Willie King, Old Memphis

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Willie King (2009)

Willie King of Old Memphis, Alabama passed away on March 8 2009. King’s debut album introduced him into the blues world. King’s music was acclaimed by critics worldwide and received awards from Living Blues Magazine for Best Male Blues Artist (2001), Best Blues Album (2000) and Best Contemporary Blues Album (2000).

His grandparents, who were local sharecroppers, raised Willie and his siblings. Music was important to the King family - Willie's grandfather was a gospel singer, and his absent father was an amateur blues musician. Young Willie made a diddley bo by nailing a baling wire to a tree in the yard. By age 9, he had a one-string guitar that he could bring indoors to play at night.

In 1967, Willie King moved to Chicago in an attempt to make more money than he could down South. After a year spent on the West and South Sides, he returned to Old Memphis, Alabama, just across the border from the Mississippi Prairie. A salesman - of shoes, cologne, and other frivolities - Willie traveled the rural roads hawking goods and talking politics.


Willie King at Bettie's Place

Choosing not to work under the "old system" of unequal treatment, King joined the civil rights movement near the end of the decade. In 1987, a chance meeting at a festival in Eutaw, Alabama, blew Rooster Blues founder Jim O'Neal away: According to O'Neal, King's "juke-joint musical style and political lyrics knocked me down." The two kept in touch for the next 13 years, during which O'Neal relocated his label, and King concentrated on his own community, forging relationships with local youth through a blues education program, through his organization The Rural Members Association.

 
Alabama Arts Radio Program of a 2003 Interview with Willie King by Rebecca Ryals