Longtime homecoming

Amsteram’s funk/blues queen returns to Georgia

Rosa King might be the most celebrated saxophonist and blues diva ever to come out of Georgia. She’s played worldwide — headlining festivals in Europe and Asia, including eight appearances at the North Sea Jazz Festival. She starred in movies, TV shows (including episodes of “Sesame Street”) and documentaries, including the cult classic Come Back with Eric Burdon of the Animals.
If you’ve never heard of her, you’re not alone; she’s virtually unknown in her home state. King left her Macon hometown at 18 and has never played a show with her own band anywhere in the South — until now. This week, after more than 30 years as a dancer, sidewoman and bandleader, King comes home for a string of Georgia shows. On her way to South Africa for the first time to play a week-long festival in Capetown, King plays Oct. 12 at the 40 Watt Club in Athens and Oct. 13 at the Northside Tavern in Atlanta.
“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 hometown,” says King.
King got her start in show business as a dancer in Macon, performing for school parties and at local joint the Young Men’s Club. “Like most small-town girls who dreamed of bright lights and big cities, I was one of those waiting from a very early age to leave home and see what was waiting for me in the outside world — any place except at home.”
When the Charles Taylor and the Bronze Mannikens traveling show came to Macon looking for acts, young Rosa saw her chance. She joined up, performing in tents and theaters all over the South for six months until she and some others found themselves stranded in Memphis. When an Arkansas promoter rescued them and put them back on the road, King and the others earned enough money to pay him back and buy one-way tickets to New York City.
Once established in New York, King landed a regular show at Brooklyn’s Baby Grand, where she befriended the house band’s leader, Eddie Coombs.
“One day I told him about my desire to sing,” King recalls, “so he told me that if I learned a couple of songs, he and the band would practice with me and I could sing the songs with them when things were slow in the club. So I did, and that was the beginning of my singing career!”
After traveling with Coombs for a few years across America and Canada, King went out on her own. It was here that she first picked up the saxophone. “My intention was to make a dancing show, but I fell in love with the damn [saxophone] and have been in love with it until this day,” she says.
After some gigs with Lionel Hampton and others, Rosa was hired to perform with a Dutch soul show in Holland. In her off time in Amsterdam, she hooked up with bassist Rainer Bleck and a group of musicians. By the time her show contract ended, King had decided to stay in Holland and hit the road with these musicians, who became known as the Upside Down. Meanwhile, she kept her apartment in New York and sometimes flew back to play gigs in town and tour with Ben E. King (no relation). During one of those trips back, King got stuck in a two-month residency at Joe’s Pier 52.
“It was supposed to be for a couple of weeks, but the owners kept holding us over,” King remembers. “Meanwhile, my band Upside Down was waiting for me to come back to Holland so they could go back to work. It was like having two lovers and wanting to keep them both. Well, I made it up to Upside Down later; I took them to New York, and we played that same club for two months.”
King first made her mark as a great sax player during one of her first appearances at the North Sea Jazz Festival, where she broke into the “Tenor Battle” and stole the show. Since then she has been playing her sometimes riveting, sometimes elegant horn to packed houses in Europe’s finest clubs and festivals. As impressive with a ballad as she is with Latin jazz, she possesses a repertoire of originals that runs the spectrum from rock to funk, fusion to R&B and reggae to blues. Indeed, European press clippings reveal how she’s sometimes branded as jazz, other times as blues and still other times as pop.
While she’s become an icon in Holland — acclaimed as the most entertaining performer in the world, as witty and charismatic as she is musically dynamic — she comes to the U.S. only to visit her mother in Macon. Now, decades after leaving Georgia for the lure of show business, the lure of the show brings her back.
Rosa King plays the Northside Tavern on Fri., Oct. 13. Call 404-874-8745 for show time and ticket prices.