Marcus King is only 21, but his band is about to take the blues world by storm

Baby blues

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Photo by Emily Butler Photography

Marvin King had been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things by the time he became a father at age 40. Before moving to Greenville, he spent his childhood in Germany where he watched Jimi Hendrix take Europe by storm. Marvin’s father was country guitarist Bill King, who played with Johnny Cash and a host of other big stars. Like father, like son, Marvin grew up to become an incredibly skilled blues-rock guitarist and landed two different record deals with Polydor and Capitol in the ’80s and ’90s. But in addition to all of those great memories, he still very clearly remembers the day that he came home from work and his young son, Marcus, not yet 10 years old, proudly told him he’d learned to play an entire Lynyrd Skynyrd album on guitar.

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Marvin had only recently bought his son his own Fender Squier Stratocaster electric guitar, mostly because he couldn’t keep the boy away from his own six-string. “I’d taught him ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ already,” Marvin says, “So I said, ‘You mean you learned the song.’ And he said, ‘No, I learned the whole record.’ He’d learned the whole album in a day, just playing along with it. He had an incredible ear. He was improving by the millisecond.”

Growing up in music

That level of passion was clear from the second King picked up a plastic toy guitar when he was in diapers, and it’s fueled him for most of his 21 years. Marcus has said before that when he was bad as a child, his dad would tell him that he could either get a spanking or have his guitar taken away. He picked the spanking every time.

“My dad would go to work and leave me with his music collection and I’d go through it,” he says. “I loved the Allman Brothers; he put me onto them at a really early age. I loved Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King. I loved Johnny Winter. I would also get into the early Skynyrd stuff, with Ed King, Allen Collins, and Gary Rossington playing guitars.”

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As Marcus moved into his teens, he developed an incredible feel, control, and tone. His solos were blistering and dazzling displays, almost as dazzling as the sight of a 13- or 14-year-old standing on stage with veteran musicians, blazing away at clubs he technically wasn’t old enough to get into as a customer.

That’s where keyboard player Matt Jennings first saw Marcus — onstage at the now-defunct Brown Street Club in downtown Greenville. “I don’t know if it was him sitting in with his dad’s band or him sitting in with Gypsy Souls, or some other concoction,” Jennings says. “I’d already had a couple of folks telling me, ‘Man, you gotta see this kid sitting in and killing it,’ and I finally did. I know I didn’t get out there til 11:30 or so, and I remember thinking, ‘Isn’t it past this guy’s bedtime?’ But he was ripping from the first moment I ever saw him.”

It was probably Gypsy Souls that Jennings saw Marcus with, because the band’s singer and trumpet player Craig Sorrells had already developed a rapport with King. “Marcus started playing with us at a very young age,” Sorrells says. “Around 12 or 13, I guess. We knew immediately that he was something special, because he was holding his own with Shane Pruitt, Troy House, and just about any other guitar player he shared the stage with.”

‘The Curse of the First Record’

Jennings will return to our story later on, but in the meantime, the still-teenaged Marcus was busy forming his own band, writing songs, and aiming to get out into the world.

“When I was in high school, maybe younger than that even, I knew I wanted to travel and play music and put everything I had into it,” Marcus says. “And I definitely made a conscious decision at a young age that as soon as I was free to do so, I was going to go as far as I could as often as I could.”

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King’s first eponymous band independently released an album called “Soul Insight” in 2014, when Marcus was 18 years old. It was a mix of ferocious electric blues, deeply felt soul balladry, and stretched out jams, but in the aftermath of its release, King lost most of his band.

“After ‘Soul Insight,’ me and [drummer] Jack Ryan came back home, and we’d caught what I call ‘the Curse of the First Record,’” King says. “That’s when the first record’s done and people start to see, ‘OK, we’re getting ready to start making tracks and we’re not going to be home very often. After that starts to set in, you see who’s really ready to do it. And we learned that our keyboard player and bass player at the time both really wanted to go back to school. So Jack and myself found ourselves without a band.”

That’s where Jennings comes back in. “I’d told Matt before that we’re going to play together one day,” King says. “And he was like, ‘OK, sure, whatever.’ And so when I saw him again I told him the offer was still there.”

Jennings came on board, along with bassist Stephen Campbell and horn players Justin Johnson and Dean Mitchell. With the new, improved Marcus King Band ready for action, all they needed now was a break. And they got one in the form of Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes.

“We were offered a gig at the One Stop Deli [a restaurant located in the Asheville Music Hall venue] at the end of 2015 on the same day as Warren’s annual Christmas Jam. And afterwards, Warren’s manager, who is now my manager, approached us and offered us a deal to work together,” King says. “I found out later that some mutual friends of mine had gotten ‘Soul Insight’ into Warren’s hands and he was really into it. And once we played together a couple times and talked about music, it became clear that he was a really great mentor, and he took us under his wing from there.”

‘Well beyond his age’

“Took us under his wing” is a bit of an understatement. The Marcus King Band eventually signed to Haynes’ management company, Hard Head Management, which was founded by Haynes wife, Stefani Scamardo. Then Haynes reissued “Soul Insight” on his own record label, Evil Teen. And finally, with Haynes behind the board, the band went into the studio to record their self-titled second album, which was released last October by Fantasy Records.

“Marcus is the first player I’ve heard since Derek Trucks to play with the maturity of a musician well beyond his age,” Haynes said just before going into the studio to produce the album. “He’s very much influenced by the blues, but also by jazz, rock, and soul music. You can hear the influences, but it all comes through him in his own unique way. He has one of those voices that instantly draws you in, and his guitar playing is an extension of his voice and vice versa.”

“He had an enormous amount of patience,” King says of Haynes. “None of us had done a record for a major label before. Once we were in the studio, he made us feel really at ease.”

“Every moment he was there, he was completely involved and 100 percent into it,” Jennings adds. “He took notes on every verse and every nuance of every song. He was so hardworking and persistent and focused.”

From the first note of album, it was clear that the band had reached a new level of skill. Jennings’ miles-deep Hammond organ fuses with the rhythm section flawlessly, creating a foundation of grooves for King to unleash his gruff, soulful vocals, and stinging liquid-mercury guitar solos. Combined with the horns that seem to leap out of the speakers, the band comes off like a vintage R&B revue as much as a roadhouse-ready blues band, and that’s before you get to the laid-back funk or the feverish, frenzied psychedelic rock. All this from a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader who was 20 years old when the album was released.

The critical response was immediate and effusive. Music magazines and websites all over the country proclaimed King to be the real deal.

“King has his own thing, yet analogies to the Allman Brothers Band abound,” wrote Jimmy Leslie in Guitar Player magazine. “With his vocals closest to Haynes, his guitar style like a jazzed-up Dickey Betts, and a tone somewhere between Duane Allman and Derek Trucks, King is that good.”

“The Marcus King Band addresses expectations with confidence, panache, and imagination right from the start of this eponymous record,” Doug Collette said on allaboutjazz.com, “firing on all cylinders from the beginning of ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong with That.’”

‘It’s a thrill’

And the band’s career has essentially been on an upward trajectory since then. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard Blues Album charts, the band was one of the headliners at last year’s Fall for Greenville, they’ve just made an appearance on “CBS This Morning,” and they’ll be playing Colorado’s legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in August. Over the past few months, they’ve played The Beacon Theatre in New York, performed at multiple prestigious festivals, and scored a feature in Guitar Player magazine.

“It’s a thrill to be able to access the people on such a large scale,” King said after the band’s March 25 “CBS This Morning” performance. “It’s a blessing and an honor to have a platform to express our minds and souls musically. This train is picking up some speed, and it ain’t slowing down anytime soon.”

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All this good news is coming on the back of a lot of hard touring, but King says he’s always known what he was in for. “I knew it was going to be tough,” he says. “My dad was a touring musician his whole life, and he told me it was tough. But I was always ready to go. I remember having multiple conversations with him where he asked me if this was what I really wanted to do, and he said he’d stand behind me no matter what. I’m ready for any of the challenges that might ensue. And it can be challenging, but once we get onstage, it’s a unanimous feeling that we love getting our music in front of new people and new ears, and seeing new faces every night.”

The hometown crowd is thrilled about what’s happening with Marcus, and many of them say they knew it was coming all along. “I used to joke with him about how he was going to go do much bigger things than us, and I would be playing in his band instead of the other way around,” Sorrells says. “He’s a special guy and I’m very proud to call him my friend and to have been there to see the progression he made as a musician.”

“We’ve watched Marcus develop into an artist with a sound beyond his years, both as a soloist and a bandleader,” adds Thomas McPartland, who books bands for Greenville’s Gottrocks venue and saw King play there many times.

And how does Marvin feel now, watching his barely-21-year-old son traveling the country, playing bigger and bigger rooms, and standing in the national spotlight?

“As a father, I just wanted him to live his life,” Marvin says. “I didn’t want to push him into music, because it’s a hard life. But ultimately you do what you’re passionate about and what you love. To see him at his age with Warren taking him under his wing, I couldn’t ask for anything better. I told him when he was little, ‘Your dad can only take you so far. You need to be discovered by someone who’s a staple in the business like a Warren Haynes or Eric Clapton. They’ll push you more because they’re your discovery.’ And it’s almost like prophecy. I’m elated.”

Deep Cuts

“Always,” from “Soul Insight”
The first-ever taste of Marcus King on wax is everything a heavy-blues lover could want. A stomping beat, a swaggering howl of a lead vocal, and a lethal, no-holds-barred electric guitar onslaught.

“Boone,” from “Soul Insight”
Another first-album track that shows off Marcus’ wicked acoustic slide chops and points toward the Mach II version of the band with its miles-deep Hammond organ foundation.

“Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With That,” from “The Marcus King Band”
The MKB’s second album reveals the band’s new soul-revue skills, melding a slippery old-school funk groove, some explosive R&B horns, and King’s pure-emotion testifying on both vocals and liquid-mercury guitar.

“Self-Hatred,” from “The Marcus King Band”
A startling, quick-footed expansion of the band’s sound into psychedelic jam-rock that is at once relentlessly experimental and compellingly catchy. It’s songs like this that display the band’s new maturity and confidence; it’s hard to imagine a track this unusual being on their first record.

“Virginia,” from “The Marcus King Band”
Student meets master as Marcus and producer Warren Haynes trade fiery solos on this heavy, head-nodding blues rocker that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-period Allman Brothers Band album.

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