Legendary local bluesman Willie King dies at 66

March 9, 2009

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.