John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Slinky Cool of Earl King

His ‘60s song, “Trick Bag,” oozes with New Orleans funk.

By - Jun 3rd, 2016 03:40 pm
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By Masahiro Sumori (Sumori) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Masahiro Sumori (Sumori) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to overstate what a cool and slinky guitarist, writer and singer Earl King was. If you don’t know his name, that’s OK, any guitarist who ever stuck a burning cigarette up in the strings of their Tele knew his reputation. He played the way everyone wanted to. With a loose Crescent City swing that was the opposite of flappable. The guy just oozed cool. The coolest cat, Jimi Hendrix covered his classic “Come On,” and there is no doubt he studied him closely. Turn down the volume on the Marshall stack and he’s one of the guys you hear.

In his hip masterpiece, “Trick Bag,”* from the early 1960s, he pulls up head and shoulders with all the Kings, Albert, B.B and Freddy while barely playing a lick. Barely, I say, because the whole thing is based on a slick little half-step chord thing that might qualify as a lick. What slays me every time I hear this song is the thing I hear in all of Allen Toussaint’s early work — a funny and credible take on the eternal search for a little affection and the battle between the sexes. In lyrics every bit as clever as anything Lieber and Stoller wrote for the Coasters, he spins a tale of sexual frustration, trouble with the in-laws and infidelity over the backyard fence. It’s a gem.

Twelve o’clock at night, you walk out of door
You told me, baby, you was going to the drugstore
But-a in my mind I knew you was lyin’
The drugstore close at a quarter to nine

(Chorus)

I said, saw you kissin’ Willie across the fence
I heard you tellin’ Willie I don’t have no sense
The way you been actin’ is such a drag
You done put me in a trick-bag

When-a I come home, you start an argument
Just to keep me from askin’ where my food done went
Walk in the front door, I hear the back door slam
Peep out my window, somebody’s takin’ on a lam

(Chorus)

We had a fight, then you got mad
Got on the telephone, call your mom and dad
They came a-runnin down with bats in their hands
“Don’t you hit her no more, you understand?”

(Chorus)

You git me wrong, but I know I’m right
It wasn’t I that started the fight
“She’s my daughter and I’m her paw
“You ain’t nothing, a-but a son-in-law”

(Chorus)

© Earl King

I had to change all the first person pronouns from “i” to I. There should be an app. Anyway, it’s significant because I think this lady has somehow lower-cased him. Ouch! The litany of complaints is long, mostly centered around Willie and the intruding in-laws. Some bold moves are going down, like a trip to the drug store a few hours after it closes. And how about Paw? He definitely gets the best line, “You ain’t nothing, a-but a son-in-law.” (Most likely Benny Spellman, familiar to many for singing the bass part on “Mother In-Law.”)

The Urban Dictionary defines Trick Bag:

  1. A situation which can lead to a disastrous outcome, normally initiated by someone who dislikes you.
  2. A scheme, manipulation, or situation that seemed legitimate, honest and/or innocent, at first. Usually referred to at time when it may or may not be too late to avoid the full consequences and/or embarrassment.

There are a couple more variants of these definitions, but you get the idea. Not only is trick bag a sad sack to be caught in, it also illustrates one of things I like so much about our country; the endless richness of our language. If you keep your ears open and have the skills, you might get lucky and write a hit!

If the lyrics are self-deprecating, the music is anything but. In New Orleans feel is everything and the guys on his records oozed enough grease to quiet any squeaky wheels. On piano for this session was a guy named James Booker. You may not know him either, but in a town full of world-class piano players, many considered him the equal of Professor Longhair, if not his better. But again, what he leaves out could fill a book, and that’s what counts. These guys were working up their own brand of proto-funk.

The secret of funk is not the notes. but the spaces around them. You can’t do a high-wire act in a crowd. In NOLA at that time drummers were boiling it down to the bare minimum. It eventually turned into a fetish for playing just one drum or cymbal at a time. The master, Ziggy Modeliste of The Meters, would take that all the way to bank, but you can already hear it developing on this track with a guy named Bob French. He’s a spaceman.

South of New Orleans, the Mississippi River splays out in a hundred directions before flowing out into international waters. But before that, just south of Pontchartrain, it has already left the South. Going to New Orleans is like leaving the country. You have a mixture of everyone and everything you might find upstream, with cajuns who came all the way from Nova Scotia! The town is bent along a crooked river that’s better than any straight one I can think of. It’s mixed up and will probably never be figured out. But with a little luck and some serious attention to global warming, it will always be there churning out idiosyncratic home-grown geniuses like Earl King.

* My apologies for the degraded audio. Every one I listened to featured an irritating noise in the first verse. How can it be that no one has a clean copy?

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: The Slinky Cool of Earl King”

  1. Brian Jarstfer says:

    John, always learn from and really enjoy your columns. Thanks

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