New King of the blues

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International   |   June 18, 2003 at 5:34 PM   |   0 comments

NEW YORK, June 18 (UPI) -- Chris Thomas King is the New Face of the Blues in this congressionally-declared centennial celebration "Year of the Blues."

No less a figure than B.B. King himself took special care to single out King at a gala jam session Wednesday celebrating the 3rd anniversary of BB's Time Square nightclub in New York. Chris -- sitting in coveralls at BB's side and getting the lion's share of the soloing on a stage that included such luminaries as Hubert Sumlin, Les Paul and Soul Live's Eric Krasnow -- was clearly the heir apparent.

Last weekend King appeared at the debut screening of the Martin Scorsese-produced "The Soul of a Man," in which he plays the delta blues great Blind Willie Johnson, and then performed his own music at Summerstage.

King, who grew up as a child prodigy learning blues at the feet of some of the music's masters at his dad Tabby Thomas' famous Baton Rouge club, the Blues Box, has been trying to forge his new concept of music for a decade now. King's highest profile success was playing the part of another delta blues great, Tommy Johnson, in "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou."

His acting career has taken off along with his music career since then.

King played the lead role and acted as musical director for the New Orleans stage production "Goodnight Irene: The Legacy of Leadbelly." He also plays himself in the Robert Mugge documentary, "Last of the Mississippi Jukes," and he has a part in the upcoming Ray Charles biopic.

King's portrayal of Blind Willie Johnson is central to his concept of merging traditional blues with the ethos of hip-hop. He feels they are essentially the same music.

"Hip-hop came from the same neighborhood as the blues," King argued. "What Cash Money and Juvenile are doing is coming from the same neighborhood where Blind Willie Johnson recorded in 1925 in New Orleans. A couple of blocks away, in that same neighborhood. A lot has changed, a lot hasn't changed. The underground, the hard core hip-hop, was coming from the same place as the blues came before. It was the grandkid of the blues, with new instruments. Just like blues was acoustic at one time, then Muddy Waters plugged in and went electric, I sampled it, I digitized it. So my thing is where Muddy Waters electrified it I digitized it. Bring the blues to the 21st century, that's my approach to it."

King feels a bit frustrated at being locked into a specific kind of acting role, just as he resists being pigeonholed as a blues musician.

"I have received a lot of scripts in the past couple of years, maybe too many of them are based on blues themes," said King. "People think that's what you do, that's all you can do. I'm looking forward to showing my versatility in acting and showing people the role I got wasn't a fluke. I always wanted to act. I'm also always writing stories, like 'Watermelon Man,' a little fable about these magical watermelon seeds. I think I've matured enough as a writer that I could turn that into a screenplay."

Oddly enough, Ernest Joseph "Tabby" Thomas also worked as an actor, performing in LSU's production of "The Death of Bessie Smith," appearing in a German film, "The Blues in New Orleans," and as an extra in the blues club scene in "Angel Heart."

But Tabby Thomas is best known as one of Louisiana's greatest blues figures, "The King of Swamp Blues," whose 1961 national hit "Hoodoo Party" is a treasure of Louisiana blues history.

So playing the blues comes natural to King. But he intends to expand that vision into the 21st century by incorporating hip-hop into his style.

"Blues come from such a deep place of sorrow, a deep place of a miserable existence where you question how could God let this happen, where you don't really understand exactly what's going on but there's this little glimmer of hope that it isn't always gonna be this way, in time it's gonna get better," said King. "There's always that glimmer of hope. A lot of hip-hop, hard core music, that glimmer of hope isn't there most times. Even though their music expression or sorrow expression or hard times, what's beautiful about the blues is that there's that touch of spirituality to it that says I'm not in this alone. It's not always gonna be this way. If I can just endure, if I can just make it another day, it just might be a little bit better. Sometimes people need that glimmer of hope."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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