King, Chris Thomas
Chris Thomas King
Bassist, guitarist, drummer
Like many second-generation musicians, Chris Thomas King came into his own while expanding on traditional musical horizons that were inherited from his father. Born and bred in the Delta tradition, King’s success as a bluesman was virtually guaranteed while he performed under the umbrella of his father’s genre, but when he embarked on artistic directions of his own, he was systematically disowned by major record labels. Unwilling to sacrifice his artistic style, he introduced hip-hop undertones and deejay-distorted electronica into his musical repertoire. Branded as a rebel with a cause, he fled to Denmark to cool his heels in the more liberal environment that flourished in Europe. Upon returning to the United States in 1994, he started his own independent record label, established himself as an actor, and won three Grammy Awards by 2003.
King was born Chris Thomas on October 14, 1964, in Baton Rouge. (Some sources date his birth in 1963.) His father, Tabby Thomas, was a locally prominent bluesman who owned a club called Rockin’ Tabby’s Blues Box. As a result, King, started early toward his musical future; even as a youngster he was well known as Rockin’ Tabby’s son. While frequenting his father’s club he rubbed elbows with the late Silas Hogan and Clarence Edwards, two masters of swamp blues. By sixth grade, King was learning to play the trumpet and traveling in the entourages of professional musicians. As he matured in the musical setting of New Orleans blues culture, King was encouraged to experiment and develop his own style. Because each blues musician had a unique playing and singing style, he was discouraged from singing others’songs or even playing the way they did. He told Lisa Simeone on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, “They would never sit me down and say, ’Well, this is how it goes.’ They… told me don’t sing their songs … ’Find your own song and sing their songs…‘Find your own song and sing that.’”
At some time around 1980, while King was still in his teens, he toured in Europe with his father. After returning to the United States he made a demo recording, which led to a deal with Arhoolie Records. King’s debut album, Beginning, appeared in 1986 and featured King on vocals, bass, and guitar. Among the tracks were recordings made by King and a group of teenage comrades at a recording studio in Baton Rouge called the Reel-to-Reel Sound Factory. Arhoolie reissued the album in 2001 under the title It’s a Cold Ass World.
After his 1986 album debut, King toured Europe and Texas, then settled in Austin for four years. He signed with Hightone Records and in 1990 released a standard acoustic style album called Cry of the Prophets. This follow-up album incorporated elements not previously associated with Depression-era Delta blues—hip-hop and electronica-style deejay scratching. High-tone nixed the album under pressure from its parent company, Warner Bros., who objected to the gansta rap and hip-hop influences. King disagreed, arguing that these styles are the essence of modern blues
Born Chris Thomas on October 14, 1964, in Baton Rouge, LA; son of Tabby Thomas (a blues musician).
Frequented his father’s blues club as a teenager and went on European tour; signed with Arhoolie Records, early 1980s; debut album, Beginning, 1986; signed with Hightone Records, late 1980s; sojourn in Denmark, 1991-94; signed with Private Music, mid-1990s; recorded with Scotti Brothers, Black Top Records, late 1990s; launched independent label, 21st Century Blues, 2001.
Awards: Grammy Awards, Album of the Year (with others) and Best Compilation Soundtrack (with others) for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Best Traditional Folk Album (with others) for Down from the Mountain, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—21st Century Blues Records, LLC, P.O. Box 51286, New Orleans, LA 70151, website: http://www.21cbrecords.com/index.html e-mail: [email protected] Website—Chris Thomas King Official Website: http://www.chnsthomasking.com.
because the sentiment is the same. Warner refused to release the recording.
At odds with the mainstream recording industry, King relented and tried to begin a new project in a more traditional style. He became frustrated by the loss of artistic control, however, and abandoned the work, insisting that the blues must, he emphasized, be dynamic in order to stay alive. He reiterated this thought in an interview with Simeone, “If I was going to be singing the blues when I’m 75 years old … it won’t be expressed the same way we were expressing it in 1990.”
In 1991 after a failed attempt to peddle his work to Sony, King sought a more liberal atmosphere in Copenhagen. In Europe he connected with a British producer, John Porter, who connected him with RCA/BMG, who in turn assigned him to a label called Private Music. He returned to the United States in 1994 and settled in Los Angeles, where he successfully completed his first legitimate blues-rock recording, 21st Century Blues… From da ’Hood, which was released on the Private Music label in 1995.
With the release of 21st Century Blues, King’s music again became the center of controversy, a situation that sent him packing again in 1995. This time he embarked on a European tour, and just prior to his departure adopted the surname King. In 1993, meanwhile, Hightone released King’s unfinished acoustical recordings in an album called Simple that was well received by critics.
Once back in the United States, King settled in New Orleans. In 1997 he released a self-titled album (using his new name) through Scotti Brothers, and Red Mud, on Black Top Records, in 1998. That same year he appeared with his father at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he became a perennial performer. His signature blend of music had matured admirably on his album Me, My Guitar, and the Blues, released by Blind Pig in 2000.
King’s appearance in the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2001 was his finest professional project in the early 2000s. Telling the story of down-home blues singers in Mississippi, the movie starred George Clooney and John Turturro. King played the role of Tommy Johnson, a true-to-life blues singer from the 1930s. Although Johnson in real life recorded fewer than a dozen songs, he is considered one of the finest bluesmen of the early twentieth century. His legend is perpetuated by a story that he was known to tell to anyone who would listen—he professed that he sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical talent. Of the songs on the movie’s Grammy-winning soundtrack, King’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” was the only one recorded live during filming. The soundtrack went platinum seven times over by the end of 2002, and the film was credited with reviving the popularity of Delta blues.
While filming O Brother, King took on the character of Johnson with such intensity that during his work breaks he wrote an album of songs in the legendary blues-man’s style. Released in 2001, Legend of Tommy Johnson—Act 1: Genesis, 1900s-1990s included original King tunes as well as a bona fide Tommy Johnson classic, “Canned Heat.” The album cover is a portrait of King in the pose and dress of a popular photo of Johnson. By the end of the year King had traveled with the All Blues Tour and appeared in Down from the Mountain, a concert organized by the Joel and Ethan Coen and T-Bone Burnett in the spirit of O Brother. The program, filmed live at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville by D. A. Pennebaker, featured King and Colin Linden performing “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Sto’” along with numbers by Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, and other performers. A soundtrack album of the event was certified gold in February of 2003.
In 2001 King launched a private, independent label called 21st Century Blues, with Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues as the label’s inaugural release. The album blends Delta blues, street music, electronica, and Euro-dance styles. In 2002 King worked with directors Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, and went into production of a directorial effort by Billy Bob Thornton. King toured that fall with bassist Anthony Hardesty and DJ Spin.
Beginning, Arhoolie, 1986.
Cry of the Prophets, Sire, 1990.
Simple, Hightone, 1993.
21st Century Blues…From da ’Hood, Private/BMG, 1995.
Chris Thomas King, Scotti Bros., 1997.
Red Mud, Black Top, 1998.
Me, My Guitar and the Blues, Blind Pig, 2000.
(Contributor) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (soundtrack), Mercury, 2000.
(Contributor) Down from the Mountain: Live Concert Performances by the Artists and Musicians of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Universal, 2001.
It’s a Cold Ass World: The Beginning, Arhoolie (reissue), 2001.
Legend of Tommy Johnson—Act 1: Genesis 1900s-1990s, Valley Entertainment, 2001.
Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues, 21st Century, 2002.
A Young Man’s Blues, Hightone, 2002.
Billboard, September 22, 2001, p. 11; October 12, 2002, p.20; November 30, 2002, p. 22.
Guitar Player, January 2003, p. 45.
New Orleans, July 2002, p. 44.
Sing Out!, Spring 2002; Winter 2002.
“Chris Thomas King,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 6, 2003).
Chris Thomas King Official Website, http://christhomasking.com (June 4, 2003).
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