How does an Israeli-born guitarist become interested in jazz and blues music, move to the United States and become an accomplished musician who plays with legendary blues and jazz musicians and travels the world?
It sounds like the script to an incredible movie, but it is actually just the story of guitarist, vocalist and composer, Guy King, who has a new release out on Delmark Records that is climbing the charts and helping to spread his unique fusion of jazz and blues.
Growing up in Israel, King always had music in the house. Even though his parents were not musicians, they enjoyed music and they made sure Guy and his siblings played instruments in school. “I really loved to sing when I was a kid,” says King. “I used to dance and sing when I was like 3 years old, but my parents made me take up an instrument so I decided to play clarinet. By the time I was 10 years old I was playing in a big band. I think back, and I was aware of classical music and some elements of orchestrated jazz, but now I realize that I still draw on some of those things in my playing. As a musician all of your experiences stay with you in the back of your mind and they might come out when you least expect it.”
After playing clarinet for a few years, King finally picked up the guitar at the age of 13. He remembers it was a nylon string instrument that he was very excited about because suddenly he was able to play more modern music and was finally able to accompany himself while singing.
“It was a huge thing for me to finally be able to accompany myself. I first learned a few chords and a couple months later I was already taking solos. It really came to me naturally,” says King.
A turning point came when his brother brought home a Marvin Gaye record and an Eric Clapton record. When he heard that music he immediately started doing some research, which led him into the rich history of the blues.
“I remember on the Eric Clapton record he did a tune by Robert Johnson called ‘Ramblin on my Mind’ that tune made me go back into the history of the blues where I discovered B.B. King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker and many others. That’s how I got deeper into blues and jazz music, I started teaching myself and getting into it,” he says.
Today, getting background information on artists and learning about the music is as simple as going on your smartphone. But back 20 years ago, growing up in a small village in Israel, getting information and recordings was a very tough task. King heard a song by Albert King called “Blues Power.” He just had to have that recording, but to get to the record store he had to go to Tel Aviv, which was no small task. First, he walked across a large field, and then he took an hour-long bus ride into Tele Aviv. Then once in the city he had to take another bus an additional hour to the record store.
“I can remember walking into the store and asking if they had the Albert King record and them telling me, ‘No, but we could order it from the United States and it would be here in about a month,’” King recalls. “So I ordered the record, took my two busses and went back home. A month later I did it all over again, but I got my record!”
King’s first experience in the U.S. came when he traveled the country with a youth singing group at the age of 16.
“We played about 120 shows over three months throughout the U.S. and Canada. That’s when I was able to experience Chicago, Memphis, New York and many other big cities, and it confirmed everything I had read in the books. I could feel the music when I was walking in the streets and could image the back story that I had read about—I knew I had to be apart of it.”
However, making a move to America would have to wait a few more years. Following their high school, all Israeli men are required to serve three years in the military—women half that long—so King was drafted into the Israeli military.
He had to put his musical career on hold.
Three years went by, and immediately upon release he grabbed his guitar, packed his bags and headed toward the U.S.
King started out in Memphis, and then had a short stint in New Orleans before taking a train to Chicago in 1999. Chicago was the place where he would stay and start to build his musical career. King started making the rounds, sitting in with as many people as he could.
“The first time I sat in I was extremely lucky because several of the musicians really liked what I was doing and they asked me to play a gig with them,” says King. “They asked me if I had an amp and I said, ‘Of course I have an amp.’ I actually didn’t have an amp; I just told them that. So the next day with what little money I had, I went to the store and bought a tube amp so I could play the gig.”
King continued to sit in and hangout and play with many of Chicago’s legendary blues musicians. He began playing in Willie Kent’s band and then one day he got a call from the Paramount Theatre in Aurora to bring his band out and open up for B.B. King. B.B. had heard of Guy King and even offered to let them use his band’s equipment.
At that time King was also playing with his own group at different jazz clubs, most notably Andy’s, which enabled him to work on his jazz vocabulary and develop his crossover style that he has today.
His latest release, Truth, is on Delmark Records and is King’s fourth release, the first recording with producer Richard Sherman. “Dick,” as King calls him, produced such legendary blues artists such as Otis Rush, Johnny Winter and Albert Collins, and he and King developed a great working relationship thanks to their love of blues, R&B and soul music.
“The recording really came about when I was in Brazil, and Dick Sherman called to talk about doing a project. He was someone that I had known since I was playing guitar in Willie Kent’s band. Following the release of my CD, Livin’ It, he started to really notice my songwriting and my playing in a new light,” King said.
He talked to several different potential labels, but when Delmark showed interest, it was an ideal match.
“I thought: We are going to play some blues and jazz on this recording. Delmark is known for both their blues and jazz artists, the label is in Chicago—it was a perfect fit.”
Since the release of the recording in February it has climbed the charts, and King is currently getting ready to play at major festivals in both Europe and in the U.S.
King has managed to come from a small village in Israel to become known as a world-class blues and jazz musician in arguably one of the most competitive music scenes in the world—Chicago. He has also achieved the very difficult task of crossing over into many different styles while keeping his music true to himself.
Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes it’s blues, but all of the time it’s Guy King!