Story and photos by Christopher Briscoe
I'm in the middle of the 9th Ward, looking for a house that was partially submerged during Hurricane Katrina. Amzie Adams is driving. His funky car feels as though it was dragged out of the flood. It's alternator is fried. Last night we had to drive with flickering headlights that were no brighter than dim cell phones. I'm not complaining. If it weren't for Amzie, I'd be isolated in some white-bread hotel, off the French Quarter, disconnected from the very soul of New Orleans.
Little Freddie and Amzie Adams jam.
Bluesman, Little Freddie King, unlocks his screen door and invites us into his tiny living room. The walls are covered with photos, paintings and posters celebrating Freddie's decades as a music icon. I'm there to photograph him for my book, The Spirit of New Orleans. I feel as though I'm in the presence of royalty and sit cross-legged on the floor. Freddie plugs his guitar into a little amp and starts to jam, sitting on the edge of his couch. Amzie plugs in too, his electric dulcimer across his lap. I feel as though I might need a seatbelt as Little Freddie's Gut-Bucket, down-and-dirty blues pin-balls around the room. By the time Freddie starts to sing in his gritty, lived-in voice, I have goosebumps.
At 74 years old there's a soft warmth and humility about this man. Freddie's strut may have slowed a bit, but his soul still brims with a Mississippi talent that grew from seeds planted when he was a kid, sitting on the front steps of juke joints, listening to his daddy play the blues inside - singing tales of woe and mischief.
He made this first guitar-like instrument from a cigar box. Freddie took wood from his family’s picket fence for a guitar neck and tuning pegs and used wire to make frets. He didn't have any black paint so he mixed his own creation from fireplace soot and pine resin. He didn't have any strings either, but then Freddie noticed the swooshing sound made by his daddy’s horse’s tail. Snip, snip. He had strings. When he was 14, King hopped a train and rode the rails to New Orleans. After a job at a gas station he was able to buy his first real guitar, an acoustic Silvertone from Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Years later he played on stages along side John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddly and toured the world.
It's dark and Amzie's car dies quietly a block from his pad. Little Freddie is kind enough to leave us a pass at the front door of The DBA club on Frenchman Street. The place is packed. It takes some careful maneuvering for me to get to the foot of the stage. Little Freddie, wearing a red vest, as electric as the songs he plays, is rock'n the house. His white brimmed hat shades his trademark sun glasses. The drummer, "Wacko" Wade, drives the beat. Also on stage, Robert Louis DiTullio, Jr.blow'n hard, hands flap around his harmonica - tethered to an electric-orange amp cord. He leans into Freddie, keeping a close eye on King's left hand as it glides over the frets.
I don't want you to be no slave
I don't want you to work all day
I don't want your money, too
I just want to make love to you.
Wacko Wade, drives the beat. Robert Louis DiTullio, Jr. blow'n hard.
Photographing bands on stage is always a challenge - the constantly changing colored lights, keeping the focus sharp, anticipating a classic stage gyration - praying that it will all come together in my camera the same way my mind is seeing it, with the same feeling that my ears are hearing it. At times I'm so close to one of the stage amps that my camera vibrates to the bass. I wonder what damage is occurring to my ear drums. I'm concerned about getting in too close to Freddie - being too obtrusive - and at the same time I turn around to apologize to the much smaller woman I'm standing in front of. My brain is fast-forwarding to a time later that night, when I will be at my computer editing the work, probably wishing that I'd shot more and moved in even closer, elbowing the barriers of politeness a bit further to get better shots.
I lean in and press the shutter release - hold it down - hoping to capture its own crisp tone.