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It Came from Old Memphis

The Death of Community Activist/Blues Musician Willie King 1943-2009

by Andy Moore

In early 2002, I worked a stint at a small, family owned record distributor in Nashville. Nothing too exciting, we had our only sales success with some locally produced gospel, bluegrass , gangsta rap, and Malaco styled R&B. Mostly just local interest records to fill out the record racks in mom and pop record stores and furniture shops across the mountains of Kentucky and Mississippi hill country towns no one has heard of. So when someone slipped me the CD “Willie King and The Liberators” Living in a New World, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was excited when I saw Bill Stieber’s incredible juke joint snap shot on the front cover and after hearing the opening licks and the soulful sax fills , I was hooked.

Born in 1943 in Prairie Point, MS, Willie King had an upbringing not unlike his blues peers. Raised by his grandparents and extended family, he had grown up in a community of music loving sharecroppers. His grandfather “played both sides,” Gospel and Blues music while his Grandmother ran the local juke joint. Willie was making sounds and notes on a homemade didley bo by age 9. Starting at 13, he spent his teenage years playing around North Mississippi and The Delta region. After attempting to crack into the Chicago blues scene of the late 60’s (a short stay at Howlin Wolf’s club, Silvos), Willie moved back south and settled in Old Memphis, AL - just across the line from his old Mississippi home.

But in the 1970s Willie took a different road than some other bluesmen. While some working artists where still slugging it out in Chicago dive bars and the small VFW’s dotting the upper- Midwest, he was working Southern back roads and community plantation stores as a traveling salesman. It was on those country roads, talking to everyday Pickens County residents, where he was first exposed to the Alabama civil rights movement. He starting working with the Tennessee based civil rights origination, Highlander Center, where he met and shared a stage with the legendary Pete Seeger. This is when Willie started on his “struggling songs” as he called them. Inspired by the civil rights minded singers of the folk boom, Josh White, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger , favorite blues singers John Lee Hooker and Lightin’ Hopkins as well as his own upbringing and experiences in the Segregated South, Willie wanted his political tunes to educate and broaden his audiences. As he states in his biography accompanying his 2000 work Freedom Creek, "Through the music, I could reach more people, get them to listen.”.

In 1983, Willie founded the Rural Members Association, a Non-Profit community origination based in his North Alabama home town. Over the years RMA projects under his guidance have helped thousands of children and adults through educational workshops in traditional crafts as well as the now internationally renowned Freedom Creek Blues Festival which he founded in 1997.

Talk about terror/Peoples, I been terrorized all my days ... You took my name and you left me in chains
                -From 2002’s song "Terrorized"

This is what I had not been hearing in the Blind Pigs , Alligators and the other releases of the DIY blues record world of the late 1990’s. The laid-back sound was a that of a Dixie Fried Curtis Mayfield or Eddie Hinton fronting a Southside bar room Chicago blues combo. But powerful song titles Living in a New World, Terrorized, America, or the monolog The Blues Life - not only reflected his personal blues and struggles - working to deal with social injustice, speaking openly about civil rights, as well as healing the scars left by the knowledge of his own American story, but also the new post - 9/11 times we lived in. It reflected so many fears and emotions that where being felt not just by Willie King but by our entire country.

This was the first time I had heard such depth and power in modern original blues music since Robert Cray or Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was a message and a voice that was filled with an incredible power and passion that had blossomed from the life Willie King lived in his beloved North Alabama home, deep in the heart of the “Black Belt”. Willie King passed away on March 8th 2009. And as I write this, I can’t help but think about how we're all “Living in a New World”, whether we like it or not.

Willie King on hope and the blues:

on the blues

on hope 

Like many artists, Willie King had little money and made no provisions for his burial costs. The Willie King Memorial Fund has been created for those who wish to help with funeral expenses and to create a historic marker celebrating Willie King's life and works. Please send contributions to:

The Willie King Memorial Fund
c/o West Alabama Bank, Attn: Tammy
PO Box 406
Aliceville AL 35442


Alabama State Council on the Arts 2004

Artist Fellowship
Howlin' Wolf Hall of Fame

Inducted September 2, 2005
Living Blues 2003

Blues Artist of the Year, Best Song, Best Cover Art
Living Blues 2001

Best Blues Artist
Living Blues 2000

Best Blues Album, Best Contemporary Blues Album


Blues Music Awards 2006 Traditional Album of the Year
Blues Music Awards 2006

Traditonal Blues Male Artist of the Year
W. C. Handy 2004

Traditional Male Artist
W. C. Handy 2003

Traditional Blues Album of the Year, Blues Song of the Year
Living Blues 2003

Best Live Performer
W. C. Handy 2001

Best New Artist of the Year

I Am the Blues
Self Released 2000

Freedom Creek (live)
Rooster 2000

Living in a New World
Rooster 2002

Jukin at Betties
Freedom Creek Music 2004

Free Love
Freedom Creek Music 2006

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