Before singer and guitarist “King” George Clemons moved to Sweden for what was supposed to be three months he lived in New York. While trying to make it in the music business he almost got caught up in the street life. Eventually, he took a good advice and went to Sweden. 40 years later and he’s still there.
King George was born in Hampton, Virginia in a babtist family and moved to New York early on in his life. King George left the US with a few recordings to his crown. He had also befriended a certain Jimi Hendrix and the psychedelic inspiration would later become an enormous influence on King George’s work. In Sweden, he would first team up with the Harlem Kiddies before creating the King George Discovery. He continued with solo releases and also opened up a blues club in Gothenburg.
What made you leave Virginia for New York?
I left Virginia after getting in a little trouble with the authorities. I was already Muslim when I came to New York. At least that’s what I thought. I became a Muslim while I was incarerated. Nation of Islam, they would do some teachings (when I was in prison). When I got to New York and I saw everything that was going on, well, (I realized) I’m not a real Muslim. As far as I was concerned I wasn’t deep enough into it.
What was it like for a young man to come to Harlem from rural Virginia?
I am so lucky because I went through so many things. I am lucky to be alive. The first year I was in New York I was living in Brooklyn. I thought it was New York. One day I went to Harlem and it was a whole new world (Laughs). I have always been very naïve even when I was back in Virginia. My whole being was naïve. I didn’t even think that corruption excisted. I thought a policeman was a policeman who was bound to take care of us, no corruption invovled. I thought a president meant what he said and all that. I really believed that. All those barriers and all those walls had to come down. That’s what I mean by being naïve. While it was coming down I had some bad experiences but it might have helped me survive.
Can you talk about the clubs that were popular when you hung out in Harlem?
There was a place called the Hide-Out where Jack Mcduff used to play. We used to call him the one-man band with the Hammond organ. Maybe Timmy Thomas played there too. They used to be in very small places with their organs and a rhythm box, sometimes with a guitar player, playing (in a style) like Wes Montgomery. There was another place next to the Apollo Theater, I forgot the name of it. There was a woman there called Ma’ Parks and she used to fix the dancers for everybody (performing at the Apollo Theater) except James Brown.
There’s a guy living in Canada now. His name was Willy Ray. He was over here (in Sweden) before me. He used to be one of the dancers that worked in the Apollo Theater. They would stand there and wait for the performers when they arrived. Singers like Major Lance, Freddy Scott and those kind of people they didn’t have their own dancers. James Brown had his own band and full revue. Most Soul singers didn’t.
I have heard some interesting stories about the venue Small’s Paradise. Can you explain what the insides of Small’s Paradise actually looked like?
I used to go to Small’s Paradise and sing for free. They had a little stage in the front by the bar. The bar to the left, stage to the right and then you go through an archway where they had a wider stage. They had a fashion show plus a band (on that stage) sometimes. That was like the executive room. They used it if the occasion was big enough. Through the weekdays you would play the little stage out in the front where you could find Jimmy Castor as a houseband. King Curtis, when he didn’t have big gigs, was playing there live with local musicians. He was also a hell of a crap shooter. Yeah, you might find Ben E. King there with a trio doing “Stand By Me” and stuff like that. Chuck Jackson with a rhythm section would have played on that little stage too. There were all kinds of crap shooters, hustlers, cocaine sniffers, counterfeiters, models and moviestars at Small’s. A man like (legendary Harlem gangster) Bumpy Johnson might have been standing there looking at me singing. Those are the kind of people that passed my life back then.
Were you able to make a living from music at this point?
I had music on my mind but I needed to get a job. When I left Virginia I was a dishwasher by profession. When I got to New York I was a short order cook. After I was a short order cook at Wimpies for a while I did so well that the boss made me the manager. After I became the manager I started hanging out at Small’s, which was right next door when I got off work.
At that time people used to go to have breakfast at 4 o’clock in the morning. You know, we’d go downtown and have ham and eggs. I presented the idea to the boss that we should do the same and I volunteered to cover the shift. There were crap games going on in the back of Wimpies and there I met some old timers who probably saved my life because I was really on it. They said to me, “You should stick with your singing and guitar playing because somebody’s going to kill you the way you doing (it).” I was playing crap games and learning how to cheat people. Eventually, I quit my job at Wimpies and I bought two guitars and changed some counterfeit money that was going around. I don’t know where I got it from but crap games is a good way to spread it, you know.
You mentioned Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson. Did you ever associate with any of these types of people?
I almost got caught up in a crap game one night. A guy teaching me how to cheat got caught. His name was Big Joe. The folks who caught him said to me “Get out of here, you don’t know what you’re doing”. Then they told Big Joe “We’ll let you go tonight but we’re coming for you” because they knew Joe was always hanging out and bragging at Singleton’s Bar with a lot of money. They knew that. He’s dead now though but two or three days later they came in Singleton’s Bar. I used to eat short ribs 4 o’clock in the morning at Singleton’s. I was drinking Scotch and milk at the time. Yeah! All the players were drinking it so I was drinking it too. Maybe it was a joke (Laughs). I don’t know. They used to make those kind of (practical) jokes. I drank it for a long time and enjoyed it. It was good.
Then one day they came in looking for Big Joe. There were three of them and they just started stabbing him. Joe was a really big guy. He was dragged out and taken to the hospital. He was cut down. He didn’t die though.
How come you never got caught up in that life?
I was more sexual orientated you might say than they were. They were sniffing cocaine, this and that. They didn’t have time for women. Even without money, I had time for women. I fell in love with a prostitute and I wanted her to quit. I would get a job, have a kid and we could live happily ever after. That’s where I was then. That’s what naïve means to me.
One night Big Joe couldn’t stand seeing me with that girl. Man, when I left there I had about $6000, his apartment and stuff. I won his crap house. He had a Cadillac, I won it. All because her couldn’t stand seeing me with this cute little girl. Her name was Candy. Sometimes we didn’t have no money and we needed somewhere to go. I would use my reputation and we would go to the craphouse and sit around there and drink whiskey after the games slowed down.
So that night with Big Joe you ended up winning $6000, his gambling spot and his car?
Yep, I gave him back his gambling spot. I couldn’t handle it and it was hot anyway. It was just an apartment with a pool table in it. When you open the door you could see the pool table and that’s why when the police knocked you had to pay to make them go away. His Cadillac was being watched. I couldn’t afford that so I gave it to somebody else.
Can you explain such a winning streak?
I cheated him in the most simple way. I used crooked dice. He didn’t check. I used crooked dice and once he got ready to check I had switched them. His luck was so bad. I made him shoot until he shot himself broke. Then it went all through Harlem that Little King George had beat this player (called Big Joe). Some people told him “Well, we know George beat you for all your money”. Big Joe said “He didn’t do nothing. If he (King George) thought about cheating me I would kill him”.
He couldn’t stand to see me with my cute little girlfriend. I would never think that a person who was successful in my eyes would me jelaous of anything that I do. They were in there rolling the dice. All of sudden he wanted to play me. “I ain’t got nothing but $6 and she ain’t got no money”. He said “You get hit for that if you want to”. I took $6 out and reached into my pocket and took some crooked dice and threw them against the wall. I didn’t hesitate and he didn’t check the dice. I was going to say that it was a joke if he caught me.
I quickly picked up 70, 80 – $100 with the crooked dice. Then I put down the regular dice. He didn’t see me doing it because he wasn’t looking for it. He was teaching me to cheat and he thought I hadn’t learned. I had. That’s when you find out that the hand is quicker than the eye.
Was there a lot of police corruption in Harlem at that time?
Oh, yeah! If you’re fighting with your woman you could pay them to keep walking. When we had street crap games we would pay them between $7 – 10 to go around the block. At one time, a gambler was loosing so much that the he started screaming “Don’t be walking so Goddamn fast, I ain’t keep paying”. Everytime the police came back around (the block) you had to give them some more money to leave us alone.
How was it to be a part of that scene?
Everybody was masquerading, all of them guys wearing them big hats and them alligator shoes, Cadillac’s and shit. Everybody was a pimp and everybody had a gun.
I was masquerading as a pimp, and sometimes as a gambler, singer, guitar player, gun carrier. I was a lousy hustler as far as hustling goes. I couldn’t rob people. I call it naïve but I couldn’t do any of that. So I had to stick with my music abilities.
These guys gambled a lot and they didn’t want to gamble with guns on them. I used to hide them. They would go places (to gamble) and if they needed them they would call me and I would come in a taxi with their guns in a paperbag.
You also mentioned another big-timer named Wolf? What can you tell me about him?
Wolf had people in Connecticut. We used to go to Connecticut in the middle of the night in Cadillacs bringing girls back to New York. I didn’t know anything about Connecticut or all these places. Even New Jersey. They used to have me out there selling crooked watches. The Jews used to make them for $6, not Hamilton (the high-end watches) but Homilton. You would pretend you’re a junkie or something and a workingman would give you $25 dollar for it everytime. And you pay $6 to have them made with the case and all.
There was also a hustler named Willie B, an American-born Jamaican who never lost his roots who used to have an stash house around where I used to live, I think it was 81st Street. That was the first time I saw so much marihuana in my life. The whole apartment was full of marihuana wrapped in newspapers, stacks of it! Willie really liked me and he gave me a lot of good advice. He kept me out of trouble. He was the one who told me “If you got a chance to get out of here and go to Europe you better do it”. I had already cashed the check they had sent to cover a plane ticket to Sweden and a suit so I could play a big man in Harlem. Willie B had been to Europe when he was in the army and he told me, “I have been over there and the shit’s about to get heavy around here. You’re not very good at hustling. You’re going to get yourself killed.” I had guts but I didn’t have the street smarts.
So you ended up going to Sweden anyway where you have now lived for over 40 years.
I was supposed to be here only three months. I made this girl pregnant and fell in love. After three months I said, “Well, why not stay over here.” I got a daughter 40 years old and grandchildren and all that now.
When I came over here Quincy Jones was still living here. My first appearance over here was in a jazz club so I met people I would never meet in the States, great jazz musicians like Archie Shepp and Don Cherry. I’m godfather for Don’s kids. They are still here (in Sweden). Some of them are TV and pop stars over here.
Who actually planned the trip to Sweden for you?
The guy who brought me to Sweden comes from Denmark, Grave Hansen. He was a bandleader and a drummer, like Buddy Rich, and his daughter was pretty. This man was very liberal about putting his daughter out front to pull in a singer. She took my name and address and I told her to call me up.
After they came back to Sweden they did call me. I was living in Upper Manhattan when things got tricky. I had an offer from the (Black) Panthers to choose sides, which I refused to do, then and now. I did some work for them over here (in Sweden). I used to be a bandleader for the (Vietnam) deserters. There were a lot of deserters here in the 1970’s. They were called Red, White & Blues.
When I first got to Sweden there was a black band waiting for me. They were already here. I just had to jump in. I was late and I didn’t rehearse so they played a jazz version of “Midnight Hour” and a Jazz version of any song I was going to sing. That gave me a different style. After I was here in this jazz club about one month with these people looking at me we formed what became King George & the Harlem Kiddies.
After two years the Harlem Kiddies started to break up. I started building a psychedelic group based on Hendrix’ thing. Hendrix and some other celebreties came here and they would always put me on stage, which gave me more of a reputation.
Was the Red, White & Blues a band made up of US citizens?
Yeah, they named me the bandleader because I could be in the newspaper since I wasn’t a deserter. They had the American Deserters Committee here. The American Deserters Committee, of course, got hooked up to the Panthers. Two or three gigs I did during that time overhere (where) the money went to the Panthers. I stopped it. There was a gentleman here, another American, named Sherman Adams, he died over here but he used to go to Norway to buy bullets that went back to the States. The money I was putting in was for food in the ghetto. That’s how simple (I felt) that was. It wasn’t for food and everybody in that political arena knew that so I withdrew (myself) from that.
You can find more on King George here: www.kinggeorgemusic.com
He hosts a blues club on Saturdays here: Knipplagatan 4, Gothenburg, Sweden.