Blues has got me
The Blues world has many Kings. We all know about B.B., Albert and Freddie. In addition are Earl King, from New Orleans and Bobby King, also from Louisiana. From Memphis, TN came the late Little Jimmy King, who’s real name was Manuel Gales. He legally changed his name to King, after being “adopted” and called “grandson” by his bandleader, the great Albert King. The most underrated King is probably Edward L.D. Milton, a True Chicago Blues Legend.
This Bluesman, who’s longevity and contributions to Blues have been widely overlooked. His reputation as a guitarist, singer/songwriter, recording artist and showman isn’t very well known, not even in the USA. Due to the fact that he was often considered a sideman, he did not achieve much international fame.
Eddie King has experienced many ups and downs throughout his career. Several tragic events caused him setbacks in his life. A house fire in 1961 took the lives of his 5 children. He lost another son in 1988, a victim of a fatal gun shot. Car crashes and other tragic events caused him to temporarily retire from music, for longer or shorter periods. Some of his recordings and his own songs have been miscredited to other more famous Blues artists. During this last decade, he has been suffering from PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, and cancer. He is currently being treated at a Care Center in Illinois.
This story is based on interviews with Johnny Dean, Bob Stroger, Johnny Drummer and. Deitra Farr.
Eddie King was born in Talladega, Alabama, on April 21st, 1938. He is the second youngest son in a family of 13 children. His parents, Oscar Louis Milton and Lily Mae Milton, gave him the name Edward Lewis Davis Milton. Both parents were very active in music. His father was a minister, who also played Gospel and Blues. He was a guitarist and harp player, in the style of John Lee Hooker and Country Delta Blues. His mother also played guitar and organ. They were both singers and huge influences on Eddie’s early music inspiration.
The Milton family formed the Gospel group; The Pilgrim Travellers Junior. They were touring the deep south in 1943 – 1949/50. Eddie began to perform live at 5 years old, twice a week on an A.M. radio station in Alabama. The family Gospel Group did Gospel live and toured in Alabama, especially Birmingham, and also in Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana.
The death of his mother in 1950, was followed shortly by the death of his father. This was a hard blow to Eddie’s family, and the first in a serial of unfortunate and tragic events, that would haunt him throughout his life.
During the early years, he started to practice guitar, harp and singing. He and his older brother, Cecil Calvin, and his sister Geneva, were playing together, mourning their parents. Eddie and some of his siblings ended up in Kentucky, staying with an aunt and an uncle. He continued to practice music, even more when he was divided from some of his siblings, who moved out from their uncle’s home. Some of them would split up with other family members and move to Chicago. During those years, he continued to play guitar and sing tunes that he remembered from his parents. He started to learn how to play with finger picks. His influences at the time, other than his parents, were T-Bone Walker and B.B. King.
Eddie stayed in Kentucky from 1950, until he moved to Chicago West Side in 1954, to unite with some of his siblings. They all resided in different foster homes. Eventually, Eddie stayed with his sister Mary Lou and her husband Percell Smith. He had never been in Chicago before, but his relatives thought it would be a safer place for education, and better opportunities for employment. Very soon he found himself in the heart of the Chicago Blues Scene, which was a strong experience for him. He found new influences in Johnny Shines and Muddy Waters, and would eventually sit in with both of them. He also became strongly influenced by the players on Maxwell Street. Being only 16 years old he would not been allowed to enter any taverns or blues clubs. But he would peek through the windows, to study the guitar players who performed inside. Then run back home and try to copy what he had just seen. After a few years with more practice and becoming friends with other Blues musicians, Eddie would eventually sit in with many of them, although not old enough.
Eddie was a go getter from the time he arrived in Chicago, and was soon befriended with many other contemporary Blues talents. His reputation as a guitar player led him to jam sessions with Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Freddie King, and many of the Chess family, who took Eddie in as a friend. Still a teenager, he joined the Wheeler brothers, Golden “Big” Wheeler and James “Little” Wheeler. His friend bassist Willie Black joined the group and they played around at house parties, to gain experience
Eddie Milton was a fairly short and slim guy, about 5”7 tall. That made him soon playing around under the stage name “Little Eddie”. He got well known in the “Cutting Head” sessions that occurred on the West Side, where he soon exposed his skills as a showman. He would get the crowds attention by sticking up his fingers, holding the finger picks in the air above everyone in the smoke filled places. Once he got the audiences attention, he had a trick he used. Every time he hit a note on the strings, his finger would go straight up in the air and back down again. “Cutting Heads” is something that has been going on for many years in Blues, especially with guitar players. It is of legend status when it comes to Chicago Blues. During the 40’s-70’s it most likely was the prime time line. The players would show up at taverns on the West- and South Side. They invited their friends and the guitarists would do everything possible to outplay the other competitors. The winner would get a bottle of gin or whiskey, or just the right to be bragging about it. The player with the loudest applause would usually win. Eddie used to cut heads at times with such guitarists as Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Luther Allison. Still, his nickname among his friends was “Little Eddie Milton”.
He did his first recording under his real name Eddie Milton, at Thanksgiving in 1957. He wrote a song called “Love You Blue” and recorded it in a studio on the South Side. He had the desire to record his songs, but he didn’t have the money. A big, older man called Moose, who claimed that he worked for Chess Records, paid for the recording. Eddie recalled being in the studio with a band and later would see his record in a record store. He couldn’t find the guy who brought him to the studio, who had paid him 2 dollars for the recording. But the studio would never let him back in again, and was later closed up. The recording was a song that he changed sometime later on and called it “Love You Baby”.
Eddie was busy during 1959. He played on Detroit Junior’s first major recordings; “Money Tree” and “So Unhappy”. During the same year, he recorded with Little Mack Simmons on “Come Back to Me Baby”, as well as “Times Getting Tougher” and “Don’t Come Back”.
It was his older sister, Geneva Milton, who introduced Eddie to Mack Simmons. Though he wasn’t old enough to go into the places they played, Simmons gave him his first professional breaks, sometimes lying about Eddie’s age. Little Mack Simmons hired Eddie to join his band as the lead guitarist, and the two young bluesmen became very good friends. Other up-and-comers in this band, besides Eddie and Detroit Junior, were Bob Anderson on bass, and Robert Whitehead on drums. While the band often played at Pepper’s on the South Side, Eddie would sit in with Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and some of the other greats. In 1959-1960 Eddie also became good friend with Willie Dixon, and was asked to record for Dixon. Eddie also recorded on numerous Sonny Boy Williamson II sides. The same year he recorded for Kenya Collins on the Duke Label, however some of it was probably never released. He also recorded on many sides with Sly Foreman for the Adell Label. He did other recordings with Willie Cobb, Eddie Boyd and Freddie King.
In 1960 Eddie was 22 years old and had accomplished a reputation in many ways. The J.O.B. label signed him and he recorded “Shaking Inside”, “Lonely Man”, as well as the off shoot of the song he recorded in 1957 (Love You Blue) and renamed it “Love You Baby”. In the early 60’s Eddie King became a solo artist and a bandleader for different combos, without being pushed over as he was in 1957. One of the things that had bothered him was that he did not at all change his name to King for reasons to be famous. Or to be compared or confused with the other Blues greats with the last name King. He didn’t either want to perform under his real name Milton, Neither did he want to perform under his name Milton for fear of being confused with his friend Little Milton. One time he went to a show with the bandleader King Kolax, who Eddie was deeply touched by. As they would become friends and Kolax “adopted” Eddie and influenced him with a different sound. Eddie eventually changed his name to Eddie King.
One of Eddie’s very best friends is Bob Stroger, the legendary Chicago Blues bass player. They worked together in different bands for about 15-20 years. The first time they met was in 1959 and, like Bob says; “We were like family, he was just like my brother, back in the days”.
Eddie played at the Pepper’s Lounge when Bob went to see him perform, and he was impressed by Eddie’s showmanship. At the time Bob was playing with the Syl Foreman jazz band, but they didn’t have very much work. Both Syl and Bob were impressed by Eddie, and they asked him to join their band. The idea was to bring Blues songs to the repertoire, so the band could combine Jazz and Blues. Eddie accepted and played with that band for about 6 months.
But Eddie got more ambitious and wanted to launch his own career. So he did, and he took the whole band with him. They all joined the band and called it Eddie King & The Kingsmen.
At that time they used to perform as a revue. They had 3 female singers, called The Three Queens. Another male singer and Eddie were also singing. And nobody ever tried to outplay the other. The line-up used to be guitar, trumpet, saxophone, organ, bass and drums. The style they were playing used to be called South Side Blues. It was a mix of Tamla Motown, B.B. King and traditional Blues. The band used to perform at the prestigious Regal Theatre Show, along with Gatemouth Brown and Junior Parker, among others, on extensive Blues bills. That’s where Eddie King got to meet Koko Taylor more frequently.
The band was considered one of the hottest bands in Chicago, along with The Jaguars and The Scott Brothers. They were very busy, and used to rehearse twice a week. It paid off and they got booked to play in Alaska, and went there for several years. They would perform in Anchorage and Fairbanks, a couple of times every year. Bob Stroger made his first record with Eddie when they cut; “Lonely Man”. It was followed up with; “Hey Mr. DJ” and “Pushed to Love” in 1967, with Eddie’s sister Mae Bee Mae on second vocal. The record was produced by Leo Austell and released on the Conduc label. They also recorded some other stuff that never got released. Bob Stroger was working with Eddie at The Eye Spy Lounge, that fatal night when the house fire took the lives of Eddie’s five children.
After the disaster Eddie moved out of town and they didn’t see each other for some years, until they started up again and called the band Eddie King & The Blues Machine. Eddie’s sister Mae Bee Mae was the lead singer, along with Eddie, and they performed songs in the style of Chicago Soul and Blues. The band lasted until Eddie was offered to play with Koko Taylor. Bob Stroger couldn’t join that band, because he didn’t want to take chances going on the road and losing his day job. Bob didn’t want to play with anybody else but Eddie. So he quit playing for a couple of years, until he joined Otis Rush band. Bob Stroger and Eddie King just drifted apart. Eddie joined with Koko, and Bob went with Otis Rush. But they always kept deep respect for each other
Another of Eddie’s long-time friends is Johnny Drummer, another veteran Chicago Blues artist. He had heard about Eddie, and one night in 1960, he went to see Eddie and his band. The Kingsmen performing at Kirt’s Lounge, 69th & Wentworth Avenue. During the night, Johnny would sit in with the band. Eddie liked Johnny’s drum playing and asked for his phone number. Johnny gave it to him with the words; “Don’t you give it to nobody who can’t play”. A couple of weeks later, Eddie called Johnny to play with him at Peppers Lounge, 43rd & Vincennes Avenue. They continued to play together, on and off, for many years. All in all, they have since been friends for more than 50 years.
Eddie was a showman and he would walk the floor with a long chord. Johnny, who was the only drummer around who played standing up, would snatch his snare drum and a cymbal, and followed behind Eddie out in the audience. Willie Black, the bass player, would stay by the drum kit, and played the bass drum with his foot. One night in 1963, they were playing at a club named Safari, 47th & St. Lawrence. Eddie and the club owner fell out and Eddie quit the band. The club owner asked Johnny to take over as the bandleader, which he did, and re-named the group The Starliters. The other band members were; Willie Black on bass, Willie Young on saxophone and Roy Johnson also on saxophone. Sammy Lawhorn played guitar for some time, until Eddie King came back in again.
They recorded together with Syl Foreman, among others. Some of the recordings never came out, for different reasons. They recorded for a company that recorded McKinley Mitchell. But the company went out of business. However, the song “Serious”, was later released on Johnny Drummer’s record “Unleaded Blues”. They recorded; “Looking for my Baby” and “I can’t stop twisting”, for Wonderful Records in 1961. The other on the session musicians were; Willie Black, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Otis Spann, with Monk Higgins producing. This was the same year as the fatal fire tragedy. Eddie and his wife Bessie were looking for a new house and stayed for a while in a basement apartment. The house caught fire one night and their 5 children were killed in it. Eddie King was never the same after that. He and his wife moved to Peoria, Ill. They started a new life and had another 7-8 children. Eddie would return to Johnny over the years, to stay with him for shorter or longer periods. Especially in 1984, “when Eddie came to life again”, according to Johnny. Johnny Drummer is still performing on keyboards, with his band Johnny Drummer & The Starliters.
Howling Wolf recorded Willie Dixon’s “Wang dang doodle” in 1960. A few years later Dixon asked Eddie King and his sister Mae Bea Mae to do another version of the song. They did the recording, but somehow Mae had some disagreements with Dixon regarding their recording, and the version was never released. Koko Taylor was then asked to take over the vocal part in 1965, while Eddie’s prototype guitar riffs remained on the takes. Eddie was never credited for his guitar work, as Buddy Guy has always been, and even Johnny Twist. This has been debated over the years and is something that Eddie has bit his tongue on for many years. It’s not even certain if Freddie King was the guitarist on the Howling Wolf version.
Koko and Pops Taylor had tried to hire Eddie King for a long time, before he finally agreed to join them. He took everybody in his band with him, except Bob Stronger, and renamed it The Blues Machine. Ike and Bobby Anderson replaced Bob Stroger bass. Eddies brother-in-law, Vince Chappelle played the drums. Koko and the band toured for months on the road, a situation that lasted for many years, actually through the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In between touring and recording with Koko Taylor, Eddie was recording his own songs with his sister Mae Bee Mae and The Blues Machine. Eddie King played in Koko Taylor’s band as her first guitarist. The latest period lasted for 15 straight years, from springtime in 1986 until 2001. They were busy touring and Eddie used to open the shows for Koko and completed the shows playing the outro tunes.
In 1976 he played with an all-star band led by drummer Willie Williams with Willie Back, Eddie C. Campbell, on second lead guitar, and Eddie’s brother, vocalist Checker King, sitting in sometimes. He later worked with his cousin Wilbert “Sir Lucky King” Peterson and “Little Smokey” Smothers. During 1979-80 Eddie recorded Gospel with his church in Chicago. In 1985-86 Eddie and sister Mae Bee Mae recorded a Blues LP at Soto Sound in Chicago, for the Back Magic Records of the Netherlands. The album was called “Blues has got me”, and was re-released in 2010. In 1988, the next tragedy hit Eddie when his youngest son was victim of a fatal gun shot, only 18 years old.
There were many times he felt that he was kind of stuck with Koko, as far as his career was concerned. Eddie had some relatives that helped Koko with recordings and touring, Emmit “Maestro” Sanders and Vince Chappelle. Koko and Eddie recorded many songs on different labels. Koko was eventually signed with Alligator Records, and yet the part Eddie played in those recordings is uncertain, but he played on a few tracks on the “Deluxe Edition” album. Koko’s band recorded their own CD “Burning Blues Machine” with her blessings in 1991. Deitra Farr was their guest vocalist. Eddie and Deitra recorded a duet called “Two Lovers are better than One”. The showman he was, he brought laughters and fun into the studio. Koko and Pops Taylor had to let Eddie go in 2001. Everyone thought he had a drinking problem, but the truth is that his diagnosed PSP kept getting worse. He could hardly play a song more than a couple of choruses. However, he would never let anybody know about his illness. He would often relate to Muhammad Ali. As the master who got hit sometimes, but would never give up a fight.
When Koko Taylor died Eddie wanted to pay his respects. He was invited to her funeral, but at the last moment the nursing home denied him travelling that far in his condition.
Johnny Dean, aka Chicago Blues Gypsy, is a young Blues musician who has a deep friendship with Eddie King, since the early 90’s. He is a singer & songwriter, guitarist, recording artist, former Radio DJ and Blues club manager. He is like an adopted son of Eddie King, and in fact the very reason this story is to be written. Johnny established the club Crossroads in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he booked many of the great Blues artists. Such as Philip Walker, Jimmy Rogers, Abb Locke, Merle Perkins, Jimmy D. Lane and Little Mack Simmons, to name a few. They all performed with Johnny’s vintage Shure Vocal Master P.A., to get the classic sound. Johnny would often sit in to play and sing with many of the artists. He met Eddie King in 1992 at the Riverfest in Beloit, where Eddie warmed up and played with Koko Taylor. After the show, when Johnny was helping the band to load up, Eddie asked Johnny if he could come to an audition that he was doing in Iowa, to choose his next guitar player. Johnny couldn’t make it to that audition, but they would meet again when Eddie was booked at the Crossroads. Only 21 years old, Johnny warmed up before Eddie and played many of Eddie’s songs, as well as his own songs. After the show, Eddie asked Johnny if he was free to go on the road with him. “Free as a bird”, replied Johnny, and they left together that night in September 1992. They would often return back to the Crossroads, and the club soon became “The Home of Eddie King”.
Johnny and Eddie became very good friends, like a father and son relationship. They toured under the name of Eddie King and The Untouchable Ones, and were merchandising in the Mid West. They were writing and recording for the album that would eventually become “Another Cow’s Dead”. It was finally recorded in 1997 for the Roesch Label at Horizon Recording, West Haven, Ct. and featured the Blues Brothers Horns; Birch “Slide” Johnson, Alan Rubin and “Blue” Lou Marini. The album won a W.C. Handy Award for the best comeback album of the year, and was reviewed as “One of the best Blues albums to come out of Chicago in many years”. Eddies son Rumpy Milton was the bandleader who laid down and polished up the final tracks for the record, although Eddie and Johnny had worked on it for about three years. They recorded the first version in South Beloit, Il. In November 1992, with the Prevail Band. Johnny went to live in Eddie’s house, while they were doing the groundwork for the album.
Johnny Dean was also Eddie’s personal roadie, while Eddie was touring with Koko Taylor. He made sure that new strings were put on, stretched and tuned. They constantly wrote songs together, as Eddie was often asking for Johnny’s advice about writing his new songs. Johnny would warm up the crowds and sometimes finish the show with a tune, while King greeted the audiences. Other artists would soon sit in, or appear as guest artists on their shows. Like the A.C. Reed Band and Steve Ditzell, in Peoria, Ill. They would also jam with Eddie’s old friends, Junior Wells, Bo Diddley, Buddy Miles, Otis Clay, Albert Collins, among other greats. Eddie used to play on his old two classic Gibsons. Suddenly one night at The Times Theatre, he showed up with exactly the same setup as Johnny Dean that he had borrowed. It was a Peavey Renown 400 amp. and a Fender Stratocaster. Johnny was worried because he thought it would change Eddie’s typical sound. But Eddie assured him that he had played Stratocasters before. After a couple of shows, Eddie was inspired and went to a music store and bought that same setup. But he never quit using his old Gibsons and Fender amp. He wasn’t keen on any foot pedals, he kept his amp hotroaded and loved it that way. However, he used cordless transmission when he was showboating and walking the floor among the audience.
Eddie then kept touring the U.S., Canada, South America, and Europe, even Beirut, Lebanon.
While Eddie was touring, Johnny was playing with his own band and recorded his 5th Chicago Blues Gypsy CD. During the early 2000’s Eddies close sister Mae had passed away, and that tore up Eddie badly. They drifted apart when Johnny quit performing and started teaching at a Music store, and eventually bought land and a home in a very secluded and heavily wooded part of Missouri.But they kept their close contact on a regular basis and finally met again in 2005. They arranged a “meet and greet” jam session in a local restaurant in Union, Missouri. It was recorded live by Out Of Town Sound, with Johnny on guitar and Dennis AuBuchon on bass. Eddie could no longer play guitar long enough to play a whole tune. His disease also made his eyes sensitive to bright light and it affected his abilty to walk straight.
At that session hey decided to go back to Eddies roots and record an acoustic Country Delta style Blues CD.. They started to write the songs together. Bob Stroger was called and asked if he could play acoustic bass. Bob was excited to come and record with Eddie again, after all those years. In fact he named the CD at that moment. He said; “Johnny, let’s call it Home Coming”.
After the recordings Eddie went back to Peoria. Johnny would join him later, to rehearse and write with him. Eddie then came up with ideas about rhythms and sounds, like adding Congas and a Dumbek percussion. The tunes were to be recorded with a small audience in the studio, like a sit in at a home jam session. Johnny called the best and most versatile musicians he could think of, including Johnny Drummer, Steve Ditzell, Merle Perkins, Jim Liban, Glenn Davis and Johnny’s brother Mike. The original acoustic CD turned to be a two CD set. Everybody was excited and the CD really was going to be a tribute to Eddie King. Right after setting up a stellar line up of musicians, Eddie went and appeared as a special guest at the Chesapeake Blues Festival. According to Memphis Gold, who went there with him, Eddie was doing great on stage. But Eddie received some harsh criticism from the band and the organizers, saying he was staggering among other things, and no one knew that Eddie had the PSP disease.
In the fall of 2007 Eddie was booked as a headliner in Benton, Il., which unfortunately would be his final show. Eddie went on that night and gave an unforgettable performance. He didn’t hide his inability to play guitar, nor walk straight. His son Rumpy made sure that the band was tight and entertaining and Eddie sang his heart out. The band asked jokingly; “Who is that old Blues man”? Eddie picked up cane and flirted with the audience, performing serious Chicago Blues and a high energy funk and soul mix. Then he slowly walked off the stage for the last time. Soon after, Eddie was driving to a nearby grocery store. While driving over a wide bridge, an oncoming vehicle crossed over three lanes and hit Eddie’s car, causing Eddie to go up a curb and hit a tall street light. The driver was intoxicated, and the airbag almost smothered Eddie to death. From the crash site, you could see Eddie’s apartment. Eddie had damage ribs and lost his ability to talk for some time. He was ordered bed rest, all the while his illness kept getting worse. His son Rumpy was there everyday and Johnny went to visit him frequently, helping their father.
After some time he was suffering neglect by the nursing home. He was found in a wheelchair, ragged and dirty, unable to walk, and crumbs in his long scruffy beard. Rumpy Milton King and Johnny Dean cleaned him up, after taking some pictures that were posted to tell people about what was going on. Enough people got upset and filed complaints, and Eddie was moved to a much better place. He is currently being treated at a Care Center, closer to his family in Illinois.
Johnny Dean and Rumpy Milton King are working to finish the “Home Coming” CD. Dennis AuBuchon, the studio owner of Out Of Town Sound, in Union, Mo, is playing on the takes and is working on the mixing. Memphis Gold is going to be a special guest on guitar. A few of Eddie King’s final recordings will end up on the CD that will be released as a tribute to Eddie King.
By Krister Palais Jefferson #169