Earl King Deserves His Due

Earl King at the Petrillo Bandshell in Chicago, Illinois, June 5, 1994. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

You might not know of Earl King, a singer-songwriter guitarist from New Orleans, Louisiana, though you’ve likely heard songs he wrote if you know the music of Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, or Ray Charles. As Geoffrey Himes reports at The Bitter Southerner, King was a lyricist and showman beyond compare, yet few of his own recordings exist. He was a man with insatiable curiosity, self-motivated to learn about anything that struck his fancy, a songwriter dedicated to his craft. Himes argues that it is about time that King be recognized as poet laureate of New Orleans for his many musical accomplishments, some of which you can listen to in the piece’s accompanying Spotify playlist.

During this period, 1965-1974, King rarely performed in public. Instead, he stayed behind the scenes, writing and producing songs for other people. In this way, he resembled Willie Dixon, the great writer-producer of the Chicago blues scene. Dixon, too, never enjoyed much success with his own recordings, but he wrote and arranged big hits for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter and is now recognized as the secret genius behind the stars. King is due the same recognition.

In fact, one could argue that King, (Willie) Dixon, Percy Mayfield, and Chuck Berry are the true “Poets of the Blues.” All four made their recording debuts between 1945 and ’55; all four compensated for a lack of higher education by educating themselves to become verse craftsmen; all four satirized American life and romance with an unerring eye.

All of them, even Berry, are better known for the dozens of versions of their songs by other artists than for their own recordings.

“When I got into my own thinking about writing,” King confessed, “my intention was to be the best lyricist in the world. I used to sit around with my buddies, drinking coffee and talking about how something in a song could be said a different way. We used to get a kick out of playing gymnastics with the words. We’d talk about what kind of thought that’s going to create in the person who’s listening. We’d talk about words that might have a twofold meaning to them. Like ‘Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti; forget about the dough and think about me.’”

King was that increasingly rare figure in American life — the non-academic intellectual. He never attended school again after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans, but he never stopped studying and reading. A conversation with King was likely to take unexpected detours into Asian music, marketing theory, modern jazz, and the Rosicrucian Order. He was living proof that an active, well-stocked mind doesn’t always come with scholarly credentials.

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