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Legendary local bluesman Willie King dies at 66

 

Bluesman Willie King died of a massive heart attack on his 66th birthday Sunday, after performing a final concert at the Omnova Theater of the Rosenzweig Arts Center Saturday night.

Bluesman Willie King died of a massive heart attack on his 66th birthday Sunday, after performing a final concert at the Omnova Theater of the Rosenzweig Arts Center Saturday night. Photo by: Courtesy Photo

 

Kristin Mamrack

 

Willie King felt the love in Columbus. 

 

To an adoring crowd in the Omnova Theater of the Rosenzweig Arts Center Saturday night, the acclaimed bluesman sang of Friendly City "angels," who overwhelmed him with "love," imparted words of wisdom from his grandfather and spoke of hard times and great joys, all with a smile on his face and a dance in his step. 

 

Sunday he was gone. 

 

On his 66th birthday, King, whose love of community rivaled his love of music, died of a massive heart attack around 2 p.m. at Noxubee General Hospital. 

 

"Every day, he walked, talked and preached about the blues," said one of his daughters, Esther Eaton of West Greene, Ala. "He was the blues. He looked to the music as a source of strength that helped him through difficult times." 

 

"Willie will be remembered as an international blues artist, as well as by the love, compassion and generosity he extended to all," Big Joe Shelton, a local blues musician, who often played with King, said this morning. "He made me strive to be a better man." 

 

"He was a giant of a man," said Beverly Norris of Columbus. "Anything he got, he always seemed to be giving out to other folks." 

 

"Ever since he first heard a blues musician play at his grandmother''s juke joint over 60 years ago, Willie King has been consumed by the blues," said Rick Asherson, assistant director of the Alabama Blues Project. "His life story is about great music, but equally it is about care, interest and concern for the community he grew up in -- King''s own definition of the blues life." 

 

Born in 1943 in Prairie Point, King''s music career began, with a six-string "diddly-bo," on a plantation. 

 

Well-known to Golden Triangle blues fans, King focused on "passing on" his talent and knowledge to the next generation. 

 

"He was just one of the greatest human beings you''d ever want to meet," said Caleb Childs, a young blues prodigy who worked closely with and was mentored by King.  

 

"It was just a complete shock," added Childs, 20, of Louisville, who performed with King Saturday. "He seemed so fine the night before. I really didn''t want to believe it. He''s really taught me a lot about life, with his messages of people coming together and loving one another. Saturday night, he said something I really remember: He said he didn''t fight for civil rights anymore; he fought for human rights." 

 

On Jan. 8, King performed in Columbus, but fell ill and, with urging from the audience, was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle. 

 

His concert Saturday night was a tribute to the many friends in attendance during the January concert, who cared for him and took him to the hospital. 

 

Elated and energetic, Saturday he debuted a new song dedicated to the experience. 

 

"He told us if he hadn''t been in Columbus, Miss., that night, he would have gone on to meet his Lord right then," recalled Norris, who helped coordinate the recent concert. "He said if he''d been at home, he never would have gotten up and gone to the doctor. He was grateful for all the people around him who cared so much about him." 

 

Having released six recordings and played numerous festivals, King also was known to blues aficionados nationally and internationally. 

 

"The loss of this blues man will be felt by fans and musicians all over the world, who have been touched by his unique juke joint blues and uplifting message of peace, love and social justice," said Asherson. 

 

An unassuming bluesman, who lived simply in his rural community, King played blues festivals in Europe, appeared in Martin Scorsese''s documentary, "Feel Like Going Home" and was the subject of a documentary, "Down Home," by Dutch filmmakers Saskia Rietmeijer and Bart Drolenga of Visible World Films. 

 

In 2005, King was inducted into the Howlin'' Wolf Hall of Fame.  

 

He was recognized by Living Blues magazine in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and was nominated for the traditional blues male artist of the year in the 2006 Blues Music Awards. 

 

King also was a repeated nominee for the W.C. Handy Awards. 

 

Scores of local and out-of-town fans yearly traveled to Old Memphis, Ala., where King lived, for his annual Freedom Creek Festival, which benefited The Rural Members Association -- King''s organization sponsoring classes in music, woodworking, food preservation and other African-American traditions. 

 

The Rural Members Association also provided transportation, legal assistance and other services for the needy for the past two decades. 

 

This year''s Freedom Creek Festival was scheduled for May 29 and 30. 

 

Handled by Lavender Funeral Home in Aliceville, Ala., arrangements for King were incomplete this morning. 

 

Dispatch Lifestyles Editor Jan Swoope contributed to this story.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Joe Bush commented at 3/9/2009 1:18:00 PM:

Very sad...seeing Willie at Bettie's was a unique experience and one for which I'm grateful. Rest in peace, Willie.

 

Article Comment Clayton commented at 3/9/2009 1:39:00 PM:

Very sad for sure. Having left Columbus 3 years ago, I have really missed my Mississippi Blues, and Willie was definitely a legend. Keep on playing it, Willie, we're listening.

 

Article Comment Evelyn Hinton commented at 3/9/2009 1:41:00 PM:

Cuz will truly be missed around Old Memphis, seeing your smile for the last time is what I will remember! He touch and alot of people lives all around the world with his music. I will miss sitting n my backyard and listening to you play at the Festivals then soon make my way down there. Love you dearly Rest in Peace Cousin Willie

 

Article Comment kay commented at 3/9/2009 4:16:00 PM:

He always put on a good show and I think the one Saturday night was the best yet. He will be missed.

 

Article Comment Robert Hunter commented at 3/9/2009 5:34:00 PM:

Willie was born on our place in Prairie Point. He has entertained friends and family for many years.I am proud to say , he was a friend of mine.It won't the same without him. I was with him in Macon the day they honored him with the Mississippi blues Trail historic marker. We laughed about what a long way he had come.

 

Article Comment Valerie Gore Cagle commented at 3/9/2009 7:48:00 PM:

I will truly miss Mr. Willie King. I experienced his musical talent at Mott's(known as Betty's place.)I enjoyed his rendition of Howlin' Wolfs Spoonful. Everytime I saw Mr. King at Mott's or some back-yard Bar-B-Que I would ask hime to let me sing spoonful. I was so hurt when I got the news on Sunday evening.3-8-09. He was truly a bluseman from the heart. I have played his music so much that even my teenaged daughter has him on her I-Pod. LOL. WILLIE KING NOW YOU CAN PLAY A NEW SONG IN THE SKY! I'LL SEE YOU WHEN I COME UP THERE.

 

Article Comment Sarah Glover commented at 3/9/2009 8:55:00 PM:

One of the greatest singers and such a down home good person..He will be greatly missed...

 

Article Comment Gail Laws commented at 3/10/2009 12:03:00 AM:

I believe that Willie was really pleased as he played to a most appreciative and energized crowd Saturday night. He was terrific, and I am so glad I was there. Not only was he a great musician, he was quite a philosopher.

 

Article Comment Annie Blakeney commented at 3/10/2009 12:24:00 AM:

Thank you Willie for your music that touched so many people. My sister and I was just talking on Sunday about our plans for this year' festival. Our hearts are heavy now but we find comfort in knowing that you are at peace. WE love you, miss you and your music will forever remain in our hearts. RIP my friend.

 

Article Comment Becky Smith commented at 3/10/2009 3:16:00 AM:

I am so sad and so going to miss you and your music. The world has lost a treasure.

 

Article Comment Annie Glo commented at 3/10/2009 12:02:00 PM:

Hurts my heart. Our loss is Heaven's gain. Maybe the good Lord likes to hear a little blues too.

 

Article Comment Big Joe Shelton commented at 3/10/2009 12:32:00 PM:

My heart is hurting over willie's passing. What a fine man. He was as human as a person could be.

 

Article Comment Mattie Wilson Stoddard commented at 3/10/2009 12:38:00 PM:

I am devastated at the loss of such a warm hearted, generous spirited, and enormously talented friend! I met Willie eight years ago when I worked with one of his then band members. Our organization provided a grant for his work with young people in his community. I honor Willie's devotion to young people and his dedication to Social Justice. You will be missed my friend!

 

Article Comment keshia roland commented at 3/10/2009 12:39:00 PM:

I'm glad that I got a chance to know him personally.He was a man of truth.

 

Article Comment Debbie Mason commented at 3/10/2009 1:40:00 PM:

Willie was a very fine man. He did not see race, he only saw the human factor.

This man could tell a strong story through his lyrics and music.

Willie you are in my thoughts and prayers.

 

Article Comment J.C. Long commented at 3/10/2009 2:13:00 PM:

He was, and remains a success. He passed it on. He passed on his treasure with the message for others to pass it on. It is his heritage, it'll be passed on by many!

 

Article Comment Jim Spell commented at 3/11/2009 12:56:00 AM:

I left Mississippi in 1972 to live in Oregon. I don't recall first hearing of Willie Earl. Once I became aware of him and his music, while in Macon I drove out to Betty's place and took a picture of the old place. Some time later at the Dancing Rabbit Festival I approached Willie and asked him to sign my picture of Betty's place. Willie at first didn't recognize the picture (the light was poor). When he finally realized what it was he wrote-Love Ya Jim, Wilie. I am proud to have that item now and will miss Willie in the music world. Jim Spell, John Day, Oregon

 

Article Comment Jim Spell commented at 3/11/2009 12:57:00 AM:

I left Mississippi in 1972 to live in Oregon. I don't recall first hearing of Willie Earl. Once I became aware of him and his music, while in Macon I drove out to Betty's place and took a picture of the old place. Some time later at the Dancing Rabbit Festival I approached Willie and asked him to sign my picture of Betty's place. Willie at first didn't recognize the picture (the light was poor). When he finally realized what it was he wrote-Love Ya Jim, Wilie. I am proud to have that item now and will miss Willie in the music world. Jim Spell, John Day, Oregon

 

Article Comment angie commented at 3/11/2009 1:12:00 PM:

me you rest in peace and serenade all in heaven with your wonderful talents. I am honored to have all 3 of my children see Willie perform at Howlin Wolf before even being able to walk and 2 were fortunate enough to see and hear and dance to him Saturday night. It was baby's first time to see him and was glad that my husband decided he wanted to sit with me while i worked. Willie your music will live on in forever more and i will miss you. Update: my son (whom is 7) was very sad, yet very grateful that he was able to see willie saturday night and has drawn a beautiful picture for him. this i will give to his family.

 

Article Comment SharBaby commented at 3/12/2009 12:17:00 PM:

Willie King,

You are the reason that I am down in Alabama. I will always cherish and love you for your down to earth and sweet attitude. I know that you loved everyone. That is why you are sooooo loved today. I love you Willie.

R.I.P.
Love
SharBaby

 

Article Comment Yvonne Meadows commented at 3/12/2009 4:27:00 PM:

Cousin Wille Earl,My Love for you will go to heaven with you and my love for your music will follow me all the days of my life. Praire Point, Old Memphis, Chicago and the world all know that "I Am The Blues" is exactly who you were.
Coming home to bid you fairwell.
Love Yvonne

 

Article Comment katie commented at 3/12/2009 8:10:00 PM:

meeting you meant alot to me and i will never forget how you seemed to understand so much. i hope that i will live a life as grand and humble as yours. love katie

 

Article Comment twanda outlaw commented at 3/12/2009 9:20:00 PM:

Willie you were known around the world for your down home blues. You have poured your heart out to people from every nation you are loved by many. You gave more time to people than you did yourself. You Put on shows night after night with out even resting. God saw that you needed some rest without being disturbed.He have given you your wings and a new home. He sent an angel down to accomplist you to your new home. You are gone to a place where the streets are paved with gold. no more worries. you are a true legacy you are truly missed your legacy will live on .
I missed you Willie Earl King.
SMILE DOWN ON ME

 

Article Comment Ayeshah KING commented at 3/19/2009 1:34:00 PM:

Daughter of the great Mr.Willie King Adullah--was a man of great wisdom--"Always putting others before himself". My father can REST --Daddy Well done

 

Article Comment British Observer commented at 4/5/2009 6:07:00 PM:

I have only just found out about this very tragic loss of a wonderful musician and person. I am from England and have only seen Willie on DVD on Down in the Woods. Watching that DVD was truly inspirational. I am very sad that I never had the opportunity to see him live, but I know that his music and work will live on in us all.

 

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