In a dark, wood-panelled room, thick with humidity and reeking of smoke, the bluesman sits on a battered red couch that droops in the middle. He takes a moment to reflect before walking to the stage. He’s dressed in a pair of shades, a straw fedora, and a technicolor suit jacket splashed with turquoise, pink and peach. His flamboyance is an instant contrast with the dingy surroundings. He takes a final drag of a cigarette, down to the butt, before adjusting his tie.
Little Freddie King has played this venue – BJ’s Lounge, a ramshackle bar in the Bywater neighbourhood of New Orleans – for the past 27 years. But tonight is special. Tonight is his 81st birthday.
“Ain’t nothing changed in here but the crowds,” he tells me, as the hum of the 150 or so revellers filters backstage. And then he’s off, walking unassumingly through the masses who make way out of respect, straight to the makeshift stage at the back of the bar.
He picks up his red Gibson, toggles the volume, and starts to strum, playing, starting with his interpretation of the old jazz classic Cleo’s Back .
One of the last bluesmen of his generation in a city famed for its jazz, King has become a local emblem over the years. Born Fread Eugene Martin in 1940 in the small town of McComb, Mississippi, he has ridden the peaks and troughs of New Orleans’s fortunes since he hopped the train south as a teenager.
His shows can feel like a transport back in time. He plays an often chaotic, dirty form of country blues – “gutbucket”, as he defines it. One cable, straight from guitar to amp, no effects or overdrive. It’s fluid tempo and timing, harmonica riffs, and stories that tell the tales of growing up poor in the Magnolia state and then life in New Orleans.
“It comes from the heart and the soul and the feeling, and also the depression that you went through” he says, when we meet the day before his birthday show. “People ask me, ‘Do you think the younger guys play the blues like you play?’ And I say: ‘No way.’ That’s because they didn’t go through what I went through. They have to pay their dues. Walk the streets with holes in their shoes, work a whole month without getting paid, like I did.’”
Little Freddie King has certainly paid his dues. During the past 81 years he has survived three shootings, a handful of stabbings, a near fatal bike accident that pressed his spine, a stomach ulcer doctors believed would kill him, an accidental electrocution, the hurricane that ripped New Orleans apart in 2005, and now a pandemic that claimed the lives of a number of other musicians of his generation across this city.
“I’ve been dead so many times,” he tells me. “But I thank the good Lord for bringing me back.”
It’s a line that has kept swirling in my head since watching him play that evening back in mid July. It’s the start of summer, before the Delta variant swept through Louisiana and before Hurricane Ida wrought havoc over the region, knocking out power in the city for a week.
As revellers dance, beer flows, and people make out against the walls, the past year feels like a world away. But I’m reminded that King has told me he has chosen not to take the Covid-19 vaccine.
He’s effectively risking his life again to do what he loves: play live.
The day before his birthday show we meet on his front porch in the Musician’s Village, a small neighborhood in New Orleans’s ninth ward that was rebuilt for musicians who lost their homes after Hurricane Katrina. A thunderstorm has just passed over and the asphalt outside glistens in the drizzling rain.
King sits with his longtime drummer and manager Wacko Wade, who he met in 1993 when King was working at a local auto repair store. Wade, 76, who keeps a trim handlebar moustache, had played in big band jazz before meeting King, but, after hearing him play, quit his other gigs to focus solely on working with King.
“I ain’t never heard nothing like that,” he remembers. “It was the simplicity and the feeling. This was really music, not just blasting your way to success with loud, shifted play.”
King can’t point to one particular instance that made him skeptical of the vaccine: a bad experience with the flu jab, fear that the inoculation might affect his playing, the confusing numbers on the news each day that he couldn’t always distinguish.
“I’m putting it in the good Lord’s hands,” he says. “He’ll take care of me. He pulled me through everything else.”
The past year and a half has been one of the worst in King’s life, he says, deprived of the ability to travel and play live in front of crowds.
“It’s been like being in jail, you know,” he says, his voice deep, still holding that Mississippi drawl. “Like being locked up in the penitentiary. But I thank God it’s just about to come back.”
His frustration is palpable. After a near lifetime of struggle, just before the pandemic hit, Little Freddie King had finally garnered some of the recognition and notoriety for his toil. He had just experienced a number of career highs: appearing in a pivotal scene in the Hollywood film Queen & Slim in 2019; and featuring in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade in 2016; he was in talks with Fender about involvement in an advertising campaign and had just released his latest album, Jaw Jackin’ Blues, and spent many years touring around Europe and South America.
The pandemic threatened to wipe much of it away.
It would not have been the first time Little Freddie King would be forced to start from scratch.
Hurricane Katrina brought 12ft of storm surge into his old home in the neighborhood of Bayou St John, disintegrating his five guitars, and destroying everything else.
He remembers returning to his home to pick through the wreckage in the chilling silence.
“It was strange,” he says. “You didn’t see no rats, no birds, no nothing. Everything was dead, just like in a dessert. All I felt was sorrow.”
Like many evacuees, King moved to Dallas, and spent the next two and a half years living in effective exile. The Texas city, with its web of highways and suburban sprawl, felt instantly alien. Despite promises from a local radio station, he found nowhere willing to let him play. Instead, on weekends, he would frequently board a Greyhound bus to New Orleans, a 15-hour round trip, to play at BJ’s Lounge, mercifully still intact and spared the worst of Katrina.
“He lifted the spirits of the people who came to see him,” says Wacko. “Everyone was rebuilding, working all day and all night. They’d turn up at BJ’s with paint and plaster on them, drink a beer and listen to him. They were in a different world.”
The crowds at BJ’s these days have changed somewhat, over a decade after King’s permanent return to the city and rise to prominence. Bywater is now one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, and King’s residency frequently draws in tourists staying at the expensive hotels increasingly encroaching on the neighborhood.
“The climate changed,” says Wacko. “And now we get middle aged rich people coming to our gigs instead of the kids.”
A week goes by after King’s birthday show with no communication from Wacko. Covid cases in the city continue to rise as the Delta variant begins to take hold in the state, with Louisiana suffering due to low vaccination rates. Deaths start to climb, hospitals are reaching capacity.
King had not been feeling well before the show. He took cough syrup that evening and resigned himself to sing a little less during the set. The show had been scheduled to take place outside, but a passing storm had forced it indoors.
You could sense the concern in Wacko’s voice before the gig, but any effort to convince King from playing was doomed to fail. Wade, a cancer survivor, took the vaccine almost as soon as it became available on the advice of his oncologist.
“I’m not going to die on no ventilator,” Wade had said. “And I’m not going to let that happen to Freddie neither.”
The two had a frank conversation after the gig. “You saw all them people out there, breathing on us. For us to come back and play, you’ve got to get that shot,” Wade told his friend. King nodded.
And then, after eight days, Wacko sent an email:
“Going to get LFK first vaccination Wed at 12pm.”
In late July, the bluesman arrives at a local Walgreens. His outfit – a pointed hat, shades, and a sharp brown waistcoat – is again at odds with the sterile surroundings. Word of his vaccination has got out and become something of a media event in itself. As well as the Guardian, a photographer and reporter from the local paper, the Advocate, arrives to document it.
He takes the jab on his right arm, the one he uses to strum, still worried the after effects might hurt his ability to form chords with his left hand.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” he remembers. “I just came straight back home and didn’t think no more about it.”
Minutes after the shot he went home to nap.
Fread Martin grew up among the brutal fixtures of Jim Crow.
As a young boy in 1940s McComb, young Fread Martin walked a 14-mile round trip to school, and only attended two days a week. He spent the rest of his time working the cotton fields. But it was here he got his first taste of the blues, both through touring artists, like Muddy Waters and BB King who would play in town, and also McComb’s famed son Bo Diddley.
He made his first guitar from a discarded cigar box, plucking hairs from a horse’s tail for the strings. His father, a blues player as well, taught him his first three chords; E natural, A7, B9.
“I first tried to play like other guys, but that didn’t work.” he says. “So I had to make up a version of my own. What I feel. What hits the heart and comes from the brain. I just produce it and play it.”
Then, on a school visit to New Orleans, he fell for the city’s comparative glamour instantly.
“I said: ‘Oh man, wow, this is really the place for me,’” he remembers of that school trip, telling the story with vivid clarity.
So he hopped on the train south, against the wishes of his mother, with only enough possessions to fit inside a pillowcase. He wound up living with his sister in New Orleans and after two weeks, he’d saved enough money from a job at a gas station to buy his first acoustic guitar. It cost $5.
Eventually, aged 18, he began street performances on Jackson Square: in the heart of the city’s French Quarter. In a city still defined by racial oppression and segregation he was hassled by the police and gave up the outdoor shows, but slowly he made his way on to New Orleans’s small, tight-knit blues scene.
Many of the venues, dotted around Black neighborhoods, have since disappeared: Club Desire in the ninth ward, the Busy Bee around Iberville. Most of the players too, like Slim Harpo, Polka Dot Slim, “Boogie” Bill Webb, also long deceased.
The pay was poor, $7 a show, and the crowds were tough.
“Sometimes we made good, but half the time we’d get ripped off,” he remembers.
Nowhere was more precarious than the Busy Bee, where bar brawls, stabbings and shootings often punctuated King’s live shows. During his first gig at the club, he says, a bargoer in the crowd was attacked with a razor blade. During his second show, a group stormed the venue with baseball bats.
“They busted a man’s head who was drinking at the bar and he fell out on the floor,” he remembers sketching it out with his hands. “They had a big record machine right over there by the band stand. That was always my cover, where I’d hide.”
The bar, alongside a number of others where he made his name no longer exists.
King nicknamed the venue “the bucket of blood”. Now demolished, a university hospital sits in its place. “That’s a bigger bucket of blood now,” he says, laughing.
But he didn’t always dodge the bullet. In 1979 he was stabbed and shot by his partner, Amy, who accused him of adultery. He survived, but a fragment of the shot still sits in his back. They reconciled shortly after and got married, with King caring for her until she passed away. He took another bullet, an accidental discharge, a few years later and then got caught in crossfire during a shootout at a street carnival, taking buckshot to the neck.
But it was King’s drinking habit that perhaps came closer to claiming his life. He battled alcoholism for much of the 1980s, but it was 1989 when he found himself coughing up blood. He rushed to the hospital and doctors told him they feared the worst as they failed to stem the blood loss.
Somehow, after days of intensive care, he began to recover and vowed never to drink liquor again.
“I said: ‘Thank you Jesus for letting me see another day’,” he remembers. He’s remained sober since.
It’s late August, and New Orleans is preparing for Hurricane Ida, which is gaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico and due to make landfall within 48 hours. Little Freddie King is sitting at home with Wacko watching a DVD of Howlin’ Wolf in concert from 1970. The inside of his small shotgun apartment, is daubed with memorabilia and old news clippings; a bedspread is decorated with images from King’s album covers, guitars hang neatly along the corridor, the line ending with his red Gibson, which now has a Walgreens sticker on the pickguard: “I got the Covid-19 vaccine.”
It’s been almost two months since his 81st birthday, and the sense of a city returning to normalcy has long dissipated as the pandemic rages on. Visitor numbers have dropped off again, and venues are now requiring proof of vaccination. Just a few weeks earlier, organizers announced the cancellation of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival, the premier music event of the calendar, which usually draws hundreds of thousands of tourists.
It’s also the event that helped propel Little Freddie King into mainstream recognition. He has been a fixture at the festival since the 1980s.
“I hate that it happened like that,” King says, sitting on his couch practicing a few licks on the red Gibson. “I’m just praying to the good Lord again, to clear up the sickness and bring everything back soon.”
Still, the pandemic has forced Wade and King to think more pragmatically about their future. No more international festivals or national tours for chump change and hours of travel.
“The body ain’t able to take it any more,” King says.
They’ll play local only from now on.
After Ida passes, I text Wacko to check in. They’ve both been without power for seven days but are holding out like they’ve grown used to. Wacko has been dropping ice off at Freddie’s home every day. He’s been at home with only a flashlight to keep the house illuminated.
“Another day in fuckin’ paradise,” he says. “We are culturally resilient, brother.”
The King survived again.