Jackie King’s pretty much done it all. Born in Texas, the son of a guitar player, his path took him from playing in bars at age 13, to hanging out with legends in late-’60s San Francisco, to playing amazing solos behind music legend Willie Nelson.
You may have spotted King on some of Willie’s early-’80s TV appearances; he was the lefty guitarist who looked like he was enjoying himself to no end, ripping through incredible jazz solos where you’d least expect them.
A couple of years ago, King released Moon Magic on Indigo Moon Records. It gave him a chance to show off his incredible chops and soul. Truly one of the great jazzers around who still plays standards, it’s a treat to hear him play. And earlier this year he and Willie released The Gypsy (also on Indigo Moon), an intriguing mix of country and jazz with King spotlighted on most cuts and Willie playing some fine guitar and singing on a couple of tunes.
King is about as personable and friendly a guy as you’ll meet in the music biz. Naturally, we started with Willie and the new album.
Vintage Guitar: You’ve played with Willie, on and off, for a long time? What possessed you to make this record at this time?
Jackie King: Well, we’ve had this mutual respect for a long time. We had some of this stuff we did several years ago, and some of this stuff we did just a few months ago, so we’ve been putting it together for awhile. The idea was to make a country/jazz/swing connection (laughs).
Trying to show where everything meets, in other words?
The tunes are certainly an interesting mix. Do you guys actually perform any of those songs onstage?
Yeah, we do “The Gypsy,” and a lot of standards. The tunes were selected because they were the songs that both country swing guys and jazzers were doing. The bebop players were taking tunes like “Back Home in Indiana” and “Lover Come Back to Me,” and writing jazz heads at the same time the country players were doing them. You know, like “Cherokee” was Ray Price’s theme song for years. And guys like Buddy Emmons, we were all playing together for years.
I mean, guys like Horace Silver and Clifford Brown were doing “Quicksilver,” which is the same tune as “Lover Come Back to Me.” So the tunes were just songs that literally everybody was doing.
You’re out again with Willie. What do you use for guitars on the road?
My Gibson Byrdland, for the most part, is still the axe. I don’t like to fly with it, for obvious reasons. When we start a branch of the tour, we fly, and we fly when we leave. But very rarely do we fly during the tour. We bus it. So, I generally get the Byrdland out and take it with.
Historically speaking, I first ran into you on some old “Austin City Limits” episode from the early ’80s. You were always sitting behind Willie, smiling, they suddenly you’d play a jaw-dropping solo. You remember anything about those?
Yeah, there was one that was a tribute to Django. Plus some roundtables that were a lot of fun.
Let’s go back a little before that. How’d you start?
Well, even when I was a kid, I was completely audible. I have a lot of problems with things like maps (laughs). My dad played guitar, and I always wanted to play. Of course I was left-handed, so he re-strung everything for me. I actually started on mandolin. I was about eight then. I loved the guitar so much.
My dad taught me the first stuff, and then I studied with a player named Spud Goodall, a wonderful guitarist in San Antonio. He’d played with Bob Hope and knew Les Paul, who I thought was actually playing all those tracks at once! People ask me how I learned to play so fast; I thought Les was doing it, so I could too!
Were you a jazz fan that young?
Yeah, San Antonio was a big entertainment town, and there was a big mix of things. There was country swing and jazz. Bob Wills and everybody else was putting their own spin on things.
So, country musicians were doing jazz. Some great players were playing in that area. Also some great R&B in the area… Gatemouth Brown was there, and nobody knew who he was! He was playing the Eastwood Country Club after hours. And T-Bone (Walker) was there. So the mix was great.
Did your professional career start pretty early?
Oh yeah, when I was 12 I was playing five nights a week.
Gigging regularly at 12?
Yeah, I told ’em I was 13… I thought that made a difference (laughs)!
You moved to San Francisco in the late ’60s. Was that a musical move?
Yeah, me and Doug Sahm grew up together and ended up out there. At the time, everybody was into the psychedelic stuff, and Doug talked me into coming out. He’d already had a couple of big records.
I went out, and we formed a little band with some studio musicians. It was experimental, as you might expect. Very fusiony in the true sense of the word, with the mixture of rock, blues, jazz, eastern, and anything else we could think of. So we formed a group called The Shades of Joy and we did a couple of albums with them. I did some studio work at the time too.
By the time the ’70s rolled around, you were doing lots of gigs…
Yeah, I did everything I could. We’d put a band together to back up folks who came to town. I also played with Chet Baker for about a year.
Did you record with him?
You know, I did… We recorded two live performances that haven’t been put out. Maybe someday we can, since it’s two things with Chet that have never been heard. We’re trying to figure out some way to do that.
How about your career as an educator? How’d that all come about?
Well, I’ve always taught, and always loved it. Howard Roberts would come to San Francisco, and he asked me to do some clinics. Then he asked me to come to GIT, which he was just opening, to teach. So, I taught there for a year. Then I went back to San Antonio and opened a full-time guitar school called The Southwest Guitar Conservatory. That was very successful. We had people from all around the world. I closed it after about seven years because I got so busy playing with Willie and other folks.
Recording-wise, you seem horrendously underexposed. What have you done?
Well, I did an album for CBS called Nightbird. It’s funny, we were recording it at Willie’s studio and l said, “Grab your guitar and play a little bit.” It’s a jazz album with a little different sound. It’s got a Native American theme with jazz arrangements. It’s funny, though, ‘cuz it’s a jazz album and you look at the credits and all of a sudden you see Willie Nelson’s name. I also did an album called Skylight for an obscure label called Texas Record. That was in the ’70s.
Since you’ve obviously been around the industry a long time, could we get some impressions of folks from you.
Sure, go ahead…
How about T-Bone Walker?
Just a very, very down-to-earth guy. As musicians, we had that kind of common bond where everybody’s kind of the same.
Chet was a wonderful person.
You’re a Texas guy. How about folks like Stevie Ray?
Oh yeah, he’d come and see me play, and I’d go and see him play. He was just one of those great Texas guys.
Gosh, there’s so many…
You spent all that time in the ’60s on the West Coast. How about Jerry Garcia?
People, at that time, were always playing together, so Jerry and I did some stuff. Mike Bloomfield, Rick Derringer, they’d all come through and we’d play.
Rick must be a heck of a guy. He sent me a nice note and a signed photo, just because I reviewed a re-release of his a few years back.
Yeah, I remember sitting with Rick one time… remember the old Echoplex? It was a great piece of equipment. Well, I remember Rick had just gotten one, it was a new thing, and we stayed up all night just foolin’ with it. Very nice guy, and a very good guitar player.
How about Howard Roberts? Others?
Howard was a wonderful guy. Herb Ellis is a great guy. I’ve done some gigs with him. He’s a legendary character among guitarists.
If you’re sitting around at home, what do you listen to?
I might put on almost anything, but what I’ve been trying to do lately, with all the re