Long live the King of smooth

Having left Israel to make a name for himself in Chicago’s blues scene, guitarist and singer Guy King returns home a conquering hero.

musician guy king 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
musician guy king 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Growing up in the ‘80s on a rustic, coastal moshav might not be the stuff great blues songs are made of, but that didn’t prevent Guy King from becoming a master Chicago blues guitarist and singer.
While his teenage classmates were tuned into Army Radio and rock and pop hits from the likes of Mashina and Rami Kleinstein, King was trudging across the fields of Misgav Dov near Gadera, and taking a bus into Tel Aviv to specialty record stores to order hard-to-find albums by blues greats like Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker.
“My older brother would bring home albums by people like Eric Clapton and I started to read the liner notes and credits and see ‘By Freddie King or By Robert Johnson’ and I started to look for albums by them,” said the 36-year-old King last week.
He had recently arrived in Israel to prepare for his debut performances in his native land, after 15 years honing his skills on the international blues circuit as bandleader and guitarist for Chicago great Willie Kent, and more recently on his own with an acclaimed solo career.
“It was difficult in those pre-Internet days. It would take a month for a record to arrive, but it was worth it. Once I got an old Freddie King CD collection that put me to work. I saved money working on the moshav picking fruit in order to buy my first guitar, and I then sat down with that CD and taught myself to play.”
At the same time, King joined a band through the Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) as a singer, and at age 16 spent three months touring the US performing a mix of Israeli music, big band jazz and R&B for Jewish community centers, Baptist churches and even some clubs. Stops in Memphis as well as parts of Alabama and Mississippi only intensified King’s obsession with rural American music.
“I had heard so much about Memphis, but it was important for me to see it. They took us to BB King’s club, and believe me, I was taking lots of notes,” said King. That trip put it into high gear for me; I saw the country that I had previously only experienced through albums and liner notes.”
Twelve days after completing his three year IDF service, King flew directly to Memphis with his suitcase and his guitar to immerse himself in the blues and pursue his dream of following in the footsteps of the masters. He even changed his Israeli surname (which he prefers to keep private) to the quintessential blues name – King.
But, as a relatively green visiting guitarist in a sea of seasoned veteran players, he was in no hurry to take center stage.
“I wanted to lay low and listen to the music first of all. Growing up where I did, there wasn’t the luxury of going out and walking down the street and having six clubs to choose from on one block,” said King. “I didn’t take that for granted, and I tried to take advantage of it.”
After a few months in Memphis, King decided to move on to Chicago, but the night before his departure, he performed on a Memphis stage for the first time and was offered a job to be in a blues house band.
“That gave me the confidence that I was headed on the right track, and soon after I arrived in Chicago, the same thing happened,” he said. Bassist and vocalist Willie Kent, who reigned as one of the city’s most traditional West Side blues artists throughout his long career, heard about King and after hearing him play and sing, invited the young Israeli to join his band. By age 24, King was leading Kent’s band, a position he held for the next six years until Kent’s death in 2006.
“We really hit it off and became very close,” said King. “I was more into the orchestrated side of blues like BB and Albert King, but from the first note I heard Willie sing, I thought ‘wow! It’s so intense, pure and lean, like Muddy Waters but even rawer.’ “At the same time, I felt like I was developing my own style by being his righthand man. We were playing four or five nights a week, and it wasn’t some 90-minute concert – it was three sets from 9 p.m. to 1.30 p.m. People were dancing and responding, the ways blues was meant to be. I enjoy playing in an orchestra hall too, but it’s cool to play in a juke joint, and see that response and shouting from the audience.”
King’s regular gigs with Kent included such Chicago institutions as Buddy Guy’s Legends, House of Blues and B.L.U.E.S. In addition, the band traveled the world, performing in Japan, Brazil and throughout Europe and North America at venues like the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Polcano Blues Festival in Mexico City and the Basel Blues Festival in Switzerland.
“Willie asked me to open the shows, he liked the way I sang. So things progressed naturally. There was enough freedom for me to keep working on the music I heard in my head, but at the same time, it was his thing, I was taking a back seat to him.”
That all changed when King set off on a solo career after Kent’s death, resulting in the 2008 release of his debut Livin’ It. The Chicago Blues Guide praised the album for its nods to big band blues artists like T-Bone Walker, B.B. King and Gatemouth Brown, calling King “the King of Smooth.”
“He’s a very tasteful and skilled producer, arranger, guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader who likes to lay back and be cool; he knows how to make the music flow,” the review stated.
“I think people were impressed that I didn’t follow in Willie’s steps directly, I opened different musical channels playing more melodically and adding some jazzy and gospel chordings,” said King.
His quest for diversity led King to relocate to Brazil, where he had toured successfully a few times and added some bossa nova and samba to his bag of tricks. Today, he goes where the music and gigs take him, whether it’s South America, Chicago, or in the case this month – Israel.
“It’s certainly going to be emotional for me, and a little weird to play here. My family has seen me perform overseas in Chicago and Europe but I’ve never performed in Israel since I started my career in the US. I’ve just never had the opportunity before,” said King, who will be playing on December 13 at the Rappaport Hall in Haifa and on December 14 at the Zappa Club in Herzliya.
“The most important thing for me though, is to lay it all out there and put on a great show. With me, it’s all a matter of doing the best you can – as a band leader, musician and vocalist. So many things are out of your control in the music business, but this is something I can be in charge of – doing it the right way. It’s what moves me to keep going.”
That’s also why it may be time to add another King to the illustrious list of blues masters.