Little Freddie King’s back to play the blues

Following what felt like 40 days and 40 nights of cold, hard rain in southeast Louisiana, Little Freddie King, New Orleans’ genuine Mississippi blues man, can once again take his daily rides on the bicycle he calls his two-wheel Cadillac.

“Thank God,” King said after a morning ride this week. “He let us see another beautiful day.”

A native of McComb, Miss., the same town that produced Bo Diddley, King is New Orleans’ best claim to country-blues and deep-fried boogie. Now 72, he’s lived in the city since arriving there as a teenager in the 1950s.

King is a regular at marquee events such as the Crescent City Blues and Barbecue Festival, the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He also has standing engagements at local venues d.b.a., BJ’s Lounge and Carrollton Station.

In decades past, King performed extensively at West Coast colleges, but he’s been more popular, traveled more widely and made more recordings in the past 20 years than at any period in his professional life.

“That’s the truth,” he said from his home in the Musicians’ Village in the Upper 9th Ward. “It’s more response all over the whole nation, the world, since I’ve been in my 60s and 70s. I mean, it really has built up.”

King cleared a day on his schedule this week so CBS-TV could film footage of him for the network’s Super Bowl promotion. He also makes a cameo appearance in the new French Quarter-set documentary, Tchoupitoulas. And he’ll make his 43rd appearance at the Jazz Fest April 28, perform at the Continental Room in Austin in May, travel to England and Spain this summer and go to France in October.

King and his band are also appearing at a new Baton Rouge music venue, Mud and Water, at 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26. It’s their first Baton Rouge show in nearly eight years.

Ill health, however, caused by his night-life lifestyle, prompted King to step away from music for years. He was suffering from ulcers, a liver on its last legs and even a few bullet wounds, said Wade “Wacko” Wright, King’s drummer and manager.

“Freddie was getting healed up, so he stopped going to the clubs,” Wright said. “The best thing, Freddie thought, was just to shut down playing, because where he played at was where he drank.”

King cut his performances down to one show a year, his annual spot at the Jazz Fest. He would have appeared at every Jazz Fest since the event’s 1970 inception, Wright said, but for an oversight in 1980. “They got some new kid to do the booking and he neglected to call Freddie up.”

The Jazz Fest was the place where King first played for audiences in the thousands.

“I would get a little nervous,” King recalled. “But, like the Jazz Fest, that made me get used to a crowd. When I get amongst all the thousands of people now, the more people I see, the better I feel.”

King’s Jazz Fest appearances eventually led to invitations to perform in Europe. His band has since played for vast crowds there.

“Like we’re on the stage in Switzerland, 20,000 people,” Wright said. “I look at Freddie and we smile at each other, knowing where we came from, the Musicians Village. We’re standing there in front of all these rich people and we’re saying, ‘Wow.’ It’s just great that they love Freddie’s music.”

Wright started working with King in 1994, following the death of King’s longtime singer-harmonica player, Percy Randolph. During their first rehearsal together, King’s blues licks knocked Wright out.

“I said, ‘In New Orleans, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to the blues. This is it.’ I love playing with Freddie. And the other thing about Freddie, he plays the songs the way he feels that night. If he’s feeling up, that song comes out stinging. If he’s down, it’s gonna be gut wrenching.”

“I play my own sound,” King said. “And each time I play it, it might be a little different because it’s different notes. But it still all be in the same key and all of it comes out exactly right. It’s something like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, somebody like that, but mine is different than any of them because I plays direct from the feeling and the heart.”