San Bernardino

Embracing the Blues with Jimmy King

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On this night, the Jim King Blues Band plays Knuckleheads, a new Temecula blues bar/restaurant that showcases live music. A bevy of vintage guitars, maybe 20 of them, decorate the walls like a chorus line of curvy dancing girls. Blues lovers have gathered at tables, sipping wine and beer, noshing house-made garlic knots, awaiting the music's start.

Jimmy King, a big man with a musicians hands, lifts the guitar-case lid, gently removing his ax, a 1958-reissue flame-top Gibson Les Paul. King believes in simplicity. He plugs into a road-tested Fender Blues, Jr. amp, only 15 watts, but sufficient for the tone he's after. His only other accessory is an Ibanez tube-screamer, a small foot pedal that beefs up the sound for leads. That's it. No fancy gimmicks, no electronic sound simulators, just fingertips on strings for the warm, tube-flavored tone that reaches in to grab the heart.

Jimmy and the band -- Michael Fell, harmonica; Joe Schaivone, bass; Mike Halls, rhythm guitar; Leo Badger, drums -- set up. With guitars tuned and the drum kit in place the band starts off with a slow Memphis-style shuffle, the drummer riding the high-hat, the harp and rhythm guitar riffing in repeated patterns. Then Jimmy kicks in, his guitar tone sultry and sweet, soaring above the riffs like a red-tailed hawk floating above a canyon, trilling his piercing call just for the thrill of it.

A long-haired woman in a white blouse and blue jeans, persuaded by the beat, saunters out to the dance floor, crooking her come-hither finger to be joined by guy from a nearby table. The night's festivities begin.

Jimmy King, 60, is a bluesman -- been immersed in the blues most of his life. He lives in Joshua Tree, and has earned his place as a mainstay in Inland Empire's blues scene. He might be better known as lead guitarist for Aunt Kizzy's Boys, a popular rhythm and blues band he started more than a decade ago, but his heart belongs to the blues.

Jimmy King is the kind of guy who'll pull a chair out for a lady to sit. He'd rather share a joke and a smile than a bad intention. If he was riding the range in an old-time Western movie, he'd be wearing a white hat. He's a working man, a family man, one of the good guys.

He was born in Crestline, near Lake Arrowhead, of a musical family. His father hailed from Missouri, close enough to Dixie to be hooked into the blues, and he played it often and loud on the family record player and radio. Jimmy probably heard blues in his crib, and that might have something to do with his affinity for it. His family -- all six of the children -- thrived on music. His older brothers played sax. His sister sang and danced. His father could sing like nobody's business. They sang as family; sang in the family's 1956 Ford station wagon, the one with wood panels, on the way to grandma's house in 29 Palms.

As a kid, he loved baseball, and played until he was 13, That was how old he was when his parents split up and he moved to Santa Monica with his father. The breakup wasn't a happy time for him and he sought solace in music. As a teen, struggling for acceptance, he combed his hair back, put taps on the heels of his shoes, and walked with some swagger on the Santa Monica pier. At the time, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and many British invasion bands were revitalizing the blues, infusing it with a little rock, making it more upbeat. With blues in his roots, it was natural for him to get swept up in the British Invasion blues.

Jimmy started out as a blues harp player. He bought $1.50-Marine Band harmonica from McCabe's Music Store, carried it everywhere, played in the car when he was driving with buddies, played it in the halls at school, played it in his room by his lonesome, studying the licks of Little Walter and James Cotton.

He and school buddies formed a band, and they played everyday after school, Jimmy fronting the band, singing, blowing soulful harp. He liked the harmonica, but found the instrument limiting. Sure it was convenient, but it got repetitious for him. He started playing guitar as well. His first guitar was a solid-body Kent that he played through a Fender Bandmaster amp. He changed back and forth from harmonica to guitar in the band, playing simple blue's riffs on the Kent as back up to the lead.

The music became his life. He played every day, sometime three to seven hours a day, getting his fingers nimble, mastering the neck, finding his way to competence. Then came Peter Green. Peter Green was the founding guitarist for the band Fleetwood Mac, and for King, and many other bluesmen, he was a guitar god. In later life, Green remained a big influence. In his honor, King cut a tribute album: "When Blues Were Green."

"I really gravitated to British blues," KIng said. "I connected to the more upbeat tempo, and I guess back then, I was rebelling against older generations so it was natural for me to align with the younger British bluesmen." Peter Green had a style of bends and blends that focused more on melody than blazing speed, borrowing from the old blues masters and modernizing it. Green may not be well-known, but he played a big role in music. For instance, he wrote the music and lyrics for Black Magic Woman that Santana made famous. But if you listen to Green's version, the song has Green's stamp on it, the licks are all Green. By the way, Green most often played a flame-top Gibson Les Paul.

King married young, started a family and continued to play. Then he was drafted, one of the last Vietnam draftees, and served two years as an Army medic. He played all over Texas during this time. Life was family and music. His first marriage, though, came to an end in 1980. He started work as a produce manager for Ralph's and as a single parent, the Gibson didn't get much play for over a decade.

Jim King Blues Band

He married Kim in 1994, "the love of my life," he says, Kim encouraged him to resume playing. Eventually she convinced him to quit the grocery business and give himself over to music full time. He's been at it since. Kim, their daughter, Kellie, 16, and Joshua, have toured with Jimmy, to many places in the world, including Australia.

Some might think blues is dying. But Jimmy King thinks not. When he's out playing his gigs, he sees the 20-somethings digging the blues. "Kids are embracing the blues," King says. Feeling misled by the bubble-gum, commercial pop of say Britney Spears, more and more of them look to the past to find what's authentic in music. More and more are buying turntables and buying vinyl. His own son, Joshua, 18, recently bought a record player and brought home Albert King's "I'll play the Blues for You," in vinyl. "It made me so happy, I told him I'd pay for the record," King said.

Certainly, the blues is alive and well for King. "The blues gives me a chance to go deep into my playing, it's my meditation," he said. "I'm just sharing me when I play."

It's possible to make a living with the blues these days, but it isn't easy. You play live gigs and sell stuff afterwards. Jim King has recorded several blues CDs, and several as the guitarist for Aunt Kizzy's Boyz. Concerts are part music and part self-promotion, selling swag like CDs to audience members still flush from the intensity of the concerts. King is currently at work on a new album. He has a half-dozen originals ready and a half-dozen covers of songs he takes in new directions.

King says the music is therapy for him and for the listeners. He recounts the time after one outdoor concert when a suited man, dressed like a stock broker, walked up to Jimmy to thank him. The broker said he was driving home to kill himself when he passed by the music, and was captivated by it. The band was doing Jimmy's special version of All Along the Watchtower, and the music reached out to the distraught man. He found hope in the music.

"Stuff like that makes you feel like you have power in your hands, that you have the inside track to people souls. I gave him hope, he gave me hope. Makes us all feel like we're not so alone."

After gigs, the desert speaks to him on the drive home. Spiny Joshua Tree limbs jut skyward at ungainly angles, shadowy in the moonlight. Stars pelt the indigo sky, pulsing with the hum of the universe.There is a silence in the desert that whispers of the sacred.

Once home, Jimmy King, the bluesman, likes to stand out front, puffing on his electronic cigarette, letting his shoulders loosen after a long night of holding up a 10-pound Les Paul, and simply listen -- crickets chirping, a dog's barking down the road,
the distant rap of a truck's jake brake.

The blues ain't no Dick Tracy hat. Ain't no bowling shirt. Ain't no tiger-skin tat. It's a mission to find meaning, a discovery of what matters, an embrace of what's real.

At least that's Jimmy King's take on things. The blues have been Jimmy King's life -- no regrets.

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Top Image: Jimmy King.

About the Author

I’m Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian and live on the Pala Indian Reservation. Good or bad, I’ve had a desultory approach to education. I studied philosophy, literature and film at UC Santa Cruz, journalism at UC Berkeley, communications at ...
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