A European Jazz Great From Macon, GA Is Unknown Here... But Not For Long
The first time I met Rosa King was during my second trip to Amsterdam. My
cousin Jamey and I were out on the town, wandering through the famous Leidseplein Square,
and it began to rain, as is often the case in Holland. We ducked into a small jazz café
called Club Alto to dry off before continuing on. Jamey had heard of the place before,
being a huge jazz fan, and knew that the small cafe often hosted big jazz stars from The
North Sea Jazz Festival.
And there was Rosa, blowing her heart out with the sax on the small stage with her 4-piece
backing band, Upside Down. I was immediately blown away by the band's energy and sheer
funkiness. Due to American prejudices, I had previously believed that German and Dutch
musicians couldn't funk. How wrong I was.
The band was comprised of a tight group of sound monsters on bass, guitar, piano and
drums, and Rosa led them through jazz, blues, sophistifunk and fusion tunes with
professional ease. She even threw in a reggae song for good measure. I was captivated by
Rosa's horn playing, her powerful blues voice, her tenacious stage presence and her
brilliant wit. She was a comedian and a performer as well as a top-notch musician. She had
the crowd rolling in laughter for one minute then standing on tables and hollering for
more at others. Her show was risqué but tasteful, hilarious but expertly musical. I found
myself wondering why there are no stage performers back in the states with real presence
like Rosa's. I also wondered why, being a music journalist, I hadn't heard of Rosa King
During one point of the show, Rosa quieted her band and began to introduce the next song
with a reflective mood. She explained that she was from Georgia, and that she sang the
next song to take her back to her hometown. It was Ray Charles' "Georgia On My
Mind," and I have never heard a better version.
Born in Macon, Georgia, Rosa King is in fact a big star in Europe; she has played the
North Sea Jazz Festival at least eight times. She's played with Cab Calloway, Ben E. King,
Eric Burdon & The Animals and Lionel Hampton. She has appeared on "Sesame
Street" and toured throughout Europe, Israel and Lithuania. Georgia Public Television
is currently finishing a documentary on King's life. She hasn't played the states much at
all as a front-woman, except for a few special engagements in New York, but she has been a
guest on several U.S. television shows.
King has released eight albums, all of which are compendiums of various musical styles.
The earliest, Favorite Blues (Paradise), is a mean rootsy blues album with a live
version of Cab Calloway's "St. James Infirmary." It Just Happened (Riff)
is a jazzier album which includes my personal favorite, "Taking Me A Chance," a
dreamy Latinesque number. The Best Of Rosa King (Riff) includes a funny blues
variation called "Changed Your Mind" which includes the classic lyric, "The
bitch stole your love away" in a breakdown, as well as many other great tunes
including a reggae song called "Too Busy (Loving You)." The album also includes
a track with world famous blues virtuoso Luther Allison, who died not long ago leaving
behind some of the best blues songs ever recorded.
King's new album, 25 Years, Still Going Strong (Riff), is a tour de force in blues
power and funk-fusion, with keyboard wizard Roger Happel providing righteous organ riffs
and mind-blowing scat solos.
Over the past few months, King took the time to answer a few questions for me. Here are
Flagpole: Compared to other primarily blues singers in Georgia, you
cover much more musical territory. Do you think that this resulted from your living in
Europe, or maybe from your inherent adventurous spirit?
Rosa King: The fact that I sing so many styles is because I like different styles, and
so far I'm still free to do whatever the hell I like, so I love trying to do different
things. If it works, I keep on doing it. That's one good thing about never having become a
superstar - no one can put me in a box. So far I do what I like most of the time.
FP: Some of your blues-based songs are quite a divergence from
standard 12-bar patterns and have interesting nuances in their chord progressions. Is this
something that you strive to incorporate, or does it just come naturally as part of your
unique interpretation of the blues?
RK: When I write songs I don't think a lot about chord progressions or bar patterns; I
just write what comes into my head. A lot of times I have to change things later when I
play with the band, but most times they just follow what's in my head because I can always
play and sing it and I'm pretty lucky to have very open minded musicians around who can
follow me, and many times we write songs together
FP: What do you miss most about America?
RK: Being able to travel thousands of miles without having to change money or speak
FP: Tell me about your sax. Does it have a name?
RK: I have no name for my sax I just call it my husband I have had it for about two
years. It's a gift from a rich fan who gave it to me when I was robbed, and the fellows
who robbed me took my saxophone. It is a Julius Keilwerth S.X.90-R. It's a very special
one; made in Germany, not France.
FP: Tell me about Marianne Stel, the keyboardist you'll be bringing
with you to the states.
RK: Marianne started playing with me many years ago. She has developed into one of the
best gospel and blues players in Europe. Whenever there are gospel groups on tour in
Holland most likely you will find Marianne Stel playing piano.
FP: Tell me about the "Ladies' Horn Section."
RK: In the '80s, I added a ladies' horn section to Upside Down because we were playing
The North Sea Jazz Festival for about the fifth time and I wanted to do something
different. Two of the ladies who came out of that horn section were Saskia Laroo and Candy
Dulfer. Candy was 12 years old at the time and already playing her little butt off.
FP: Could you say a few words about Luther Allison?
RK: It is still hard for me to speak about Luther Allison, as I still have not gotten
over his passing away. He was a great human being and a fantastic guitarist and singer
too. He was one of the greats when it comes to the blues.
FP: Tell me about your work with Eric Burdon.
RK: I did a movie called Come Back with Eric Burdon. I also played some gigs
with him in Germany. He's doing fine; I just played a gig in Krefield, Germany and he's
going to be playing there this November with a group called The New Animals.
FP: Are you excited about coming back to Georgia to play?
RK: Yes, I am very excited about returning to Georgia to play because it's going to be
my first time playing there. I sat in with a blues band at a place called Blind Willie's
in Atlanta two or three years ago when I was passing through on my way back to Europe.
Isn't it strange? I've played for millions of people over a very big part of this world
but have never played in my home state or home town.