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Blue Notes 

"Well, I've been around a long time. / I've really paid my dues." -- B.B. King, "Why I Sing the Blues"

So how does music happen? Something drops into your mind -- from where? -- and grows -- how? -- into some form -- why?

But music's not there to answer questions. It's there to ask: Why aren't we singing? Why aren't we dancing? And if you can't answer those, another little piece of you goes off somewhere and pouts, and if you have no answers for too long, your life becomes a single, unchanging sulk.

Up on the Satchmo Stage, Little Freddie King looks like a question mark. Back arched, leopard-skin guitar strap straining against the chartreuse shirt, striped zoot-suit pants billowing to a wind off the river that ripples the stage's guardian trees on its way to look for all other winds.

The singer tells a story of something that happened to him downtown in the 1800 block of Pauger, with the poignancy and economy of line that all stories in good blues songs have, and his guitar brings the drums and bass and harp to dramatic pause -- and then he growls, "Look out, baby. Don't cut my throat!"

Little Freddie King's got some answers.

The crowd can sense it, roaring when the little man drapes his left leg over his guitar with a move worthy of Harpo Marx and laughing when he refers to his next song as "an antique number." This crowd seems to sense that what they are hearing is truer than if brought by some college-stroked kid with a good database to get lyrics and a good memory for holding them. Something inside is saying that when Little Freddie sings, it is 3 o'clock in the morning and I ain't closed my eyes yet.

They understand that the further away they come from people really loving and hating one another, people suffering and celebrating in plain sight of one another, the more they need a Little Freddie King to remind them of these things, to preach that juke-joint gospel.

And Freddie knows chapter and verse. Oh, he plays French Quarter Fest now, and he's played Lugano and Luxembourg, Montreal and Paris, Hungary and Portsmouth. Quint Davis used him in the first Jazz & Heritage Festival and has used him in every one since. Sends a limo for him, too.

But what the crowds at those places want to hear in Freddie's voice and memory are the nights at B.J.'s in the Ninth Ward and Ida's place on Bayou Liberty and all those places in Shrewsbury, Club Melodie, the Saints Lounge and the Young Men's Club. All the juke joints. All the places where a boy who'd grown up outside McComb, Miss. (a place so small he could tell you the name and it wouldn't register), would first learn about the sins of the city and then stick around to teach them.

And between all the sinning and singing, he always worked, sawmills and riverfronts and gas stations and finally as a bench mechanic at Skeets Auto, riding his bike there, the one with the homemade turning lights.

But there was alcohol and women, the well-traveled road to trouble, and Freddie took it plenty. Then there was his second wife, Amy, who was as tough as Freddie was gentle. One night, she got phone calls from three different dives reporting that Freddie had been in with "an ass-pocket full of money," chugging Taylor's Cream Sherry and "buying drinks for all the Š ladies." In the third place, Freddie felt a tap on the shoulder and when he turned around, Amy was there to jug him in the left shoulder with her knife.

She ran home and locked the door. "I kicked that door down," is how he remembers it, "and she had my gun ready for me." Of the three bullets that went into his body that night, one stayed.

Freddie stayed, too, and Amy changed a lot after some punks robbed her right on the porch on Pauger Street and beat her badly with a lead pipe. After that, she would wait for her husband and hold the door open for him and do a little dance while she crooned, "Oh, here's that beautiful Little Freddie King. He's my man."

That was then, and now Amy has passed, and Freddie has troubles with his eyes and ulcers and drinks only Coke. But he still plays that guitar crisp and direct without a pick, heightening those notes and making them yip over the steady drone of harmonica and blues.

He's playing "The Chicken Dance," and the crowd is being roused, hens and roosters alike. A guy with a blue and a black sock is bumping hips with a long woman with cowgirl boots and a see-through skirt. The wish to drive out sorrow is never really driven out -- but then again neither is sorrow.

click to enlarge Something inside is saying that when Little Freddie King sings, it is 3 o'clock in the morning and I ain't closed my eyes yet.
  • Something inside is saying that when Little Freddie King sings, it is 3 o'clock in the morning and I ain't closed my eyes yet.
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