybe a month and then I tried New Orleans. I walked a lot then as I didn’t have a vehicle and I didn’t know anyone. I just had a guitar and a suitcase and walked for miles every day and I’d sit by the river and practice and a lot of things gelled at that time, I started playing a lot better.
I played at Wild Bills club in Memphis and I played “Rocks Is My Pillow” and they liked it and they told me to stay and I would have the gig hosting the jam session with the house band every Saturday, but I was leaving the next day. So that didn’t happen, but other things happened like I had time to myself and to be by myself with nobody I knew around other than one good family that knew me when I was sixteen and they gave me a place to stay. I was a stranger in a new country.
I grew up shy and polite from a small country town and I wanted to listen, so I didn’t do a lot of sitting in and playing. I’m all for taking your time and getting better and I believe that the music level has dropped as far as deep profound music that can speak volumes and last the test of time, dropped because people want to get a break and not be quiet and get better and then look for your break. So I was quiet and shy, and maybe that hurt me in the long run, and I wanted to hear things. I took a few music lessons in my life and then decided I was going to teach myself and ask advice from some folks sometimes. When I did those lessons when I was in Israel and I was into Stevie Ray Vaughn a lot when I was fifteen and the teacher gave me some smooth Wes Montgomery to listen to and there was one Albert King track there, “Blues Power”, from his live album and that changed me and I pretty much stopped listening to anything else back then and that song consumed me and I ordered that album called The Ultimate Collection, a two CD box set on Albert King and it took a month to get to me and I read the booklet and it was so educational for me and that started everything, listening to the horns. So in Memphis I had time and there was a record store there that had CDs and albums like T Bone Walker’s The Complete Imperial And Capitol, Albert Collins’ Ice Picking, Gatemouth Brown’s Okie Dokie Stomp. So being in Memphis influenced me a lot and I got the chance to see people play live which I didn’t too much in Israel. So I thought I had to be as good at my craft as my influences that I have mentioned and I realized soon that this was not the common level at a lot of nightclubs and I wondered how people could play like that. I always thought that you had to be as good as say Ray Charles and I guess that has helped me in the long run as that is still in my mind that you have to be able to execute this or else stay at home until you can. There was one guy in Memphis and I used to sit on the steps and watch him every day play trumpet and sing standards so I learned a lot on the streets.
I went to New Orleans, took a bus there and I was there for a few weeks and looked around and checked out things and listened to music. New Orleans was a little wild for me at the time and I thought it would not help me get further in the music and I thought that maybe I would drink too much, so I stayed a few weeks and then came up to Chicago. Someone helped me through an uncle and said they were looking for someone to look after the kids and they would give me a place to stay and I kinda got tired of just me, a suitcase and guitar and I thought that maybe I might do something in Chicago. So I took a chance in 1999 and came to Chicago just before Blues Fest and walked around the festival and Otis Rush walked past me, whom I knew through his records and Clapton with ‘All Your Love I Miss Loving’. I used to shoot pool and I used to drink and smoke a lot of cigarettes. I used to go to a place by myself and shoot pool for a few hours and I was good at that and then one night there was Otis Rush and his wife shooting pool and I played with him. So there I am playing pool with Otis Rush and we ordered pizza and we stayed there for hours and I just thought it was weird me being there with Otis, I didn’t expect anything like that to happen, and that was at Blues Etc.
They heard me play at a jam session a few times and Little Mac Simmons and Aaron Burton heard me and they asked me to do a song with them and I was hired on the spot and I went out and bought an amp. My first gig in Chicago was at Rosa’s Lounge and it was a private thing with Little Mac, Aaron, and Ashward Gates was playing drums and Hero on guitar and half of the gig we would use two guitars and no bass and one of us would tune the guitar down. I wasn’t that aware of playing these things, I was more of a swinging guitar playing lead and doing lots of bending and, as I said, I was into B.B. and Albert King, so it taught me another side of music, mostly blues. So it was good for the time; it wasn’t what I would be known for later on as it’s not my personal style but it was great to know how to do it and to master that style, as I am sure that I draw influences from that as well. I also got the Robert Johnson complete set when I was in Israel and that was another month long wait and he is still one of the best I have heard, him and Lightnin’ Hopkins, they are my favorites.
After Little Mac and Aaron, came Willie Kent. He came to Rosa’s and caught me, and Soul Bag, the magazine from France, saw me playing at Lilly’s on N. Lincoln and they said they were going to write about me and they praised me up a lot. So that was good for me as I was here without any family. I left my parents at home and I am very close to them and there were a lot of times when I thought what am I doing this for, so some praise from Soul Bag was good. The Soul Bag guys took me to Blue Chicago to see Willie Kent and as soon as I walked in and heard his voice I thought whoa and again, musically it wasn’t what I would love to do, but his voice and his music got me. Willie talked to me and told me to come and see him play and I would be his guest which I did and he called me to sit in but I was nervous and didn’t play very well. Then I sat in with him again at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and then the third time I sat in I was ready and I got it and Willie looked back at the drummer, Dave Jefferson, who had played years with Albert King and then James Wheeler, who was playing with Willie, was going his own way and Willie called me. But my father took sick in Israel, both he and my mother, so I went back to take care of them. They both had cancer and passed and I had to tell Willie I was sorry I couldn’t take up his offer. I think he appreciated that I was that committed to my family.
He called me and he said he wanted me to record with him and he asked me to join the band. I asked my parents and they said do it and they were feeling better at that time and they were stabilized at that time. So I came back to Chicago and joined Willie Kent And The Gents and I started playing with him, and this was in 2000. I was with Willie until he died, so six years, and I was first a band member and then a band leader. He had me sing as well on my first night with the band at Blue Chicago and we played there every Wednesday and Thursday night and probably two weekends every month, and we were playing B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted every Monday. The band was working three hundred nights with no down time, to the point where I was so upset as Ray Charles came to town and I was playing a $50 gig but one time I was off and caught Ray. I left the band for a while because my parents’ situation deteriorated and I had to go back home and tried to take care of them as much as I could.
So I lost my parents and then I was with nothing again and my sense of urgency was different and then I buried myself in music and said to myself this is what I am going to do and be the best. I was out of the U.S. only a few months. When I came back the clubs were asking me to do my own thing and they would give me a night but for some reason something told me not to. Willie had me starting his show and he knew I would go out on my own at some point. I would open his shows and sing and he was playing bass for me on the opening three songs. I played with Willie until he died, and it was suggested that we carry on by naming Willie’s band Guy King And The Gents and that did not feel right to me, it was too weird, so I said no to that.
I also wanted to do something different and after that I took time off and got a day job I just didn’t want to play, even though I had offers. During that time I listened to a lot of thing. I even thought about quitting guitar and starting my own band as a pianist, so I got an old Fender Rhodes and started playing notes and I asked my sister on the phone what I should do and I listened to a lot of Ray Charles and Errol Garner and I got into Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and Lee Morgan and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and I started expanding to a wider range of music. Back at school in Israel I heard Dire Straits a lot and loved them and I heard Queen a lot, so I listened to a lot of good music in general, I listened to Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye. But getting to Ray Charles I saw that he was bluesy, but there were things going on with his music that I did not know and then all of a sudden I figured it out and I understood where it was taking me. Then I heard Wes Montgomery, and I was aware of Kenny Burrell, but Wes Montgomery spoke to me very deeply, to the point where I decided that I could still do a lot with a guitar and I had found another voice that was close to me, like Albert and B.B., but in another way and I thought I could do a lot of things on the guitar that were not done and translate the deepness of the feelings out and I decided to leave the piano and play guitar.
I then started making calls and got a few dates on the book and started Guy King’s career under Guy King. I took seven months off when Willie died, so I stared back in December of 2006. I used my connections that I had before to get gigs and I played blues, but it was more swinging, so a different back beat and a smooth groove. I started getting into Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, not just his blues stuff but all of his material, and I got into Earth Wind And Fire. Stevie Wonder started speaking very deeply to me, which I heard as a child but it was a different way and James Brown was always influential, so I started combining things but it was still under the blues envelope.
So you will hear me do B.B. King and Albert King, but I will go and alter something in a Lou Rawls tune. So I started testing the water with the music that I enjoyed to play and to sing and to arrange, as I already knew I was doing it differently to the way they were doing it. It was difficult getting gigs initially, folks wouldn’t return my calls and Brian Fadden, the manager and booking guy at the old Buddy Guy’s, he asked me if I would open on a Friday night and he also asked me to do solo as well which I hadn’t really done before. People loved it and I got a load of tips. I started playing some jazz clubs maybe a year later as I started feeling more comfortable with the changes and I got a call from Andy’s Jazz Club to do a blues series on a Friday at that time. Linsey Alexander was doing it and I sat in and Linsey was close to Willie Kent, he really helped him a lot when he was ill, as did Eddie Shaw. They would both come and sit in with us then and help Willie out. So I sat in with Linsey and he told the club about me and they offered me that Friday gig. So Linsey was supportive of me, which I really appreciate.
So they asked me to do a night and they liked it and asked me if I would do it on a regular basis, and we talked about doing a configuration like a trio, but I didn’t want to do that and it wasn’t my vision of my music. So I thought about putting an organ trio together and pianist at the time Ben Paterson, and he was my pianist for years, and he is on my albums too, so I asked him if he would play organ and we looked and found an old Hammond organ and we practiced and got the organ trio together, which was called The Guy King Organ Trio. So I moved on from being the young slinger that plays Albert King bends behind Willie Kent, or Albert Collins snaps on my Telecaster. People were hearing me do ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and they heard me do a Wes Montgomery tune and I started bringing Nat King Cole into the organ trio, some George Benson material, and some Brazilian stuff that I liked.
The goal was to bring many influences into my music. It did get a little confusing for me, as I would do a solo set four times a week just playing guitar, and folks would think I am a Robert Johnson guy, and then it’s five o’clock and I’m playing standards by Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and at night I’m leading the full band, with sometimes three horns, and we would get into back beats and more up town types of blues and soul. This was all in Chicago at different venues. The blues would be at Buddy Guy’s Legends, the solo set I would do at Buddy Guy’s Legends and House Of The Blues at private events and the organ trio would be every Tuesday, and maybe Monday, the days would change and I did all this for five years. There was a club at Evanston, Pete Millars, a steak house and I would do that every Tuesday and then changed to Wednesday. They had other great jazz players there, like Bobby Bloom, a great jazz guitarist would do every Wednesday, when I was on every Tuesday.
Then Buddy Guy comes to me with both his managers and they told me that Buddy wanted to have a jazz night at his club on a Sunday and they asked me to do it, and Buddy asked me personally to do it, so I started doing that, and they are still doing that, but I left in 2011 as it all became too much, as I had between twenty five and forty dates a month.It was a little too much for me and I wanted to do other things and I wanted to take the band out more, so I did the Montreal Jazz Festival and did something with the band in Europe once, but it didn’t come the way I expected it to. I kinda got worn out and I wanted to bring my music to the people more than sit in one place and have the people come to me.
So I took a tour in Brazil in October 2011 that was very successful with a lot of sold out venues and it put something on my mind. First of all it wasn’t my band, it was me, and I took musicians and trained them to play for me, so the show was much more than a single artist show and it packed places out. It came to mind and people had told me that they didn’t come to see the band, they came to see me, but I know that folks wouldn’t come to see me if the band wasn’t great. Brazil really spoke to me and I mentioned that I listened to Brazilian music as a child. I had refused tours on my own before. I had a lot of offers to come to Europe but I declined as they didn’t want the band, so I took the Brazilian tour for personal reasons and it taught me a lot. I found myself singing better because I was concentrating on my thing, not worried about solos and stuff. It helped my focus in creating my own sound and using my influences to create my own sound and my way of delivering it.
When I came back from Brazil I did things differently and I had another offer and I told the guys I was putting the band out, as I wanted to travel a while. So I went to Brazil and went on the beach and drink coconut from the trees, swim and eat good and live simple for a while and not think too much and I spent like six months and I picked up speaking Portuguese there. Then I went to California and listened to some of the West coast sounds without having to run from gig to gig and forget what I am doing it for.
When I was in Brazil I was discovered by this big producer and they flew me to Sao Paulo to do a TV show. I did play at a little bitty place when in Brazil and then the bug started again about arranging music. So I came back to Chicago and talked to Delmark and then to Dick Shurman in 2015 and we decided to do an album. I did come back in 2014 from my travels and booked some summer dates here in Chicago and cut my hair short after all those years of being in braids and long tails. So I recorded the Truth album for Delmark at the end of 2015 and did a series of summer shows here and picked up some more shows to get the band ready, as I had put a band together for the project, and I thought I would go on tour.
And then I met Sarah and that changed everything and we married and we have a daughter and after that I started touring more this year (2019) and I’ve been to Europe and I have done a Brazilian tour and the European tours have been successful and people have asked me to come back, so things picked up. I started doing trips to California and playing venues there. Then a couple of years ago I went to Texas for the first time so I started playing more out and touring internationally and still keeping a base in Chicago, but not the amount of dates that I did before. Truth came out in February 2016 and I received a nomination for the Blues Music Awards for the album and it got great reviews and it got into the Living Blues charts and the Roots charts, it was number one for a long time. So more people started knowing my name.
I have done other recordings prior to the Delmark outing. My first album was in 2009, called Livin’ It, and I wrote half of the album and you can hear then where I was going. I put the album out myself and put it on the IBF label, and then I did two more in 2012, right before I started traveling. I was playing with the organ trio then and I decided to record the organ trio, as the shows we were doing, people wanted to hear us. We recorded thirty songs in a day and a half and I made it a double album and we decided not to release it officially, just available on live shows. It’s called I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is, which is a song that I wrote. Another album I did is a solo album called By Myself on which I just took an acoustic guitar after a show and recorded it overnight, starting at one in the morning and done by 4.30 a.m. and I think it was mixed by 7.00 a.m., just me and guitar. I played a lot of Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins and old Muddy Waters and finished it by two or three bossanova flavored songs. I have been recording my new album for Delmark. I thought about doing this one independent because it is very different and I’ve not shown this musical side of me completely. I had a lot of things I could do and I thought about doing a straight blues and jazz thing for Delmark, as that would be right up their alley, and then I said to myself “No, that is not want I want to do”. It is all new material, as I wanted to tell my story not somebody else’s, I’ve done enough of that.
I was in Los Angeles on tour and I got together with David Ritz, he wrote ‘Sexual Healing’ with Marvin Gaye, and he wrote ‘Brother Ray’ the Ray Charles autobiography and a B.B. King book and he was writing an autobiography on Buddy Guy and it was Buddy who put him onto me and he saw me play and he asked me to call him sometime and then I got it as to who he was. I told him I was a big Ray Charles fan and we met up and we wrote five songs in three hours. We started getting real close and I was writing material with him and we get along great and we would tell each other stories. So thanks to Buddy Guy for that. So I wrote some stuff with him in California, based on stuff that happened in my life, and David was very supportive telling me to do my thing and telling me I write better than I think I do.
As I said, I thought about putting the album out myself and I have some connections and I started a relationship with Norman Harris, who is a guitarist on the West coast, that got more people knowing about my playing and through him I met Joe Bonamassa, and so one video gets you 70,000 viewers of course because Joe is on it, and he has been very complimentary about my playing and so things happen when you don’t expect it. So I talked to the new owners, Julia and Elbio, of Delmark about the album and they were very interested and I told them it was different and they said they wanted to expand the label, so I thought why not and let’s do it. It has a string section on there on some tracks and I am using a different sensibility in my music and the band and the horn section are great. I’m a strong believer in a strong rhythm section and believe that without a good rhythm section everything is going to collapse, so my music is based around drums, bass and keyboards. In a live setting I can expand the band, like increase the horn section to four, or bring in two keyboard players and can have backing singers, but the budget for this would be different so I can’t come to a club with that configuration. I can travel with a five piece and myself.
We have played the 2019 Chicago Blues Festival and the band is the one on my new album. For the future I want to play great music and bring it to a lot of people. My wife is a great singer. We don’t work together a lot she is her own artist, but we love a lot of the same music so for certain things I will come and make an appearance with her and she will do likewise for me sometimes, and on the Truth album I invited her to do a duet with me called “My Happiness”, a song based on knowing her and she has constructed the backing vocals on the new Delmark album.
We just did a show together with my band and she did half of the show and I did the other half and we wrapped it up by doing a few duets. I hope we can do more of that in the future. She is great jazz vocalist and can also sing r&b and she is classically trained and she has a big knowledge of music. We did a Brazilian show at the 2018 Chicago jazz festival. So we enjoy doing these things together. She won the Montreux jazz vocalist competition that Quincy Jones judged a few years ago. Her name is Sarah Marie Young and she will feature on the new Dave Specter Delmark album. I have strong connections and friendship with Chris Cain and we played together at the 2019 Chicago blues festival, wanting to create something special.
Visit Guy’s website at https://www.guyking.net/.