No star has shined brighter in blues heaven in the past two years than Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. A one-man wrecking crew in a world crippled by COVID-19, he’s proven himself to be a giant among men at the tender age of 22, compiling seven Blues Music Awards and a Grammy nomination along the way.
The defining bluesman of his generation because of his extraordinary, precise attack on guitar and the ability to shift his music from a whisper to a hurricane in a few short notes and sear listeners to the core and an emotive, soulful voice to match, it’s almost certain that he’s headed for even greater success.
But don’t believe for an instant that Kingfish is resting on his laurels and enjoying his accomplishments while the world struggles to set itself in motion again after grinding to a halt. In the midst of all the blessings he’s received, he’s been suffering, too – experiencing loses no man his age should be forced to endure. His life has been a major roller-coaster ride filled with exceptionally high highs and deeply painful lows, having lost his beloved mother and guiding light in the midst of it all.
“It’s been bittersweet, as you can see,” he told Blues Blast in a recent interview. “But I’m just grateful for all the love and support people have given me thus far. And, like they say, it’s only up from here!”
But there’s still time for plenty of chuckles – as demonstrated when asked where he’s keeping all of the trophies now filling his home.
“Some’s goin’ on my TV, man,” he replied after a deep belly laugh. “But I actually got a few sittin’ on top of one of my amps. I really haven’t thought much about where should I put ‘em all ‘cause I don’t have anywhere to put ‘em! My amp is already gettin’ too small. It can hold five, but these seven is givin’ me a problem!
“All in all, though, I’m truly grateful because I never thought that all of this would come to me – not this early, for sure.”
At the rate he’s compiling them, it’d probably be a good idea to devise a plan soon.
Born Jan. 19, 1999, in the belly of the blues — Clarksdale, Miss., Kingfish grew up in a family that performed regularly in church. Both his mom, Princess Pride, and an uncle were multi-instrumentalists, and her first cousin was Charlie Pride, the first black superstar in country music, who dominated the airwaves in the ‘60s through the ‘80s with chart-toppers that included “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and “(I’m So) Afraid of Losin’ You Again.”
Christone fell in love with music when his dad, Christopher, invited him to watch Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied, a PBS special that aired for the first time when he was four years old. He was drawn to the blues through Muddy’s fretwork on “Catfish Blues” – a/k/a “Rollin’ Stone” – and the guitar from an appearance by B.B. King on Sanford & Son when he played “How Blue Can You Get.”
“The sound of his voice, man…the way he was hittin’ the strings…the vibrato…it was amazin’,” Kingfish remembers. Only a few days prior, he’d been on center stage himself playing tribute to the master at dedication festivities for the new wing at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.
Another major influence who drew Ingram to the guitar was Eddie Hazel of Parliament-Funkadelic – especially his soaring runs on the tune, “Maggot Brain,” which many critics consider to be one of the most important solos ever – no matter the instrument involved. And Eric Gales colored his world, too, because of his blues-rock vibe – something that Christone found unusual because Eric was both black like him and from the Mid-South.
Kingfish picked up the drums at age six and turned to the bass at age nine when he started attending a music program at the nearby Delta Blues Museum. He credits his ability to stay firmly in the pocket today with the discipline he developed on those rhythm instruments.
He graduated to first guitar at age 11, studying under the direction of blues masters Bill “Howl-n-Madd” Perry and Richard “Daddy Rich” Chisman. A quick study, almost instantaneously, he developed a skill to play everything from Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson to B.B. and Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix, Prince and more.
Perry often lays nicknames on his students, and pinned Kingfish on Ingram, borrowing the moniker from the old Amos & Andy radio and TV shows because the youngster reminded him of the character portrayed by actor Tim Moore, a born organizer and wheeler-dealer authoritarian who hounded wayward members of the Mystic Knights lodge and kept them in line.
Newly anointed, Kingfish made his performing debut on bass, backing Perry at Red’s Lounge in downtown Clarksdale and all of the top venues in the city — Ground Zero Blues Club, the Shack-Up Inn, the Delta Blues Room and the New Roxy included. And, almost overnight, he built up a following on YouTube after former Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown bassist Bootsy Collins discovered them and started sharing them with his fan base around the globe.
Throughout his childhood, Ingram also attended the annual Pinetop Perkins Workshops, a training ground that offers scholarships to blues talent between ages 12 and 21 for instructional programs coordinated by Bob Margolin. And Kingfish credits his with driving home the importance that soloists make a statement with their instruments and builds their runs through the use of dynamics rather than hitting their audiences full force from the start.
Even though he was a child protégé who appeared on the Steve Harvey and Rachel Ray TV shows, Christone’s classmates couldn’t understand his love for the blues instead of rap and hip-hop. They thought it was funny, he says, because he was young, but listening and playing “old, sad stuff.”
“I’m like…’man, I ain’t like that,’” he remembers. “’I’m listenin’ more for a culture thing! This is history. And rap is nothin’ but the blues’ grandchild!’”
Kingfish doesn’t shy away from that fact that he was somewhat a shredder early on. Margolin and “other OGs” eventually lead him to understand the concept that “less” is often more effective than “more” when it comes to the blues.
“That’s a big thing,” Christone says today. “You can’t just lay it on ‘em. Even I’ve gotten to the point these days where, if I go into a club and the guitar player’s playin’ like a thousand notes a minute every song…it does kinda play in your ears a little bit.
“In the last couple of years, I feel like I’ve learned how to balance it…playin’ the song and shreddin’, too. You can feel the energy from that. But at the end of the night, there has to be a balance for the audience to feel somethin’.
“Certain songs call for that, and certain songs don’t. If you’re gonna play the ‘lowdown blues’ like Buddy Guy calls it, you’d better put some space in it!”
The equilibrium he’s achieved in that area also contributes to his ability to remain centered and humble despite all of his acclaim. “I still try to obtain knowledge from people that are better than me,” he insists, “and study things that are gonna make me better ‘cause no matter how much praise you get, there’s always someone around the corner who doesn’t have that spot.”
Like the old days in the Wild West, there’s an eight-year-old guitar slinger out there somewhere getting ready to take him on.
“It’s better to understand that, one day, it could all be taken away. I try to keep that in the back of my mind a lot. History repeats itself,” he laughs. “But it’s really good to see all those young kids comin’ up! Some of the old guys might be annoyed by it.
“But if I see a young kid who’s interested in this music, I think it’s a better idea to take him under my wing and show him what I know. It’s important to keep the ball rollin’ and be determined…to know that every show isn’t gonna be perfect because of backline, because the sound’s off a little or whatever.”
Kingfish played at the White House for Michele Obama at age 15, and has toured with Vampire Weekend, Jason Isbell and Guy, recorded with him, Gales, Keb’ Mo’ and Bootsy, too. Described as a “young bluesman with an ancient soul,” he was playing major festivals around the world constantly for 18 months, touring to support his debut 2019 CD, the eponymous Kingfish on Alligator.
An instant hit, it debuted in the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s blues charts and remained on the board for 91 consecutive weeks. Initiated through the help of Buddy and supervised by his award-winning producer, Tom Hambridge, it won a Blue Blast Music Award, earned a Grammy nomination and was cited by both Living Blues magazine in the U.S. and MOJO magazine in Britain as their album of the year. A duet with Guy entitled “Fresh Out” was the year’s No. 1-played song on Sirius/FM.
For Christone, it was a real learning experience. Not only was it his first attempt at writing and recording original tunes, he recorded the CD in only three days. And, despite its success, he was left with the feeling that he’d rushed some things and that it would have turned out even better if he’d slowed down a bit.
But as happy as he was at the time, he entire world crashed around him beginning that December when his beloved mother, biggest supporter and lifelong manager, Princess, succumbed at age 49 to the medical issues that plagued her for years. The support of friends and family and his ability to perform helped ease his unfathomable sorrow. But then COVID-19 took that away, too.
Ingram slowly managed to find his center again during the lockdown, releasing a couple of stand-alone singles – a cover of Michael Burks’ tune, “Empty Promises,” and his first-ever holiday song, “Ghost from Christmas Past.” And he made a guest appearance on Blues Traveler’s new CD, Traveler’s Blues, too.
Another think that helped is a project he initiated with good friends Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis: the “Robert Johnson Challenge” on Facebook, on which they took turns and put their own spins on several of the 28 tunes Johnson recorded in the ‘20s. The event endured for months, keeping the trio busy and amused while delivering joy in small doses to blues lovers around the world.
“What happened was…when the new picture of Robert Johnson came out (there are only three genuine photos in existence) and his sister’s book (Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson) came out, we kinda had a discussion that he was cool that we were finally seein’ him in true life rather than the old, mythical character that they portray him to be,” Ingram says.
“We wanted to pay our homage to him, and it was a really fun thing ‘cause I come from that (country blues) style, livin’ in the North Mississippi Delta. It’s my music, but I hardly ever get to play it now. It was great to be playin’ all those old country and Delta blues styles – and Marquise and Quon, those are my brothas!
“We’re tryin’ to show that there are young black kids who love their culture and love their history, man. I’ve very appreciative, and love ‘em both.”
Drawing other young people of color back to the blues is one of the most important forces that drive his life, Kingfish says. “When I was comin’ up in the Delta blues, I know that almost all of the kids I was seein’ playin’ the blues were white. There was only a couple of blacks that I looked up to…Homemade Jams out of Tupelo, Miss., Marquise – I was lookin’ up to him for years before I even met him – and the Peterson brothers outta Texas.
“But there’s been a resurgence in the past couple of years. The young black representation is back. We’ve got Steven Hull out of Wisconsin, DKiernan Harrell (a native of Rustin, La., who’s a discipline of B.B. and played alongside Kingfish at the Indianola festivities) and others.
“It’s really surgin’, and I’m lovin’ it!”
As spring evolved into summer, however, Christone’s primary focus became prep work for what’s now his new CD, 662. A follow-up to his debut on Alligator, Hambridge returned to produce, and it was recorded at his studio outside Nashville with a lineup that includes Chicago-based keyboard player Marty Sammon and many of the same Music City sessions players who appeared on the first disc. The title is adopted from the area code of Clarkdale and North Mississippi.
“From May through September, me, Tom and Richard Fleming did this Zoom thing every Thursday where we’d pretty much write the songs and pull ‘em out for sho’,” Kingfish says. “Working with guys from Nashville and seein’ how quick they pick up the music and work hard was really cool to see, and a great education, too.”
Despite the continuity of personnel, the end product is aurally different than his debut. It contains material that pays tribute to both Clarksdale and Princess, but deals heavily with the bottom side of human emotion looking up rather than looking down from the heights of success – especially when it comes to failed love affairs.
And, unfortunately, he admits, some of the themes of heartbreak and broken romance come from true-life experience.
“Yeah, man!” he laughs. “You gotta get it outta your system. And as far as all the songs go, I was just tryin’ to show the growth in my life and everything I’ve been going through in the last two years or so. Love songs aren’t necessarily the biggest thing, but they’re definitely one of the reoccurring topics for sho’!”
Like the subject matter, Ingram’s attack on guitar on this one is more mature and hard-hitting, too. “On the first record, in my opinion, I didn’t hold anything back,” Kingfish insists, “but (at the same time) I did play a little restrained because it was my first time and I didn’t want to overwhelm the listener.
“But when I was talkin’ with my manager, Ric Whitney, and my producer, Tom, we decided we really wanted to sock it and give it to ‘em. We knew it’d be a change-of-pace. We have a couple of songs with more of a hard (rock) edge, but even the acoustic songs have that intense feel to ‘em, too.”
From the opening bars of the title track, “662,” Ingram delivers universal truths that belie his tender age throughout. That song paints a loving picture of Clarksdale, as does “Too Young to Remember,” which remembers the juke joints across Mississippi that have all but faded into memory, and “Something in the Dirt,” which pays tribute to the city’s contributions to the world.
In addition to the love songs, other material includes “Rock & Roll,” which released as a single prior to the CD and honors his mom, “Another Life Goes By,” a politically charged complaint about hate, madness and killings, and “That’s What You Do,” which advises other musicians that there are no shortcuts to the blues.
And like Kingfish’s debut effort, this one’s already climbed into upper echelon on the charts. He’s grateful for all the love and support he’s received along the way – and especially in the past year or so.
“With my mother’s death and bein’ off the road because of COVID, it means a lot to me that people are still listenin’ to my music, buyin’ my merch and everything,” he says. “I can’t wait to get out there and see everybody again and show everybody the growth I’ve made over the past few years.
“The big question for me right now is how I’m gonna follow up on this one. But I think we’ll find a way to one-up it!”
Christone had just finished a tour of the Northeast prior to this interview, and already has gigs booked in most areas across the U.S. for the balance of the year, including the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas in September.
Check out Kingfish’s new music and find out where he’ll be appearing next by visiting his website: www.christonekingfishingram.com.