Guy King brings an international sensibility and a deep passion to his blues. Born and raised in Israel, he came to the United States to stay in his early twenties. While he calls Chicago home these days, he still travels the world, bringing his music that combines elements of jazz, swing, soul, and blues to people everywhere he can.
When he arrived in the United States, he spent a bit of time in Memphis and New Orleans before settling in Chicago. He spent six years playing in Willie Kent’s Band, and became his bandleader. After Kent passed, King began doing his own thing, touring extensively. He has opened for and played with some of the greats including B.B. King.
In 2009, King released his well received and critically acclaimed first solo effort, Livin’ It. He has played at a multitude of venues around the world including Montreal Jazz Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, King Biscuit Festival (Helena, Arkansas), Blues on the Fox, The Paramount Theatre, Polanco Blues Festival (Mexico City, Mexico), Mississippi Delta Festival (Caxias Do Sul, Brazil), and the Basel Blues Festival (Switzerland).
King recently released his exciting new album, Truth, on Delmark Records. American Blues Scene spoke with King about his formative years, his extensive touring, how he has honed his craft, and his new album.
Barry Kerzner for American Blues Scene:
You were born and raised in Israel, and you first visited the United States when you in your teens.
I was 16 years old, and I was part of a vocal group to perform, to do a long tour of about 35 states for three or four months. Then I went back at the end of the tour. I finished High School in Israel, I did three years in the army, and as soon as I got out, I was on an airplane! I was on my way to Memphis. I stayed a while, and then a short while in New Orleans, and then I headed up to Chicago.
I took a Greyhound bus form Memphis to New Orleans, and an Amtrak train to Chicago from New Orleans.
How much time did you spend in Memphis and New Orleans?
A few months. Sometimes it’s not the amount of time, but the focus and the state of mind that you have. I was all alone after being in the Army for three years, and a bit with my family. If you concentrate and you’re trying to achieve something, and you are by yourself, even a day is a long time to absorb and to learn things. I did learn a lot on that time, being on my own, just a suitcase and guitar.
In the past, you kept a pretty rigorous schedule. Do you see that as a benefit, or does it just wear you down?
That’s interesting. You’re asking me something that’s been on my mind for many years now. I play a little bit less than I used to. A few years ago I started traveling more and played Brazil and South America. Before that, after I did my first album, Living It, until 2012 when I stopped performing as much as started touring more, I would do a two month run, back off, a month run, back off. Before that, if you had looked at my schedule, every month I had between 20 to 40 dates. A lot of times, I would do two shows a day. If it was with my band, or me playing an solo performance, just guitar and voice, then meeting my trio to play a jazz set in the afternoon, then my full band at night to play full rhythm and blues.
I think that there was a demand for what I was doing, and the stages became a little bit larger. I started traveling and stopped performing as much, and I enjoyed that. The original material, the arrangements for the horn section and the larger band that I had; it’s a good fit for a larger stage. I felt I would like to present it in a larger way, and that’s what I started doing. I think it’s a natural growth and needing to happen. I still think that.
I do believe that you can get burnt out playing tons of gigs. It depends what you are trying to accomplish. There is a time when you were paying dues, what musicians call “shedding.” You are getting your sound together. I always rave about people who influence me, but I have my own touch, my own sound. I think you are born with most of it, but usually you get it by playing and performing. So, performing so much, with Willie Kent and then my own group, did help me establish a stronger sense of touch, and my own sound. Now I think, once you establish it, you need to get your self together and always improve and move forward, and play better than you did yesterday.
How has all this time you spent performing helped your playing, and your composing as well?
It’s tricky because you can get burnt out. I came, and I did not know anybody. My goal coming up was just to play. That’s the only way I could get noticed. I wanted to play. I heard records as a child and I felt, and I still feel like it was my time to play, to get out my own touch and my own sound to people.
What helps your composing the most?
I think what help composing for me is living. Walking, talking, breathing, experiencing everything you can. I don’t think it really matters if it’s doing performance. I think actually, it’s everyday life that I get my ideas from. Of course, sometimes you hit a certain chord that gels and you build a certain song on it. I think the stuff that really lasts is the stuff that you got naturally, while living.
I think, to me, music is very much an extension of the everyday. At least that’s the way it will come out the most natural, and the most true.
In your experience, what is the biggest difference in US audiences vs audiences abroad, especially in how they perceive music?
I have not toured as much in the states as I have overseas. With the release of the new album, Truth, I’m hoping to tour more, both in the United States and overseas. I thought that the crowds, especially in South America, were maybe a tad younger in age, at least at my shows, and it was more of a show. I have a certain following; the presentation was more of a show. The music here has been here [in the US] so long that, I shouldn’t say it’s taken for granted, but it’s not celebrated and given proper weight at times.
Festivals are all about the music, but sometimes at the regular, during-the-week-venues, it could be taken as pretty ordinary. Then again, it’s up to the performer to make it a special event, presenting their music in a way that make the people remember what happened on that particular night.
I think overseas, the music is more celebrated; it is more treasured. That’s probably form the rarity of it. That’s something that came from the outside, and they want it to be celebrated as something special, that they do not get on a regular basis.
You listen to a wide breadth of genres including jazz, soul, big band, swing, and more.
Rock I probably heard more in my early teens because people around my age bracket listened to that. I probably didn’t listen to it as much after I found the blues. I felt like I had found the source. Everything from then was getting to the root. Two reasons: one, I liked it better because it felt more true and more natural, and less infected by other things. Also, I really understood the tradition, not just listen to it for a day; if I really get that, then I can develop from that. It will enrich my base, which will allow me to create my own style.
I went all the way back in blues, in jazz, which are the two popular forms in the states. I did the same thing listening to Brazilian music as well.When you perform a lot, I needed a place for my ears during the day.
Charlie Cristian and Django Reinhardt are cited and revered by guitarists in every genre of music, from metal to jazz. How have they helped you with your style and your growth?
I was exposed to Django, probably a little bit before I heard of Charlie Cristian. Then I listened to Charlie Cristian, mostly because I was playing the guitar and I got into – through Ray Charles – more jazz, which led me to Charlie Cristian. To Charlie Parker, to Oscar Peterson, to the Count Basie Orchestra, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Mind you, I was exposed to that type of jazz, the big bands, because as a child, I did play clarinet since I was very young, before I played the guitar.
I wanted to know the difference between Charlie Cristian and T-Bone Walker. I could see a lot of similarities in what they do, and I could see the differences as well. They have been influences on me. I always enjoy listening to them.
As far as a groundbreaking person who did it mostly to me, coming from that style, from the more, I should say, jazzy side of the tracks, would be Wes Montgomery; for myself. Charlie Cristian and Django Reinhardt started something that, to my ear, Wes was able to take what they did and carry it forward, and in a way that I haven’t heard anybody do. They definitely influenced me and I enjoy listening to it every time I listen to it, but it took me to Wes Montgomery.
Same when I heard B.B. King, and Albert King, or Robert Johnson, and Ray Charles. It was almost the same thing. It was things that I knew, that were right for me to build on.
I think that their music is almost to regard as classical music, it’s the root. They’ve already evolved since then, so, you should know it.
You use a lot of jazz style chords. Folks can tell that you’ve listened to the great orchestras; Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and you’ve digested that. You have a sensibility about your music and your playing. You consider everything, not only the guitar, but the arrangement, and the other instruments as well. That only comes from listening.
I thank you for that, because it’s nice to hear that people recognize that and enjoy it. I liked music before I knew what a guitar was, and I don’t ever want to for get that. It’s the sum of all parts that make the song. If I am playing by myself, then I will try to make the guitar the sum of all parts, and make the song in my voice. Things weave in and out, and music is getting everything together, to get my message across.
I try for the things that move me the most to be my influence, and build upon them. So, I definitely listen to duke Ellington, and I definitely listen to Count Basie.
Your new album, Truth, is amazing! Tell your fans a little more about it from your perspective.
I would invite people to listen to it. I mean, hopefully they get it. Hopefully, they purchase it, and even more, get me to their town, to let me perform it live to them, to bring that little bit of extra that you can’t get from the record.
The record was really a joy to make. It didn’t seem strained, but it did involve work, don’t get me wrong. You can’t put everything together without putting in the time. I rehearsed my rhythm section as its own unit. I rehearsed my horn section just by myself, I rehearsed the background vocalists; just me and them and my guitar. Then I put everything together. I wrote the charts, and I put everything together. It was great. Being on Delmark, that was the first time; my first album on Delmark.
Having Dick Sherman wanting to work with me and produce my work was great. He suggested a few of the key songs of the album. I mean, songs that I did not know before. Mind you, a little secret. It’s a long album, and we shelved two songs. Who knows? Maybe, we’ll release them on a collection one day. Dick brought a lot of experience. It was great having another set of ears and just being together in the studio. Most of the time it was Richard Sherman producing, and Steve Wagner, the Delmark engineer in the studio. It was great to work at the Delmark Studio.
I took certain things that influenced me, gave them my renditions, my arrangements, and I co-wrote three songs with the wonderful David Ritz. I finally had a chance to do something more similar to the way I actually sound, live. That was my goal. When I spoke with them in the beginning, I told then I wanted to make something great, I want to make something that sounds, ‘Wow!’ I want it to sound like me so I can go on the road and sound pretty much the same, plus make the crowd see me sweat doing it.
I wanted to make an album that reflects me, that shows the way I feel music, and think about music.