Saunders King was the first “King of the Blues.” More than sixty years after buying his first Saunders King 78, another King, B.B., still beams at the mention of his name. “Saunders King – I’m a big fan of his! He was one of the first of the people that played blues and had the beautiful sound of the electric guitar. He was a great singer. In fact, he was one of the people I idolized. I especially liked ‘S.K. Blues’ – still do! There was a part one and a part two to it. I also admired his ‘St. James Infirmary’ on Aladdin. To me, Saunders King was one of the greatest ever.”
Inspired by Charlie Christian’s records with Benny Goodman, King took up guitar in 1939. He began recording for the San Francisco-based Rhythm label in 1942, framing his mellow, wry vocals and riveting electric guitar solos with smooth jump-band arrangements. Recorded at his first session, the sultry two-part “S.K. Blues” became his biggest hit. During World War II, Saunders King was flying high, “giving out with the hot stuff” with one of the West Coast’s hippest jump outfits. He resumed cutting for Rhythm in ’46, and then made records for Modern, Aladdin and RPM.
By the mid 1950s Saunders King’s recording heyday was drawing to a close. He continued to play blues in nightclubs around the San Francisco Bay Area, but he increasingly devoted himself to raising his children and performing spiritual music. He passed away in 2000. On July 25, 1995, I met him at his home in San Rafael, California, to ask him about the early days of electric guitar.
What attracted you to the electric guitar early on?
The sound. I was trying to get a sound. I traded guitars, different types of boxes. I had an acoustic Epiphone first, and the Epiphone give me good sound. I tried the electric guitar and got a better sound.
Were you aware of the electric guitarists who recorded before Charlie Christian, such as Eddie Durham with Jimmie Lunceford or Floyd Smith with Andy Kirk?
Yeah, yeah. I’d go and watch Eddie Durham play. Oh, yeah. I was intrigued by the sound.
Do you remember the first time you saw an electric guitar?
Yeah. I don’t remember the year, but I remember the idea. It was at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco. There was a big band there playing with Alvino Rey, and I was intrigued by the sound he was getting, but he wasn’t getting an electric sound. He was getting an acoustic sound. He had a large-size box, and he sit on the stage and he played. I could hear him with just an acoustic box from where I was sitting quite a ways back. He had all kind of boxes. He played one box and get one sound, and then all of a sudden he’d put it down and play another one. Alvino Rey – loved him. He played all kind of melodies, different intricate things, and he led the band. It intrigued me.
When did you become aware of Charlie Christian? With the first Benny Goodman records?
Yeah. He come out with something new, something different. He had a different sound, a complete sound, a big sound. It was with the Sextet with Lionel and them guys. He was great.
Did you have a favorite song of his?
“Seven [Come] Eleven.” But I liked everything he did. No kidding – I liked anything he did. I even liked how he’d grunt and groan. He was a good musician.
Did you learn any of his music note for note?
No. I didn’t want to. But I loved him. It’s hard to get the notes, get the sound, of what he played.
It’s not in the equipment.
No, it’s the hands. The hands is what’s happening.
Was Christian’s “Blues In Bb” related to the song you recorded with the same title?
No. My piece “Bb Blues” was just a blues, and it had different hollers. I’d sing a verse, and the fellows in the band would sing a verse. We’d call them “holler tunes.”
Was Charlie Christian the first guy who could hold his own alongside great horn players?
He was the first one. As a matter of fact, I was working at Jack’s Tavern in San Francisco, and Charlie came in. He was here with Benny Goodman’s band, playing with Lionel in the Sextet, and he came in and everybody asked him to play one. We were off the stand when Charlie came in. I said, “Well, what do you want to play, Charlie?” He said, “‘Stardust,’ man,” and that was it. He played by himself – I’ll never forget it – on my guitar, which had a very bad pickup. He was different. He was taking a solo by himself, and he made such changes – crazy changes. In these kinds of clubs I was working, we sort of played it straight, but he made all those sounds and different changes. He was great. Charlie Christian didn’t fool around.
Did you get a chance to talk to him?
Yeah. He was a great guy. At that time, quite a bit of drinking was going on, and he had been to different clubs. Club Alabam was around the corner, Al Black’s supper club was happening too. So naturally he went with the fellas – wherever they’d go, he would go. Ben Webster was there. Ben Webster kept playing all night long. That’s the first time I heard Charlie Christian in person, and he really could play. I was surprised. I’d heard his records – loved his records with the Sextet. But to see him play, see his action, was different. There was no one who could play like him.
What stood out?
He played rhythm, and then he’d go from rhythm into the solo, and he played by himself. That was different. It made all the difference in the world. The audience in Jack’s Tavern was rather small, and all the big band guys who came through there came by Jack’s and played afterwards – like a jam session – and it was great. More bands came to town then than they do now, from what I hear.
Were there other impressive electric guitarists around then?
There was none that impressed me.
A lot of cats built their careers around sounding like Charlie Christian.
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Even today, if you can play Charlie Christian note-for-note, you can find work in jazz circles.
What’s your opinion of the rumor that Charlie died after smoking reefer while he was a patient in a TB ward?
I don’t think so. Maybe. I think it was alcohol. The night he was in Jack’s, people were giving him drinks. When they wanted to hear him play, they sent a drink over to him, and he was just drinking one right after the other. I didn’t drink at that time, and I was wondering why he drank all the time. He didn’t need to be drinking. He started perspirin’ – the water was running off of his face. He was playing “Stardust,” and I thought then that he’s got to be sick. He was in bad shape. Ben Webster came around and played with him half the night, and Charlie was still playin’. Then he went out in the streets and danced on the sidewalk.
Was he a good dancer?
For a dancer, he was a lot of guitar player! [Laughs.] He could dance. That’s what he was gonna be – a dancer. He didn’t want to be a guitar player; he wanted to dance.
Sure! As soon as the music started, he wanted to dance. I don’t know if it was the alcohol or what, but that’s what he did. The waitress at the place I was working, Ethel, she irked him on. She’d buy him drinks, because he stood by the bar doing dance steps. I think the alcohol killed him.
Was the fact that Charlie was playing in an integrated band important at the time?
Yeah, very important. And the things that he played, you didn’t hear it all the time. And when you heard him play within the greatest band, it was so different. Quite different.
That must have been inspirational.
It was, it was. I didn’t have a good amplifier; I had a fair amplifier. I was working with the guitar that I wanted to get the sound that I wanted, but I didn’t have the amplifier. So I hooked my amplifier up to the speaker, which was up in the back of Jack’s Tavern, and the sound was coming all the time. It would feedback sometimes, and I didn’t know what to do. It was good – it kept me solid. I had a chance to buy a guitar, and I didn’t buy it. The guy that owned Jack’s Tavern, he saw what I was drivin’ at, so he bought the Epiphone for me and gave it to me. That started me out getting into something.
Were you aware of acoustic guitarists like Eddie Lang or Lonnie Johnson?
Eddie Lang, yeah. I wasn’t aware of Lonnie Johnson. I’d heard of his name, but I wasn’t aware of the things that he was doing. But I was aware of Eddie Lang – very much so. He was great. He did some great things. And it was funny – he played, but he wasn’t aggressive like I wanted him to be.
He was more polite.
Yeah, yeah, really. I liked him. And I had a run-in with him in person. I guess it was at the Fairmont Hotel. Louis Armstrong came to town also, and Louis and I were great pals, you know. I used to run with him all the time, and a lot of things would happen where I would have a little better insight into it than he did, and I could tell he wanted me around, you know. He was reading a script, and that’s where I ran into Eddie Lang.
Did you see Eddie play?
No, no. I heard him, but I didn’t see him play. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
It’s strange that he and Charlie both died so young.
Well, you can try to put a stamp on it, a reason they passed on, but you can’t say for real.
What do you remember about your first recording session in 1942?
The environment was very poor. One of the reasons was we had so many different places to record. We recorded at Sherman Clay, a music store at Kearny and Sutter in San Francisco.
Yeah, yeah. A recording studio. As a matter of fact, that picture [points to the cover of his Ace LP The First King Of The Blues] was taken upstairs. That picture was taken at my first session. That’s Sammy Deane and Johnnie Cooper and Eddie Taylor and myself.
Eddie Taylor was a fabulous sax player.
Yes, he was. Marvelous. We were together a long time. We were the best of friends. Oh, he was wonderful, wonderful. None better. I went to Los Angeles and got him. He came from Dallas to Los Angeles, and I went down to Los Angeles to play. I had to go to the union and ask to have a tenor player. The first tenor I had was Bob Barfield, a great, great horn man, arranger. Didn’t need a piano to arrange by. We’d just sit down and talk arrangements.
You’d do head arrangements together.
Yeah, yeah. Barfield left. He got homesick and he came home. I went to Los Angeles and found Eddie and brought him back to San Francisco with me, and we played for years together. Beautiful, beautiful man. He could play.
Did you teach him parts or did he instinctively know what to do?
He instinctively knew what to do.
Who did the horn arrangements at your session? Some of them are so tight.
Yeah. We had charts. I wrote some of them, and Cedrick Hayward wrote some. He could write real well. And we used to talk things out, because sometimes, you know, you talk out an arrangement, and you want it to go one way and you run into a block. So you have to back up and do it all over again. And that’s how Cedrick and I worked. Cedrick was a piano player, could play very well. Texas boy. Yeah. He helped with the arrangements. Barfield could write, like that arrangement for “Why Was I Born” with a big band.
You have a terrific solo on that “Why Was I Born” 78.
That was great. I thought it was a great arrangement.
Now, your mom and dad were ministers, right?
Yeah, they were.
That’s a pretty sexy song. Did they object to the lyrics?
No, no. [Smiles.] They didn’t have any problems with it at all.
Is it true you wrote “S.K. Blues” on a challenge?
Yeah, yeah. After the session, the guys said, “We’re going for a break to get something to eat.” We were at the Sherman Clay, and we needed one more tune for the session. And [Dave] Rosenbaum asked me, “Can you bring another tune?” I said, “Yeah. Let me get something to eat.” I was recording on Kearny and Sutter, and to get something good to eat, I left there and went out to the Fillmore District. I went home, and my girlfriend fixed some food. And while I was eating the food, I wrote the tune. And I had one verse too many for the tune.
You needed a three-minute song?
Yeah. I had about six minutes, so we filled in. And that’s how “S.K. Blues” came about. I didn’t even know it was gonna be a hit or anything when I wrote it. I came back and finished the session and I went home, you know. And Eddie Taylor came by and he told me, “Say, man, you know that tune might be a hit.” I said, “Oh, man. What are you talking about?” “No kidding,” he said. “That’s a real down-home blues, and you might have a hit.” Sure enough, later on we were in Texas, and when I got there it was a hit. Everybody was playing it in all those little clubs. Yeah, I was surprised.
You used that line “give me back the wig I bought you.” Had you heard that before?
No, I’d never heard it before.
That’s become a standard blues lyric. Lightnin’ Hopkins used it . . .
I had never heard it before
How was the band set up and miked at your 1942 Rhythm session?
Two mikes. One for me, and the other one would be off to the side, close to the piano setup. The horns were around the piano there. Sammy Deane was our trumpet player.
Yeah. I had the guitar across my lap, and the amplifier was down on the floor alongside me.
Did you distance the other musicians from their mike according to the volume of their instruments, so the horns would stand further back than the piano and the drums would be further back than the horns?
Exactly. That’s right.
Was there a producer at the session?
Yeah, yeah, such as it was. I knew what I wanted to hear and how I wanted the setup, but the producers would never give it to me. The only time I got a good producer was on that “Why Was I Born,” and that was a large band.
Same label, though.
Do you remember the guitar and amp you used for the 1942 session?
I was usin’ Gibson then. It was expensive. Charlie was using the one bar [pickup] on his, and so was I.
Did you play at a low volume?
Yeah, yeah. That’s how I got the sound. That was the sound.
You’d turn down the volume while comping and then turn it up when you soloed?
Yeah, that’s right. Turn it down, turn it up.
Did you always use a pick?
No, no. I was experimenting all the time. I went up to Chicago, and the musicians were waiting for me. So instead of using a regular pick, I used a felt pick and turned the volume up. I always used a new felt pick that was stiff and turned the volume up. That would get a good sound.
So you could crank up the volume and still get a soft, bassy tone.
Right. You got it right.
Could you burn through those picks pretty quickly?
Yeah, three or four a night.
Did you try tortoiseshell picks?
Yeah. I kept getting too much sound.
Who did the arrangement on the 1942 Rhythm release of “What’s Your Story Morning Glory?”
It was head. A head arrangement. Sitting down talking. We had the idea for the sound for the tune when Barfield was playing the sax. And he was kind of wild, so that’s how the arrangement come about. Because he wanted to do a solo, and we had to find some way to get him in there.
Did you work out your solos in advance of recording them?
Sometimes I did. Mm hmm.
What was the best kind of microphone to sing with? Did you have a preference?
No. Didn’t matter.
Your song “S.K. Groove” really has the Charlie Christian influence.
Especially the way you come into the solo . . .
Yeah. Could have been.
What did you think of Big Joe Turner’s cover of “S.K. Blues”?
Well, I didn’t like it. I thought he’d let me get a start, but New York boys, they didn’t do it that way. If they heard something they thought would be a hit, they’d cover it. And that’s what I didn’t like about it. Joe and I finally met, and we talked it over. So it was alright.
Were you ever paid for the use of the song?
That must have hurt.
No. I was so fast and doing so many things, it didn’t hurt.
Not long after your first 78s came out, the recording industry ground to a halt.
Definitely. Shellac shortage and the war.
Did they repress your records on recycled materials at one point?
Did that affect the sound of the records?
Yeah, it did. Made a terrible sound.
Like those old Paramount records.
Yeah. The OKeh sound – that’s shellac. Bad sound.
Did you think OKeh records had a bad sound?
Certain artists they did. Certain artists they worked on.
I thought Aladdin did a good sound. Nice sound.
Where were your 1946 Rhythm sessions held? Like for “Something’s Worrying Me,” “2:00 A.M. Hop.”
That would be Sherman Clay again.
By then your guitar tone had changed – more bass and midrange. Was this due to new equipment?
Yeah, new equipment. Different equipment.
Yeah. And for quite a while I got a feedback from it. I couldn’t get the right sound I wanted.
Would you have to record at a low volume to get rid of the feedback?
Yeah, yeah. And I didn’t get good sound. I couldn’t get the good sound.
What kind of machines were they recording with?
So you could hear a playback right away.
Yeah. Right away, right away. As a matter of fact, that was one of the reasons that session was so great. When we were about to get a bite to eat or anything, we could go outside the studio and sit down and listen to it.
And you could do another take if you didn’t think it was good enough.
Yeah, yeah. The thing about Rhythm Records was that Dave wanted just a couple of takes, and that’s not enough.
He wanted to crank through it and save money.
Yes! [Laughs.] That was it. Very much. That’s exactly what it was. But at this other session, the guy would say, “Come and listen to it, S.K.” I’d go outside the studio and listen to the playback. If there was anything wrong, we would cut again. He never mentioned anything about money. Never once. But Dave, boy, would clamp down.
Who’s the best swing drummer you ever saw?
Joe Jones. He was fine. He used to sell the fellas in the band chicken. A leg was so much. He wanted to make some money off of ’em. He was fun.
Did you admire Jimmy Blanton?
Oh, yeah. The bass player. You can’t touch that. I never did see anyone who could play bass like him. He was amazing.
Another cat before him was Pops Foster.
Oh, yeah. I saw him at a distance, never met him.
Was Wellman Braud in the same league as these guys?
Nah. No one was in Blanton’s league. Too bad.
Did you see Art Tatum?
I watched him play. I worked at NBC in San Francisco for four years, and I had the weekend off when Mingus came to town. So I followed Mingus in town, down south. Same thing with Tatum. I followed Tatum all over California. Marvelous man. He changed his music around every night. Every session, between numbers he’d change his stuff. I’d try to follow his thoughts, follow where he’s going to go. He’d do those session head changes. He was a genius.
Did he have bad eyesight?
Yeah, but I don’t think he was completely blind. Quite the fellow. Quite the musician.
Did you know Illinois Jacquet?
Yeah, he was in Toronto with Joe Jones and Milt Buckner. They had a trio together. It was the first time I seen Jacky play baritone. Milt was on the organ. What a trio! We had fun that trip.
Were you a fan of John Coltrane?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. When I first heard him, I couldn’t understand him.
Too far out?
Yeah. But then I sat down and listened to him, and he was alright. When I could get what he was saying, he was great. Yeah. He was great. He came in Jack’s too.
Ever run into Coleman Hawkins?
Yeah, but we never had anything in common.
Who was the most arrogant musician you encountered?
Ben Webster. Yeah. Big attitude. He was a funny guy – he wouldn’t ride in the car with you. He’d take a bus and go downtown to his job. He’d eat out of a paper bag – that’s the kind of guy he was. He was weird.
Who was surprisingly sweet and non-egotistical?
Barney Bigard. Beautiful, beautiful.
When you were young, did you see any of the famous blues women, like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox . . .
Missed ’em all. I wasn’t interested in them. Women blues singers – I don’t know, just didn’t move me. I listened to them, but they didn’t move me.
Did you ever run into Billie Holiday?
Oh, yeah. I loved her. I think she’s everyone’s favorite. We were listening to some records the other day, and I pulled out a Billie Holiday album.
Was she straight when you met her?
[Sadly.] Yeah. But she had feeling about her.
Who was the most exciting blues musician you ever saw?
Roy Milton. He played the boogie-woogie blues. The house would rock when he played the blues. Really. He followed me into Harold Blackshear’s Supper Club, and we thought we were doing pretty good. Until Roy Milton came along! No way. He starts blues at the beginning of the evening, right straight through. He didn’t stop. Now there was a guy that played the blues. A real good band. And he sang and played. But they didn’t advertise that this is a blues band. You went there and you got what was played.
During the ’40s, did many musicians want to become involved in cutting contests?
Yeah! That’s what a jam session was about.
What was your approach to surviving a situation like that?
Play, play, play. Call a head. We’d call certain head numbers that we knew they didn’t have in their books, and that was it. I’d call out something like “Swingin’.” We had certain outlays where if a musician didn’t know when to come in, it was too bad.
You were gonna smoke him.
That’s right. That’s what the session was all about.
What was it like when you switched over to the Modern label? Did they have a better budget, better studio?
They had a better budget – I’m sure of that. They had a marvelous studio, big studio in Hollywood.
Do you recall cutting “Empty Bedroom Blues”?
Yeah. Quite a session. Lot of girls around. My wife was in Chicago, and we got a session going. We did it in my apartment, and that’s what made that session. A lot of girls around, and the fellows felt like playing a little bit. We’d gotten the idea on the road, and we played.
Yeah. We’d haul the cutting machine and everything right into the apartment. See, at that time it was possible to cut in the apartment if you had the right machine. We’d cut and lay back and wait and get a chance to play it over again. Sometimes they weren’t too good.
Do you recall the make of the machine?
No, I can’t. I thought of it the other day. I was sitting here talking to my wife, wondering where the machine went.
Did you own it?
Yeah, yeah. But I don’t know what happened to it.
On “Empty Bedroom Blues” you had a much more distorted guitar tone. Were you hearing things differently?
Yeah, yeah. Naturally when you’re associating with a lot of them girls around, you don’t think the same. You can’t. You’re off somewhere in left field. You’re playing maybe the wrong note or something – that note doesn’t go there. That’s because we were distracted by these broads, you know. Too many distractions.
You were distracted by the women . . .
I think so.
So you just went for it.
When did you first record onto tape?
I don’t remember.
Your 1949 Aladdin 78s like “Little Girl,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “Misery Blues” had a fine sound.
“Little Girl” – that’s my wife’s favorite.
During this session you started bending guitar strings.
Well, I think that’s an association with someone else. Most of the blues players, they were bending strings.
The younger guys like B.B. King?
Yeah, yep. They were bending strings and notes. And I could do it, but I didn’t because I was moving all the time. And when I came home, I found out that some other musicians had moved in my spot. In other words, they got there by bending notes. Texas boys, Louisiana boys was bending notes. So I started. Tried that. I didn’t care for it. It was a means to an end.
Were people bending before the war?
Not that much.
Charlie Christian didn’t.
No. See, Charlie didn’t have time. That’s what I’m talking about: He didn’t have time to bend. He gotta move!
What’s the best guitar you’ve owned?
Gibson 300. I had two of them. I had one electric and I had one standard. The best guitar I ever had was the standard. I could take a phrase. I could sit and play with the band without amplifying, and it give me tone – big tone. Big box, big tone. And it could sing! It would sing for you. And some of the greatest things happened in those times.
Did you consider yourself a bluesman during this period?
No. First and foremost, a musician. Always.
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