Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Interview with Guy King
From the Holy Land to Blues Capitol Chicago, King’s star rises with new Delmark CD and a Red Sea homecoming
By Linda Cain
Guy King may have been born in a rural part of Israel, but when it comes to music, he is a citizen of the world. From the moment he stepped onto U.S. soil at age 16, as part of a high school music touring ensemble, King knew he belonged here, where the music he loved originated. He vowed to return -- to travel and live in America’s music cities -- to learn and absorb the musical landscape attached to each town’s history.
Influenced as a youth by B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Robert Johnson, Otis Rush, Freddie King and others, the aspiring young bluesman began his apprenticeship in Memphis in 1999. He also visited New Orleans and then made his way to the blues mecca – Chicago – where after a year of studying the local scene, was invited to join Willie Kent’s band as a guitarist. Bandleader/bassist Kent, who played alongside Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, passed his firsthand knowledge of Chicago blues history along to his apprentice.
Since Kent’s passing in 2006, King has continued his musical journey -- to study, learn, travel, and expand his musical resume. He has released three independent CDs: Livin’ It, By Myself, and I Am What I Am And It Is What It Is.
And this Spring, King made his major blues label debut on the storied Delmark Records with the CD Truth. The CD has earned him international airplay, a Number One spot on several Blues and Roots Music charts, and critical acclaim. He has been nominated for two Blues Blast Music Awards for 2016. (Voting is open to the public until August 15).
This summer his career will come full circle when he performs at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel on August 30, 2016.
You can visit King’s website to find out where else he is performing:
Q. Congratulations on getting signed to Delmark Records and on the release of your label debut CD entitled Truth. What were your goals for this album?
GK: Thank you very much! My goals were to record the best album I could at the time of the recording, and to make an album that would reflect the way I sound now. An album that will be real, true and natural.
Q. How did you pick the songs and prepare to record them? Is there a set procedure or ritual that you follow when you go into the studio?
GK: I had an idea of a few songs and an overall sound that I wanted the album to have, I wrote a few songs with writer David Ritz, and I also discussed album material with Dick Shurman, who produced the album. Dick brought a few of the selected songs to my attention.
Q. You had help from two very prestigious music industry folks: Dick Shurman and David Ritz.
Chicagoan Dick Shurman is a noted author, historian and producer, having worked with legends like Johnny Winter and Albert Collins. What was it like working with Dick and how did he guide you?
GK: Dick is a friend that I respect both personally and professionally. We have been wanting to work together for some time and have been waiting for the opportunity for it to happen. Working together with Dick was great: from the first stages of getting together and discussing the nature of the album and picking the material, through the rehearsals, the recordings, and the post production, mixing and editing phases.
It was wonderful to have Dick’s guidance; he knows my sound, certain things that are unique to me, and tried to have me sound like myself. This made me feel comfortable to do pretty much anything I wanted, and as I mentioned before, Dick suggested a few songs that I wouldn’t have thought of myself, which ended up being some of my favorites!
Q. How did you and famous writer David Ritz, who authored biographies of Etta James, B.B. King and Ray Charles, come together to write three songs for the album? Did he volunteer to help out right when you first met him at Buddy Guy’s club?
GK: This is actually a story that David describes in the liner notes of Truth; David was in Chicago, writing the autobiography of Buddy Guy with Buddy himself, when Buddy invited him to go with him and listen to my show at Legends that night.
David introduced himself to me at the end of the show and said how much he enjoyed my set. I told him how much I enjoyed his books about Ray Charles and B.B. King and we met the next day; we wrote three songs within a couple of hours, and became friends.
It is really nice when we get together as friends, talk and write the songs; we enjoy much of the same music, so things really happen without effort.
In July of 2015 I was performing a few shows in L.A. and I went to visit David at his studio. I told him that I am about to record with Delmark and he said that he would love for us to write new songs for the album. We sat and spoke for a while about a few ideas, I played a few melodies and chords on my guitar, and that day we wrote the three songs that would make it to the album: “Truth”, “My Happiness”, and “A Day In A Life With The Blues”.
Q. I heard you were living in L.A. at one point. Was that because of David Ritz?
GK: I stayed in L.A. for a couple of months as I was traveling a lot and wanted to see different places, check out the music scenes, experience different things, and try different climates. David and I were already friends when I traveled to LA, but it wasn’t because of that. We did however meet there and sat to write together more, as we try to do whenever we get the chance.
Q. He wrote Ray Charles’ biography (among others). Did he tell you any interesting behind the scenes stories about Ray Charles, since you are a huge fan?
GK: When David first saw me perform it was at Buddy Guy’s Legends, I sang “Georgia On My Mind”. He is a big music fan, and some of my biggest musical influences are his favorite musicians as well, if it’s B.B. King, Albert King, Wes Montgomery, and of course Ray Charles. David told me about him writing with Ray Charles, how Ray was, and about the process. As you can imagine, it was wonderful to hear the stories and know more about Ray, since I never had the opportunity to meet him personally.
Q. On Truth, you sing a duet with a talented young lady named Sarah Marie Young, who has a beautiful, soulful voice. Please tell us about her.
GK: Yes, the song “My Happiness” which I wrote with David Ritz, is a duet featuring Sarah. In 2014, when I came to perform a series of summer shows in Chicago, I went to a venue to hear Sarah sing. I thought she was wonderful and she then asked me to join her onstage and sing something together. We sang together, and it was great. There was something special there and we both wanted to sing together more. When the opportunity came, I asked Sarah to sing with me on the album, and she agreed, and offered to sing background on other tunes as well.
Q. Let’s take a trip in the way-back machine. Please tell us about your childhood growing up in a rural part of Israel. What types of music were you exposed to when you were a kid?
GK: I was born in Israel, in a very small and beautiful town. I was exposed to things we heard on the radio, from local Israeli music in Hebrew, which was beautiful and pretty rich harmonically and melodically especially for popular music, to American popular music. I also heard classical music and played clarinet since a young age, and had some knowledge of Jazz, mostly orchestrated. As a child, I remember listening to music on the radio
When I came back from school in the afternoon, and at times Ray Charles would come on, something like “I Can’t’ Stop Loving You” or Crying Time”, as well as Louis Armstrong, whom my father liked. I also remember hearing Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and soon after got into Marvin Gaye and Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. As I picked up the guitar and got more into it, I heard of B.B. King and Albert King, which changed everything for me, and I really started getting deeper into the Blues.
Q. When did you first pick up a guitar? Did you take lessons?
GK: I picked up the guitar at age 13 or 14. Friends whom I was in a band with together showed me a couple of chords and how to move my fingers and that was it! My mother wanted me to be taught and take lessons as I did with the clarinet so I tried it and did for a very short time. I did learn a few things but mostly it didn’t feel right and I felt as I needed to get it on my own. So I listened to a lot of music, and tried to play as nice as the music that I liked so much and do the things that sounded good to me.
Q. Did you have any mentors in Israel?
GK: The most important personal mentors, of course. My parents who have passed away, and also my brothers and my sister. My family has been my most important mentors, which allows me to sing and play the way I do today. Good friends whom I grew up with, played as children and teenagers with, and band members who were and still close friends. Musically, my mentors and the people I listened to mostly were on records.
Q. How did you discover blues music?
GK: I heard elements of the Blues in the music I heard as a child on the radio. I listened to Soul, R & B, Jazz and Popular music, but the Blues as its own style. I remember listening to an Eric Clapton CD that had “Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and a few more songs that captured me and started me on the search to get closer to the origin of the music.
Q. Which blues musicians were your favorites back then?
GK: I was fortunate to hear of B.B. King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson, Albert Collins, Freddie King, and Otis Rush. I did hear of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but not as much as the ones I mentioned before. B.B. King and Albert King were my biggest influences then, especially when it came to the guitar. It was difficult to get the music and listen to it back then, because a lot of it just wasn’t available from where I lived.
Q. You toured America and Canada at age 16 with a high school singing group from Israel. What kind of music were you singing?
GK: The singing group performed Pop based music. It had some soul influences but was basically pop. Also, much of the music we performed was a combination of English and Hebrew. I really think that music is just music- sometimes I don’t really hear a style, but it’s just music that I like or don’t like. This usually has to do with the soul of the music and the way it feels to me more than the so called “style”.
Q. What were the first impressions you had of America?
GK: I loved it, I really did. I was very impressed with the size of everything and how organized everything was. You need to remember that Israel is very small, and that I come from a small country town there. Seeing the highways here, the roads, the big cities, the buildings…everything seemed very big and very impressive. I was also amazed that the music that I loved so much was here. It actually lived here and was the daily soundtrack for everything. That’s how it felt to me.
Q. After serving in the Army, you came back to explore the music scenes in Memphis and New Orleans. Did you know anybody there at the time, or were you a total stranger? And when was that?
GK: This was 1999. The only people I knew there was a family in Memphis who had hosted me when I was 16. We kept in touch and they were very kind to me. They were the only ones I knew there. I didn’t know anyone on the music scene, and so I walked a lot and took the bus in Memphis, trying to listen to live music whenever I could and picking up albums to listen to, albums which I didn’t know about in Israel. I took the bus to New Orleans and got a chance to see a lot of the places that I heard about along the way, then in New Orleans, I listened to music, and absorbed some of the city’s atmosphere.
The time in Memphis and New Orleans allowed me to be by myself, travel alone, listen to music, think about things, and then pick up my guitar, play, sing and start figuring things out, telling my story, and getting my sound.
Q. And then you relocated to Chicago and played in Willie Kent’s band. You and Willie were very close. What musical and life lessons did you learn from him?
GK: Willie used to tell me that you can always learn from people; you can learn what to do and what not to do. He was right, and I saw this in many situations in life and music. Willie was also very patient with me. He listened, noticed, and encouraged me as I improved and found my own sound and my own voice. I am very grateful for the time I was able to spend with him.
Q. Sadly, Willie passed away in 2006. Did you take time off from the music scene after that? What did you do?
GK: When Willie passed away in 2006 I did not feel like playing too much. I was asked and expected to lead Willie’s band “The Gents” as I did when he was sick, but it did not feel right to me. “The Gents” were Willie Kent’s band. I was grateful and honored to be a part of the band and even lead it for a while, but it was strange having to do the same thing and perform at the same places with the same people knowing that Willie was gone and would not show up to perform with us.
I didn’t play out for a few months after his passing. I worked a
maintenance job to support myself and listened to a lot of music. In the
evenings I would play my guitar and try to put the new things I heard to
use. I improved a lot during that time and about 6 months later, the
urge returned and I decided to form my band.
Q. Willie’s style was traditional hard core blues. When you went solo, you switched to a more swinging, jazzy style of blues and seemed to really get into Ray Charles and T-Bone Walker. Was this something you always aspired to as a kid back in Israel, or did your tastes and talent gradually evolve after traveling and studying the music in its various forms?
GK: First, Willie’s style had much more to it than traditional hard core blues. People seem to forget what a great singer of many styles he was and the diverse material that he performed on a nightly basis. Everything was “drenched” with Blues, this is true, and it was the reason I wanted to join Willie’s band in the first place, but I was with him for 6 years and can say that Willie Kent and the Gents played and sang a lot of Soul, Rhythm & Blues, and Funk as well. He would also pull out and sing a ballad when he felt the spirit, and do it all with great sensitivity and sensibility. The feeling is the important thing about the music! Willie knew it as well and encouraged this with me; I was playing a lot of Albert King, B.B. King and Albert Collins with Willie Kent, but was also already playing “Robert Johnson, Ray Charles and T-Bone Walker” as well, and started adding them to my long list of influences back then.
Now about my style: I have always liked music, and the better to my ears it is, the more I like it! This is what brought me to the Blues as a style of music in the first place. I have been playing music since I was a child, and for the most part I am self-taught. This means that everything good that I hear becomes my music school, and I learn from it. When I came out with my own band after Willie Kent’s passing, I added a few more “ingredients to my stew”. When I sing and play, what I am trying to deliver to my audience is my feeling, my touch. This is the important thing, and this is the Blues – the feeling. This is what makes it mine, this is what is personal, more than trying to define one song or another and categorizing it.
Q. When did you leave Chicago and where did you go?
GK: In September 2012 I decided to hit the road and travel more. I performed and traveled a lot in Brazil, performed in Argentina and Chile, visited Israel and stayed for a while, and drove across the U.S. and spent a few months in California. I traveled, saw places and people as well as performed, albeit less than I performed before. I did however make sure to return to Chicago every year.
Q. When you returned to Chicago and put together your Little Big Band, complete with a horn section, you got to open for B.B. King at the Paramount Theater in Aurora. Did you get to meet him or spend any time with the King of the Blues?
GK: Actually, I did this in Chicago before I did any traveling. I added the horn section to my rhythm section and formed my “Little Big Band” while working on my first album Livin’ It in 2008. I have been performing with my larger band concept ever since. I opened the show for B.B. King with my band in January, 2011. I had the pleasure and the honor of meeting Mr. B.B. King a few months before that at the House of Blues in Chicago which was a true joy for me, and something that I only dreamt of. A few of his band members came to hang out and listen to my band at Andy’s the following night and a few months later I was asked to open B.B. King’s show at the Paramount theatre. We met again after my set and after he finished performing and he was very kind to me and complimented me on my performance. It was very moving to me to hear B.B. King acknowledge and introduce my name during his performance. Listening to his albums and admiring him since I was very young in a small village in Israel, I only dreamt about this scenario, and I am thankful for having this memory now.
Q. Have you worked with or opened for any other famous blues artists? If so, did any of them offer any words of advice or encouragement?
GK: I opened the show for Buddy Guy and had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him many times, which is always an honor.
I have been performing at his club Legends since I was 21 years old, as a member of Willie Kent’s Band, and also as the leader of my band; Buddy has seen me since I first came to Chicago and has taken the time to talk to me, tell me personal life stories and give me words of advice and encouragement. He is very complimentary when it comes to my playing and my music and this alone is something that makes me want to continue in trying to be the best that I can be and do what I do at the best possible level.
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to perform with many great musicians and have also had the opportunity to be on the same bill as great musicians who I knew about and listened to as an up and coming musician.
Q. You have spent time living and performing in Brazil. Tell us about that experience.
GK: I played my first tour in Brazil in October 2011 and have spent a significant amount of time there since. The people, the food, the music, and the beautiful and raw nature at some places made Brazil an important place for me. I listen to and play Brazilian music as well, and having the chance to make this influence a part of my music is wonderful. I was fortunate to tour and spend time in Brazil, pick up the Portuguese language, and perform my music to a lot of people who showed big support in my music and became true fans. I had the opportunity to be a guest and perform on a very popular TV show in Brazil; “Programa Do Jo” which helped me reach even more of the public.
Q. There seems to be a real cultural exchange going on with our blues artists going to play in South America and joining forces with blues players there like Igor Prado. Did you run into any Chicagoans while down there?
GK: I did a few tours in Brazil and South America and had the pleasure to meet and have wonderful musicians perform with me. I met Chicagoans a couple of times while performing in Brazil. It’s always nice to meet good people that you know on the road.
Q. You recently moved back to Chicago and were able to pick up your old gigs at places like Andy’s and Buddy Guy’s. Since you move around a lot, how do you maintain a band you can play with in each city or country?
GK: In Chicago I have my band, as I did since I started my solo career. Sometimes when long distance traveling was involved, I was asked to perform with local musicians. I send the musicians my recordings and charted music, they do their homework, and I meet them to rehearse the material before a series of shows. I am fortunate to have great musicians with me in Chicago and have been fortunate to have great musicians in different cities and countries who want to play and perform with me.
Q. Are you planning on stationing yourself in Chicago for the foreseeable future as your home base?
GK: I am stationed in Chicago, and it is my home base. Ever since I came to Chicago in 1999 it has been my home base. Even when I left to travel more in September of 2012, I made sure to come back to Chicago every year, until my return in June 2015 to record Truth, and since then I have been here performing in the last year.
Q. Have you been back to perform in Israel lately? What is the blues scene like there now?
GK: I performed two shows in Israel for the first time since coming to the States, in December 2013 and it was a wonderful and moving experience. I performed one more solo show in Israel the following year.
Israel has a Blues Society and in recent years it seems that the blues is getting more exposure, which is wonderful. As I have been living here in Chicago since 1999 and touring and spending time in Brazil in the past few years, I do not know too much about the current music scene in Israel.
I can tell you that there are some wonderful musicians in Israel that are good enough to play on any stage anywhere.
Q. If your fans in Israel wanted to see you perform, where would they go see you? Are there blues venues over there, like we have here?
GK: I will be performing at this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel on August 30. This will be the first time that I am coming to Israel with my band from Chicago and I am very much looking forward to it!
Yes, there are very nice music venues and festivals in Israel. When it comes down to blues music, it is still not as known or popular as it is here though it seems as it is moving forward and getting a little more known in recent years.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with Chicago Blues Guide.
GK: Thank you for having me!