September 3, 1934 – December 28, 1976When King was only six, his mother Ella Mae King and his uncle began teaching Freddie guitar. In autumn 1949, King and his family moved from Dallas to the South Side of Chicago. In 1952 King started working in a steel mill, the same year he married fellow Texas native Jessie Burnett, with whom he eventually had seven children.
Almost as soon as he had moved to Chicago, King started sneaking into South Side nightclubs, where he heard blues performed by Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson. King formed his first band, the Every Hour Blues Boys, with guitarist Jimmie Lee Robinson and drummer Frank "Sonny" Scott. In 1952, while employed at the steel mill, an eighteen-year-old King occasionally worked as a Sideman with such bands as the Little Sonny Cooper Band and Earl Payton's Blues Cats. In 1953 he recorded with the latter for Parrot Records, but these recordings were never released. As the 1950s went on, King played with several of Muddy Waters's sidemen and other Chicago mainstays, including guitarists Jimmy Rogers, Robert Lockwood Jr., Eddie Taylor, Hound Dog Taylor, bassist Willie Dixon, Pianist Memphis Slim and harpist Little Walter.
In 1956 he cut his first record as a leader, for El-Bee Records. The A-side was a duet with a Margaret Whitfield, "Country Boy", and the B-side was a King vocal. Both tracks feature the guitar of Robert Lockwood, Jr., who during these same years was also adding rhythm backing and fills to Little Walter's records.
King was repeatedly rejected in auditions for the South Side's Chess Records, the premier blues label, which was home to Muddy, Wolf, and Walter. The complaint was that Freddie King sang too much like B.B. King. A newer blues scene, lively with nightclubs and upstart record companies, was burgeoning on the West Side, though. Bassist and producer Willie Dixon, during a late 1950s period of estrangement from Chess, had King come to Cobra Records for a session, but the results have never been heard. Meanwhile, King established himself as perhaps the biggest musical force on the West Side. King played along with Magic Sam and supposedly did uncredited backing guitar on some of Sam's tracks for Mel London's Chief and Age labels, though King does not stand out anywhere.
In 1959 King got to know Sonny Thompson, pianist, producer, and A&R man for Cincinnati's King Records and King owner Syd Nathan signed King to the subsidiary Federal label in 1960. King recorded his debut single for the label on August 26, 1960: "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" backed with "You've Got To Love Her With A Feeling" (again as "Freddy" King). From the same recording session at the King Studios in Cincinnati, Ohio, King cut the instrumental "Hide Away," which the next year reached #5 on the R&B Charts and #29 on the Pop Singles Charts, an unprecedented accomplishment for a blues instrumental at a time when the genre was still largely unknown to white audiences. "Hide Away" was originally released as the B-side of "I Love the Woman". "Hide Away" was King's conglomeration of a theme by Hound Dog Taylor and parts by others, such as from "The Walk" by Jimmy McCracklin and "Peter Gunn", as credited by King. The song's title comes from Mel's Hide Away Lounge, a popular blues club on the West Side of Chicago. Willie Dixon later claimed that he had recorded King doing "Hide Away" for Cobra Records in the late 1950s, but such a version has never surfaced. "Hide Away" has since become a blues standard.
After their success with "Hide Away," King and Sonny Thompson recorded thirty instrumentals, including "The Stumble," "Just Pickin'," "Sen-Sa-Shun," "Side Tracked," "San-Ho-Zay," "High Rise," and "The Sad Nite Owl". Vocal tracks continued to be recorded throughout this period, but often the instrumentals were marketed on their own merits as albums. During the Federal period King toured with many of the R&B acts of the day such as, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and James Brown, who performed in the same concerts.
King's contract with Federal expired in 1966, and his first overseas tour followed in 1967. King's availability was noticed by producer and saxophonist King Curtis, who had recorded a cover of "Hide Away," with Cornell Dupree on guitar in 1962. Curtis signed King to Atlantic in 1968, which resulted in two LP's, Freddie King Is a Blues Master (1969) and My Feeling for the Blues (1970), produced by Curtis for the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records.
In 1969 King hired Jack Calmes as his manager, who secured him an appearance at the 1969 Texas Pop Festival, alongside Led Zeppelin and others, and this led to King's being signed to Leon Russell's new label, Shelter Records. The company treated King as an important artist, flying him to Chicago to the former Chess studios for the recording of Getting Readyand gave him a backing line-up of top session musicians, including rock pianist Leon Russell. Three albums were made during this period, including blues classics and new songs like, "Goin' Down" written by Russell and Don Nix.
King performed alongside the big rock acts of the day, such as Eric Clapton and for a young, mainly white audience, along with white tour drummer Gary Carnes for three years, before signing to RSO. In 1974 he recordedBurglar, for which Tom Dowdproduced the track "Sugar Sweet" at Criteria Studios in Miami, with guitarists Clapton and slide guitarist George Terry, drummer Jamie Oldaker and bassist Carl Radle. Mike Vernon produced all the other tracks. Vernon also produced a second album Larger than Lifewith King, for the same label. Vernon brought in other notable musicians for both albums such as Bobby Tench of The Jeff Beck Group, to complement King.
Near-constant touring took its toll on King (he was on the road almost 300 days out of the year), and in 1976 he began suffering stomach ulcers. His health quickly deteriorated and he died on December 28 of complications from that and acute pancreatitis at the age of 42.
According to those who knew him, King's untimely death was due to both stress and poor diet (he was in the habit of consuming Bloody Marys in lieu of solid food so as not to waste time when setting up shows).