Since just after the second World War, there has been a steady parade of bluesmen making their way from the deep south up to the hallowed grounds of the epicenter of the blues, Chicago, Illinois.
There’s probably no accurate way to count just how many have made that trek over the course of the past six decades.
However, that number narrows considerably when you start listing those that have made that journey after being born in a country thousands of miles from the United States to begin with.
Enter Israeli-born Guy King, who after having lived in the United States for a scant period of time, boarded a train and headed for Chicago from New Orleans with little more than a few clothes and his guitar as his traveling companions. King had no master-plan at the time. Heck, he didn’t even have a place to stay. All he knew was, he was headed to the home of the blues.
And that my friends, is the truth.
“I came up to Chicago (from New Orleans) on a train when I was 21 years old. And in one of the cars on that train, there was a young guy that was a few years older than me. He told me that there was a couple of spots that I should hit in Chicago. One was Buddy Guy’s Legends – which was at the old location. He said they had a jam session there on Mondays. He also said that Rosa’s Lounge had a jam session on Thursdays that I should check out. I didn’t even know what a jam session was. I literally had a guitar and a suitcase with me. But I took the guy’s advice and went and enjoyed the music,” King recently said.
Fast forward a few years and there’s not hardly a club standing anywhere in Chicago that has not had Guy King take to its bandstand and deliver the real-deal blues.
King – who was nominated for the Sean Costello Rising Star Award at this year’s Blues Blast Awards – saw his latest release, Truth (Delmark Records) hit the streets late last February.
It may not have been an overnight success, but it sure didn’t take long before the album was receiving extensive radio play on blues programs all over the globe and was the talk of blues cognoscente in all directions. Truth was also nominated for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year at the recent Blues Blast Awards.
That’s an awful lot to take in, so was King at all surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Truth?
“I was so involved with coming up with the concept and then recording it … so to me, the release of the record was just like another phase of the process,” he said. “As far as being surprised, I was more glad than anything else. I really believed in the concept and the finished album. It was really a joy to make. From the wonderful producer to Steve Wagner and Bob Koester and all the crew at Delmark Records, to all the amazing musicians that played on the record, I really believed in the whole process it took to make. So I don’t want to say that I was surprised (by the reaction it received all around the globe), but when we finished it and finally listened to it, we felt that it was something good, something special. But sometimes things can get lost in the translation and other people that ultimately listen to the record may not experience that same special feeling, that audio quality that you as one of the musicians that played on it experienced. So I was glad when I heard people talking about the finished product. I think I was able to transfer the way that I was feeling to the public and I was happy to see people relating to it like I had hoped they would.”
Manning the boards for the Truth sessions was none other than the legendary Richard ‘Dick’ Shurman. Actually, the term ‘legend’ is probably not potent enough when talking about all that the Blues Hall of Famer Shurman has accomplished during his lifetime. Just looking at the tip of the iceberg, Shurman has worked with iconic artists such as Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, Roy Buchanan, Magic Slim and Otis Rush, none of which is lost on King.
“I have to be honest. I knew of the work that Dick had done and I was a fan of his first. I knew of the caliber of artists that he had worked with … some of them, a long time before I was even born. Some of those artists have been a big influence on me, such as Albert Collins and Otis Rush and a few others. But I also have to elaborate that Dick is a personal friend, and a good friend. He’s a friend that I can consult with and is a person that I can trust and respect on a personal level,” said King. “It became a powerful experience (working with Shurman on Truth), but it was also a very natural one, at that. I was very free to let him know what I think, what I felt and want I wanted to accomplish. He told me exactly the same when he had something to say. It was wonderful. Up until this point, most of the things that I’ve done, I’ve relied upon myself and my musicians. Having Dick there, I knew that I had another pair of ears that I could trust. That allowed me to take a break from trying to take care of everything. I think that made a big difference for me to be able to execute my musical abilities better. He also helped pitch me some wonderful tunes that I might not have otherwise thought about. He said to me, ‘Guy, you play great blues. We should try and stick to that a little bit.’ He helped me make the songs into an album, which was important to me. He helped me focus into making this an album – from start to finish – rather than just a collection of songs.”
Shurman was also instrumental in making sure that King’s guitar playing – which is some of the most inventive in the world of the blues – was first and foremost the focal point of Truth.
“Yes. That was another thing that he did. He wanted to show some more of my guitar playing. People that have seen me live know that I play quite a bit of guitar. And I ended up playing more guitar than I was really going to showcase on the album, because of Dick,” King said. “He heard the material in rehearsals and he extended a lot of the guitar passages, saying that it sounded good and that he wanted for people to hear on the album what I could do in a live performance.”
It’s not like an astute pair of ears like the kind that Shurman has needs any kind of validation, but the venerable one sure did hit the nail right on the head with his intentions to make sure that King’s six-string abilities shined like a pretty penny on Truth. There’s also little doubt that Shurman picked up on all the subtle twists and nuances found in King’s guitar playing, which is built on a solid bedrock of the blues, but also features liberal amounts of jazz, along with some elements and flashes of world-beat, as well. All-in-all, it doesn’t take long to understand that King really knows his way around the fretboard of his trusted Telecaster.
“I think there’s a few things (to his guitar style). I was born and raised in Israel, and I was schooled in music from listening to a lot of it from a very, very early age. A lot of that thanks goes to my parents – who have passed away – and my older brother and sister. They were listening to a lot of music around the house and I absorbed and soaked a lot of that up. At a very young age, I was playing the clarinet, but as far as the guitar, for the most part, I was self-taught,” he said. “I did take a few lessons from friends and a couple of teachers, but I stopped very quickly and taught myself by listening to a lot of music. Everything that I heard, I tried to play to the best of my ability.”
Partly due to where he grew up, there was not a lot of visual support to help nurture King’s budding appetite as a guitarist. That left him to rely on what he heard with his own ears, as opposed to what he was able to see with his own eyes.
“There were not a lot of videos on guitar playing that I could watch, because of where I grew up. And I did not have the advantage of going to see people play live, also because of where I grew up. So it was all based on my ears … what I heard. The albums that I heard, I did not know all of the tricks of the trade at that point. Things like tuning the guitar down, or using a pick, or whether they were using a Fender guitar or a Gibson, or what kind of amps they were playing,” he said. “I was from a very small village – a little country town – and there was just no way for me to find these things out. So I trusted my ears and the touch and feel that I had to try and learn from the wonderful things that I heard.”
A big part of King’s listening regimen from an early age was centered around big-band, classical and jazz music, which helps to explain the wonderful concoction of sounds and tones that he is able to generate these days.
“When the blues hit me, I already knew something about music, and that music made me feel very much at home. Very comfortable. When I heard the blues, I started putting those other forms of music to the side and began to focus on the blues,” he said. “Because I had been listening to and playing some jazz up to that point, I understood that jazz and the blues were kind of one and the same, with the extended harmony and melody. After arriving in Chicago, I got exposed more to Ray Charles. That opened the door for me to listen more to artists like Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker and of course, the great Wes Montgomery. Those people are big influences on me.”
In addition to growing up in Israel and now calling the Windy City his home, King also spent a few years living in Brazil.
“I had listened to Brazilian music as a child and later on, I had the chance to do some tours in Brazil and I even stayed there, on-and-off for a couple of years, spending time and being exposed to another form of music that I really like, which is bossa nova, or salsa. The blues are very important to me and are deeply felt in my heart. But music in general, if it’s played right and you can tap into that authenticity, then you can really experience things on a deep and personal level, no matter what the genre might be. When you hear me play, it’s more about music and feeling than about anything else. If it’s played with conviction and you feel what you’re playing, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing just one chord, or you’re changing 25 times. That conviction and playing what you feel, that’s what I call the blues.”
That behind-the-scenes peek into King’s philosophy goes a long way into explaining why the music that he creates is so deep and carries so much emotion with it. Label it what you will, but understand that King’s blues are anything but one-dimensional.
“There are many feelings that the blues can give you, such as sadness and joy. It can make you want to get up and dance, or it can make you want to sit down and reflect,” he said. “A lot of greater people before me, including some wonderful bluesmen, have said that there’s two kinds of music – good music and bad music. I really agree with that. There’s great music and there’s some not-so-great music. Blues is great music and has really affected me and will continue to affect me … forever, probably.”
King’s initial arrival in the United States came when he was just 16 years old and was on a three-month tour as part of a vocal group. However, a few more years would pass before he ultimately moved here from his country of birth.
“I came over here to perform and then I went back to Israel and completed high school and then served in the army in Israel. When I got out of the army after completing my three years, I came to the United States. I started my journey over here in the south – in Memphis. I spent a shot time there, but I did learn a lot in that short time,” he said. “I continued on through Mississippi into New Orleans. I knew that a lot of my influences were from that region (Mississippi and Louisiana) and it was important for me to explore things first-hand and listen to the music and view it up close.”
Much more than just an interested tourist – or someone looking to make a fresh start in a brand-new country – King’s motivation for choosing to relocate to the United States had everything thing to do with his burning desire to live and breathe blues music, up-close and personal.
“Yes. That is why I moved over here. I knew that Robert Johnson was from Hazlehurst, Mississippi and I knew that B.B. King and Albert King were also born in Mississippi. So there were places that I made it a point to go explore and listen to the music and feel the earth and know what it’s about,” he said. “It’s a very different thing from where I grew up. There, I could only read the liner notes to the albums and imagine. Then, I came over and could hear the music and experience it first-hand, which was very important to me. There was a period in this country when country music and jazz was the popular music of the day. It was pop music. There were also communities back then – especially in the south – where the blues were considered to be pop music. My personal opinion is that in the last 30 years or so, the blues takes more from rock, trying to survive. But we shouldn’t forget that every form of music that comes out of the United States is rooted in the blues. I would like to think that when played with conviction and when played with authenticity, with a deep feeling, the blues will always live. It’s true; it’s real. Whether played in huge amphitheaters or in small bars, when the blues are played like that, the blues will always live and continue to grow. And that’s a wonderful thing.”
King’s stay in New Orleans just lasted a short while, before the lure of the mighty city called Chicago pulled him northward.
“I wanted to perhaps see something a little bigger on my travels, which led me from Memphis to New Orleans and then on to Chicago. I knew it was a big place, but at that time, I did not know what to expect,” he said. “I would be lying if I told you that I did.”
Knowing the rich and fertile history of all the amazing guitar players that have called Chicago home from the 1950s until today might have been enough to dissuade a shy young man from Israel from ever entering the city limits with a six-string slung across his back. But that didn’t seem to hamper King one little bit.
“No, but it probably should have. To be honest, at that time, I did not know of a lot of the players that we call legends. Where I came from, you could barely even get a B.B. King album and he’s the king of the blues. I knew of B.B. King and Albert King and Robert Johnson, because I heard of them in interviews with rock and pop stars such as Eric Clapton. I knew of T-Bone Walker, because I heard B.B. King speak of him in the liner notes of an album. This is how I knew of those people,” he said. “And I knew of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Albert Collins and Buddy guy – the more known people in the blues. When I got to Memphis, for example, I thought there would be a lot of B.B. Kings and Albert Kings there, in every club. I just thought that was how everybody in the States played. I did not realize that those guys were so innovative with what they did with their music that they affected everybody. You do not find those kind of guys in every club that you go into. They are originals and true innovators. That’s much the same way that you don’t find Duke Ellington or Count Basie or Wes Montgomery in every juke joint that you go into. All those guys are one-of-a-kind. But I thought that I had to be able to play just as good as those guys and execute on my instrument to even play out. I sat in my room, thinking that I needed to play that good. If not, what’s the point?”
That woodshedding that King did quickly began to play dividends and in short turn, he went from playing open jam sessions at Buddy’s and Rosa’s to finding steady employment. He also discovered that there was a welcoming sense of family among Chicago’s guitar slingers, even some of the most notorious ones.
“One night I stopped in B.L.U.E.S Etcetera and nobody was there and I was shooting pool, just enjoying myself. Otis Rush and his wife came in and we started shooting pool together. I had to stop and catch myself … it was Otis Rush. We shot for three or four hours and they were very kind to me,” said King. “I had just came to town not long before that and I thought, ‘Wow. Is this how it’s going to be in Chicago?’ After that, one thing seemed to lead to another.”
One of those integral ‘one things’ was when the late, great Willie Kent saw King playing one night. That encounter led to King joining Kent’s band as lead guitarist and eventual band leader for over half a decade.
“From him, I learned to always give your best and to sing from your heart. Do it … just get into it, when it comes to performance. I played a lot of shows with Willie over a period of six years; we played pretty much every night. We all have better nights than others, but there was no one night when you couldn’t feel what Willie was playing; not one night when you couldn’t relate to the story he was telling. That’s something that’s rare,” King said. “That’s something that I cherished when I was 21 years old and that’s something I confirmed after playing with him for six years. When he got sick, he laid a lot of responsibility on me at a young age. Things like what to do and how to lead a band. He made me band leader and had me to take care of a lot of things inside the band. We were very close. We played over 300 nights a year and left our souls every time that we took the stage. I would like to think that has stuck with me today. I hope that’s something that I picked up from him that I can carry on.”
Carrying on the journey that he began in earnest the first time that he set foot in Chicago is something that King is focused on like a laser beam, with a burning desire to get better every time he steps on stage or enters the recording studio.
“I would like to continue to record and continue to improve. I’m proud of Truth, as is everybody that was a part of it, but I will probably always think that my best work is ahead of me,” he said. “Right now, Truth is my best work, in my opinion. I know Dick (Shurman) was proud of the record, because he told me he was, but he also wants me to think that I can do better. And he is right, because I do want to do better. That’s how I would like to continue, thinking that my best work is still ahead of me.”
Visit Guy’s website at: www.guyking.net