Blues for Freddie

The family of a Dallas guitar legend fights to protect his legacy

Freddie King is not alive to battle those who would seek to profit from his legend. The blues guitarist, a man whose music inspired the likes of Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Clapton, has been dead since December 28, 1976, when years of bleeding ulcers and pancreatitis caused his heart to fail during a stay at Presbyterian Hospital. He has been spared the pain of having to watch his widow, Jessie, and daughter, Wanda, fight, both in and out of court, those profiteers who hope to get rich using his music and his name; he has been spared the humiliation of having to listen to some of his shoddier recordings made available to a public that doesn't know any better.

Perhaps Freddie King would not be surprised that even now there are folks out there looking to fill their pockets with his hard-earned coin. After all, it's the oldest story in the music industry: To list the names of musicians who had their works misappropriated--especially before U.S. copyright law became more stringent in the late '70s--is to recount almost every single artist who wrote a song, picked up an instrument, and sang into a microphone. Freddie King is just one more hero standing in a very long line.

Even now, Wanda and Jessie King are engaged in an ongoing legal battle with a man named Roy Ames--a convicted pornographer who lives in Houston and has, since at least 1988, profited off Freddie King's recordings. The 61-year-old Ames, who says he has been in the music business since 1959, has thousands of recordings in his possession featuring performances by some of the best-known musicians ever to come from Texas, including psychedelic progenitor Roky Erickson, electric-blues master Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, and Houston blues-rock great Johnny Winter, whom Ames managed more than 30 years ago.

On December 28, 1995, Wanda King filed suit against Ames in federal court in Dallas claiming that Ames has been exploiting myriad recordings of Freddie King without the estate's permission. Among her claims were breach of contract and copyright infringement. On March 25, 1997, a jury agreed with her, but after Judge Joe Fish was through with the verdict, he ruled that Ames owed only $11,375 to the King family--far less than the $1.3 million the estate was originally seeking.

The case is now on appeal in the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, where Ames, who insists he paid for the recording of the songs in question, is contesting the jury's decision. Wanda King is, in turn, contesting the amount of money Fish awarded the estate. A decision is expected sometime in the next few weeks.

At the heart of the lawsuit is one album, a 1992 disc released by the Pennsylvania-based Collectables label titled Freddie King Live at the Texas Opry House. Ames claims he owns the master recordings from which the album and subsequent discs were taken. Wanda King and her mother, Jessie, say he does not. The case is that simple. Or is it?

Wanda King, who lives in Mesquite, says Ames is a "liar...a crook and a criminal" who has made money off her dead father's music for a decade. For years, Wanda has been extremely protective of her father's legacy, going so far as to lock up Freddie's guitars and photos to keep them "away from friends and fanatics."

In 1995, she discovered that her father's mother-of-pearl .38 pistol had been stolen from the Hard Rock Cafe, and called the restaurant's management and told them to return the rest of the donated items belonging to her father. Wanda has also vigilantly pursued litigation against labels, domestic and foreign, that released "private recordings" of Freddie without the estate's permission; Ames is not her sole target.

She explains that she is currently engaged in long-running litigation with a French label that has released bootleg recordings of Freddie King, and she's about to file legal papers against the Wolf label in Austria, which is selling its own unauthorized King disc. "It's like a traffic jam, I got so many people waiting in line here," she says, laughing slightly at the extent of her efforts to ensure that the estate is paid what it is owed in royalties.

"These recordings belong to the family," she says. "When people take his music and profit from it, they're showing little respect for his family. They're robbing from us. In the sleeves inside their CDs, they write about how much they love the blues and how they are so honored to introduce this CD of Freddie King's, but it's all about making a dollar for them. They could care less. They know Freddie King is a money-maker. They have no love or respect for the blues. The blues have gotten a raw deal, because a lot of the elders of the blues were cheated on recording contracts, on artist royalties, on everything."

Indeed, there have been only a handful of official Freddie King releases in the 22 years since his death. One, Live at the Electric Ballroom, 1974, was released in 1995 by the Dallas-based TopCat Records, owned by Richard Chalk and Tom Loughborough. The disc, which features a concert appearance in Atlanta and a radio-studio interview and performance done with local disc jockey Jon Dillon, was later reissued by the New Orleans-based Black Top label and given national distribution, which Wanda says eventually became a "headache" after Black Top fell on financial hard times and she had trouble getting paid by the company. Roy Ames is only the beginning of her troubles, not the end.

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