Earl King was born on February 7, 1934, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His full birth name was Earl Silas Johnson IV. His father, a piano player, died while King was still a baby. His mother raised him on her own and took her son to church at a early age. At the age of 15, he started playing guitar and entering competitions at clubs, which included the Dew Drop Inn. At one of these clubs, he met his inspiration Guitar Slim.
King began imitating Slim, modeling his work after his favorite artist. Then, when Slim was injured in a car wreck, King took his place on Slim’s tour. This went so well that King became a regular at the Dew Drop Inn.
In 1953, Savoy Records produced his first recording. It was released under his name, Earl Johnson, and contained “Have You Gone Crazy” and “Begging at Your Mercy.” Later that same year, Johnny Vincent, a talent scout, got King acquainted with Specialty Records. He recorded a few side tracks for them, including the locally popular “Mother’s Love.” Two years later, Vincent signed King to his record label Ace. King’s first song for them, “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights”, was a huge hit. It reached number 7 on the Billboard R&B chart. King would go on to record for Ace for five years.
In 1960, King was invited to Imperial Records by Dave Bartholomew. King stayed with them for three years. During this time, he recorded his two signature songs “Trick Bag” and “Come On.” He also co-wrote songs for other artists, often using the pseudonym “E.C. King.” After 1963, King recorded without a label for the duration of the 1960’s. He chose to focus on songwriting and producing for local labels, such as Watch and NOLA. In the mid-1960’s, he went to Detroit’s Mowtown Records and recorded a few songs , three of which were produced on an album entitled Mowtown’s Blue Evolution. The album was not released until 1996.
King was joined by Allen Toussaint and the Meters in 1972. Their intent was to record the album Street Parade, which was originally picked up by Atlantic Records, but they eventually declined. Kansu released the title track in 1972, but the album itself was not released until a decade later by Charly Records in the UK. During the 1970’s, King recorded That Good Old New Orleans Rock N’ Roll, which was released by Sonnet in 1977. His talent was also featured in New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1976.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s, when King met the co-owner of Black Top Records (Hammond Scott), that he began recording with a label again. During the seven years he was with Black Top, King recorded three albums: Glazed (1986), Sexual Telepathy (1990), Hard River to Cross (1993).
In 2001, King was hospitalized for an illness he got during a tour in New Zealand in 1981. He kept on performing, not one to let a little sickness stop his love for music. He toured Japan in December of the same year. He toured New Orleans and local places off and on until his death.
King died on April 17, 2003, just before the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. His death caused by diabetes-related issues. His funeral was held 13 days later on April 30, 2003 during the festival. His recordings from Imperial Records were reissued in a CD not long after King’s death. The 2003 issue of OffBeat paid tribute to king through multiple articles about his life and music.
Earl King will forever be a part of New Orleans culture, and a staple of Blues and R&B. He is remembered for his wonderful music and the many songs he contributed to.