Digging up older, honest blues musicians becomes more of a challenge as time marches on. Most of these said underground treasures have either died or are debilitated to the point where they can’t play. Even finding these gems amidst the rich soil of Mississippi has become harder. Soon, it will likely be a lost cause. But until then, folks like the people at Fat Possum Records will keep looking, poking their noses in damn near every tin-roofed abode on dirt paths to find someone who can play a nasty guitar and sing straight from the gut.
So far, the label has found some masterful musicians. The late Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Paul “Wine” Jones, the late Asie Payton, and CeDell Davis all came out from the Mississippi underground via Fat Possum. And though the label has to survive by signing outside the North Mississippi blues core (though the Black Keys and Heartless Bastards have the same musical attitude), every so often they find another piece of the puzzle that fits their original blues ideals.
His real name is Fread E. Martin (yes, that’s the correct spelling). Born in McComb, Mississippi in 1940, Little Freddie King (not to be confused with the other blues guitarist named Freddy King) shoved off to New Orleans when he was 14. He wanted to learn music, and he made a living as a TV repairman. Of course, the blues being the blues, King was shot for the first time in a New Orleans bar when a jealous husband came in and blasted his wife. King just happened to be sitting on the next barstool, and took a piece of the bullet (it’s always location, location, location).
Note that was the FIRST time.
King, who has a tendency to endure frequent moments of inebriation, was shot three times by his wife later on in his life. One of the bullets is lodged right next to his spine. Yet he still endures, riding his bicycle to the repair shop to continue fixing TVs. But with his Fat Possum debut, You Don’t Know What I Know, King has a very good chance at making some extra money.
Combining his New Orleans swamp style with the Mississippi Delta style of trance blues, King’s music is able to remain dirty and stay in the groove, even with the upbeat swing of lively bass and drums and a counterpoint harp played by Bobby Lewis DiTullio. The playing is rock solid, but is still sloppy enough to qualify for Fat Possum’s credo of down and dirty with no overdubs. Don’t expect overblown solos here, but there’s a decent amount of jamming to keep toes tapping and butts shaking for a while.
The opener, “Crack Head Joe”, cops it’s riff directly from Kimbrough’s “Junior’s Place” (his homage to his juke joint). DiTullio’s harmonica echoes the riff throughout the song, while King laments about the drug-addled subject. The overall effect of King’s hollow, echoing vocals reminds one of ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears”. Yet, it’s well, addictive. King throws a solo in to wrap up the song, and it’s a bouncy, groovy four minutes gone by. Equally catchy and able to move bodies with a single repetitive groove is the next song, “Walking With Freddie”, where King’s vocals and DiTullio’s harp get into a call-and-response mode, until the excellent harp solo breaks things up a bit. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other players, bassist Anthony Anderson and drummer “Wacko” Wade Wright (who also produced two of the 11 songs); their playing is just as important as King’s and DiTullio’s. Up next is the New Orleans-grooved “Chicken Dance” (ever hear a harmonica imitate a chicken?), a fun booty-shaker.
The solo acoustic “You Rascal You” starts with the line “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you/When you’re dead and (down) six feet, won’t eat no more of my chicken meat, you rascal you.” Of course, the song is about a man fooling around with another man’s wife. And no one knows where the inspiration came from, but towards the end of the song, King lets out a cowboy’s “YEE-HA!” that’s both funny and disturbing.
Martin “Tino” Gross, who produced part of Burnside’s 2004 (mostly) remix album A Bothered Mind, contributes his efforts on a pair of tracks. The first, “Looking For My Woman”, could have come straight from the Burnside album, if not for the different vocals. It’s a decent effort with King’s voice echoing “My Woman” throughout, and with all the hip-hop effects (including turntable scratching), Gross still knows that King’s vocals and guitar are at the top of the mix — a decent cut. The second, a remix of “Chicken Dance”, is unnecessary, since it slows down the earlier version and doesn’t add anything to complement the song.
The ghost of John Lee Hooker lives in “Tough Frog to Swallow”, one of the best songs here. Alluding to the cadence of Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”, King throws out little bursts of trills and runs while DiTullio’s harp provides the counter. The story is not about rent money, but about a night at the local bar. “Fox Hunt” is straight New Orleans blues boogie (rhythmically, it’s sort of like George Thorogood’s take on “Who Do You Love”).
Though like most Fat Possum artists who have one style and work it in various ways, King’s New Orleans influence gives the sameness of some of the songs a different edge and feel. This is also the first F.P. release to prominently feature a harmonica in the mix of just about every song. Along with a full rhythm section, the overall sound is fresh, yet still has that trance groove. Listening to King’s guitar work, you’ll find he is quite capable of throwing out solid rhythms and interesting leads. His vocals are just fine and he isn’t afraid to keep his lyrics interesting. You never quite know what you’re going to get when the label introduces a new artist to the mix, but the brain trust of Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson never fails to come up big. Little Freddie King might be the luckiest find yet, if You Don’t Know What I Know is any indication. This is certainly one of the best blues albums of 2005, one that will hypnotize your mind and move your body. It also proves that there’s still some untapped talent to be found in Mississippi, and if anyone can find that talent, it’ll be the label that tries its best.