Blues player Christone “Kingfish” Ingram became so good, so fast that the notion that he’s reincarnated has almost become conventional wisdom.
He was born a few miles away from the storied Mississippi crossroads – Highways 61 and 49 – where Robert Johnson is said to have traded his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar mastery. Kingfish denies making such a deal. Instead, his spirited and skillful blues is the result of a school music program and a whole lot of practice.
Kingfish began playing drums in church at the age of 6. He started bass at 9 and about a year later was playing professionally. He began guitar lessons at 11, and by the time he was 14 people outside his hometown of Clarksdale began to take notice.
Now he’s 20. His first album on Alligator Records, “Kingfish,” debuted this year at No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues and Heatseeker charts.
“I took lessons at the Delta Blues Museum from $Daddy Rich$ (aka Richard Crisman) and (Bill) “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, who actually gave me the name Kingfish,” he told Tahoe Onstage. “I didn’t like the name at first but it kind of grew on me. Everybody in the neighborhood and teachers and kids at school started calling me that.
“Mr. Perry encouraged me to start singing. He wanted me to play ‘Every Day I Have The Blues.’”
That song was made famous by B.B. King, part of the great blues triumvirate: B.B., Freddie and Albert King. Kingfish studied each of them.
“I went through a phase where everything was speed and fast. But (I dug) into the old stuff like Albert King and Freddie King. I studied that more than anything, especially Little Milton, Albert King and Freddie King and B.B. Those guys were playing with feeling. It wasn’t technically advanced. They can play whatever they want to, but they prefer not to.”
Kingfish’s blues with a feeling is what especially captures listeners’ attention. Longtime harmonica great Mark Hummel took notice on a particular song.
“The intro was frenzied fast guitar and then he played this beautiful solo right in the middle and then he ended the song on the frenzied guitar again,” Hummel said. “It was an interesting composite of a guitar style, and, boy, he sure can play the blues. He can definitely play fast and take his time. And that’s interesting. To hear a player who can do both in that way is pretty unusual.”
Another peer is saxophonist Vanessa Collier, who met Kingfish moments before jamming with him and Buddy Guy on a Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.
“I’ve never met a nicer person or humbler person and then he gets onstage and he just kills it,” Collier said. “His fingers just fly. He’s got all the old blues soul in his playing, and he’s bringing his whole home and life stories into it.”
Kingfish played Tuesday, July 9, for the first time in the Lake Tahoe area, performing at the weekly Bluesdays in The Village at Squaw Valley.
“I’m feeling a good vibe here,” Kingfish said before stepping on the stage. That’s when the magic happened. Before the first song was finished, the typically someone reserved Squaw Valley audience rushed to the front of the stage, smiling and dancing. A local guitarist in the crowd, Joe Roemer, appeared astonished. His jaw dropped as he watched the young player.
Kingfish is a serious string-bender. He plays with his head tilted back and with a look in his eyes as if he were channeling a spirit. Blues with a feeling indeed. It was a good vibe and one of the greatest shows in the 11 years of Bluesdays.
Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer knew about the young star for about five years before he hooked the Kingfish.
“(Kingfish is) perfectly capable of crowd-pleasing shredding, but his music is remarkably mature,” Iglauer said in a press statement. “He knows which are the important notes, the notes that tell the story and grab the audience, and he leaves out the extraneous ones. He sings with the intensity and directness of a seasoned blues artist.
“I’m watching him become a young, visionary blues giant.”
Kingfish had an all-star team for support on his album. The producer and co-writer was Tom Hambridge. Billy Branch played harp. There’s a duet, “Fresh Out,” with Buddy Guy. And Keb Mo is a sideman (Keb Mo a sideman!), who played acoustic guitar on five of the songs.
The amount of talented support was a bit intimidating, Kingfish said.
“I have to be real. I was scared at first, but I am glad how it came out,” he said. “I did some things with the Delta Blues Museum and I had recorded some things with my school band. I recorded a two-song demo of blues songs I wrote, but they were garbage. But I had studio experience at the time, so I was schooled for the session.”
Kingfish first met Buddy Guy in 2013. Two years later, they jammed along with Hambridge (a drummer and Guy’s producer for the past several years) at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon.
“I met Buddy again at Experience Hendrix in Memphis, and that’s what sparked the whole situation. I was a performing artist at the festival.”
Kingfish and 22-year-old sensation from Greenville, Georgia, Jontavious Willis collaborated on the song “If You Love Me.” (Willis’ new album was produced by Taj Mahal and Keb Mo.)
“Jontavious wrote most of the song and I did most of the arranging,” Kingfish said. “I pretty much hit him up one day and I said, ‘Hey man, I want you to write me a song in your style. Two days later, he sent a video of him playing the song. He’s one of my bros in the business.”
“What I like is that he’s fallen in with a crew of younger musicians,” Hummel said.
“I am glad to see him with guys like Jontavious and Marquise Knox (28-year-old guitarist from St. Louis) because those are the young traditional African-American players that I am seeing coming up. It’s nice to know that something is being carried on.”
When he speaks, Kingfish sounds like the youngster who he is. But his blues belie that fact.
“I think he’s got an old soul,” Collier said. “He’s inherited somebody’s something.”
Kingfish’s song co-written with Hambridge, “Been Here Before,” addresses just that.
So we asked, “Do you think you’ve been here before?
“A little bit,” Kingfish said, laughing. “I don’t think like a normal teen. I have an old soul, I guess.”
Related story — Album review: Kingfish’s debut hits hard.