Gary James' Interview With Ed King of
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Strawberry Alarm Clock
It's not often that you get to talk to someone whose been in not just one, but two legendary groups. But, such is the case with Ed King. Ed was a member of The Strawberry Alarm Clock and Lynyrd Skynyrd. What a fascinating story Ed King has to tell! What a fascinating life Ed King has led!
Q - Ed, let's start off with your association with The Strawberry Alarm Clock. You formed it and helped name it?
A - I helped name. Actually, it was pretty much a group activity. Three or four of us were in the room when we named it.
Q - You did write "Incense and Peppermints" did you?
A - Well, me and the keyboard player, Mark Weitz wrote the music track. We went into the studio with a drummer that was in the band. We cut a three piece and I over-dubbed bass on it. We had no lyric or no vocal. So, our manager took it to a producer in Hollywood. The song came back with a lyric sheet and a melody line and our names weren't on it. So, the answer to your question is, yeah. I feel we did write it, but I think we got taken kind of advantage of.
Q - You were definitely taken advantage of. Why, when you saw your names weren't on the song, didn't you consult an attorney?
A - We were told that to get into the music business, that's what you had to do. I was talking to somebody yesterday about somebody he know who's working on getting this Country (music) deal. And really, you have to give up a lot of stuff. He was telling me the record companies now are even wanting a chunk of your merchandising and road money. I always thought that the record companies sponsored you when you went on the road and getting started, because you're not making that great of money. So, I don't know. I know it's real rough out there, I mean, to be an artist nowadays. I would hate to be a guitar player out there trying to make a living 'cause the whole thing is just so difficult than when I grew up. When I grew up, I was pretty much a pioneer. Matter of fact, when I first started making records with the band that was to become The Strawberry Alarm Clock, we actually got into our car and rode up and down the coast of California going to radio stations saying "Here's our record, would you play it?" You could never do that today.
Q - That was a whole other era.
A - It was. Can you imagine walking back to your car after visiting a radio station and driving out of the parking lot and hearing your song on the radio? That actually happened. It was just the time it was back then. It was just great. Everybody did it back then. Nowadays, there's only three people who make up the playlists in the whole United States and it's just really difficult to get heard. Not that there's that many artists who are really different. A lot of 'em, to me, all sound alike. I could just be getting old and jaded too. But, back then, there were some records and artists who were really different. To me, all that stuff from the 60s, every hit record that came out of the 60s to me was so definitive and different. You'll never hear music like that again. It was some of the greatest music.
Q - When did you start playing guitar?
A - Probably at the age of twelve. 1961 maybe. I really didn't make any progress at all until The Beatles came out. I bought a Beatles chord book. I mean, I was learning some surf tunes...a lot of surf music. But then, when The Beatles came out, I learned the entire catalogue and that really taught me a lot about chords and chord patterns and movement and the whole bass line stuff. Matter of fact, after a while, I sold my guitar 'cause bass was far more interesting. Plus, I was getting so much work at the age of sixteen. I was making $75 every weekend, playing at military bases and little venues. When I was learning how to play, my mother kept telling me, don't get into this business because there's just too many people out there playing. To my way of thinking, what I was looking at, man, there weren't. I was in a very select few. For me to have a number one record at the age of eighteen - I pretty much expected it, 'cause there weren't too many people out there.
Q - Would you wear the psychedelic type clothing when you'd perform in public?
A - We had these outfits made up from this East Indian clothing shop in Westwood, California. It was Mark's idea. He went into the shop and said we should all wear these. I hated the stuff. It was like big pyjamas. Great sleepwear, but I don't want to play in it. So, eventually after we took the album cover, I think I had one more gold lame' outfit made, which was actually pretty nice. But, when I went out, I actually wore something different, more like a velvet type shirt with some fancy collars, something a little more comfortable that I could wear pants with. That was my big thing. I just wanted to wear pants. Pants that fit...not these big baggy things.
Q - Enough about The Strawberry Alarm Clock. Let's move on to your association with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
A - Well, I'll tell you...with Strawberry Alarm Clock, the highlight of my life even to this day, over and above Skynyrd, was the two Beach Boys tours that I did. That was. For an eighteen year old to be on tour with them and Buffalo Springfield was an amazing thing.
Q - It's while you were on the road with Strawberry Alarm Clock that you first me Ronnie Van Zant?
A - Yeah. What happened was, the Alarm Clock, several of the members left. We got a couple of other guys to take their places. We fired our manager too. So, he put together some local California musicians and booked them for a whole tour of the South, like a college tour. We found out about it. We got an attorney to file an injunction and we decided what the heck, we might as well do the tour 'cause we're not doing anything and we're broke. So we did that tour and Lynyrd Skynyrd was our opening act the whole tour. At that time, they only had two original songs. The rest of their set was Zeppelin and Cream stuff.
Q - What year would that have been?
A - That would have been February, 1970.
Q - Did you think much of the band?
A - Not really. But, I thought a lot of Ronnie. As a matter of fact, Ronnie called me one day when I was at the hotel and he said "Look, we're practicing downtown at this club. We wrote another tune. We'd like you to come down and hear it." So, it was like, two o'clock in the afternoon. So, I went in and sat right in front of the stage and listened to them play this new tune they had written. I was just blown away. I told Ronnie afterwards, "if you ever need another guitar player, you should look me up. I'd love to play some music with you." You could see it coming. You could see he was just a genius waiting to happen.
Q - You were originally asked to join the band by Ronnie as a bassist?
A - That's right, yeah.
Q - But, you were a guitarist.
A - Yeah, but I played a lot of bass. On the Alarm Clock records especially from the second album on, I played bass on a lot of stuff.
Q - So the transition wasn't very hard for you.
A - Oh, it was difficult. Yeah, it was, because the kind of music they were writing , I had a hard time adapting to. I did my best. I was very uncomfortable with it. It wasn't until we were just about finished recording our first album. The old bass player, Leon Wilkesondecided to visit us out at the cabin in the woods where we used to rehearse. He comes out and Ronnie says to Leon, "Leon, put on your bass. Let's play Ed the song called Simple Man", which I had never heard before. So, they played it and I saw Leon play it and I go "OK, that's what the bass player in this band is supposed to play like." So, we went up to Atlanta and recorded Simple Man and that's why my bass part is so different from the other bass parts on the record. Right after we finished that album, Ronnie came up to me, I was sitting on the edge of my bed playing my Stratocaster, which I had just gotten by the way, and he puts his arm around me and goes "Man, you're the worst bass player I ever played with." I thought I was out of a job. After all this, he was gonna fire me. He said "No, we'll just switch you over to guitar and get Leon back in the band." So, the next day, we had off. Leon was working at an ice-cream factory. They went out to get him. Then the next day was our first rehearsal with Leon back on bass and me on guitar. And the first song we wrote was "Sweet Home Alabama". We actually wrote "I Need You" the same day. That was a pretty good day.
Q - You wrote that guitar riff for "Sweet Home Alabama" didn't you?
A - Right.
Q - How long did it take you to write that?
A - Oh, man, we wrote that song in half an hour, but it took us about a half a day to put it together. The song came real quick. I started off with that riff and Ronnie was sitting on the edge of the couch, making this signal to me to just keep rolling it over and over. Finally, after maybe 10 - 15 minutes, he got up and sang a verse and a chorus. Then, I just put the song together. I knew where to take it. It wasn't very difficult. There's not many changes in it. Every verse, there's like a new wrinkle added to it, but it pretty much stays the same. That wasn't even work. That was too easy. Anything you wrote with him was pretty easy. If he didn't latch onto it in the first five or ten minutes, then you'd go on to something else.
Q - So you were writing the music and he was primarily writing the words?
A - Yeah, that's right.
Q - Did he play any instrument?
A - No. He'd sit on the edge of the couch, pretty much with his head in his hands. He never wrote anything down, ever. So, we'd work real hard to make sure we'd remember the groove of the song, how it felt, the changes, 'cause if you came back the next day and couldn't play it with exactly the same feel, there was a good chance the song was lost. Ronnie wrote his syllables so that they fit inside the groove. So, you really had to know when you left rehearsal that day, what you had.
Q - How do you explain the fact that of all the Southern rock bands that were around in the early to mid 70s, Wet Willie, Marshall Tucker, the Allman Brothers Band, it was really Lynyrd Skynyrd that touched a raw nerve with audiences, particularly in the Northeast?
A - Well, we had the better material. I think the three guitars all being different. We weren't really that great musicians, but we worked real well together. There was a great chemistry. 'Live', people really picked up on that. We enjoyed playing together. And, as I already said, our material was top notch.
Q - You quit the band on May 26th, 1975. How hard is that to leave a band when they're really on top?
A - Well, I was out of my mind for quitting. But, it was the best thing I ever did. We signed with a new manager in New York and the manager didn't really have a clue as to what the band was about. He was interested in Ronnie only. He was kind of like putting wedges between...well, he put a wedge between me and Ronnie for sure. Ronnie was drinking a lot. It was just an unpleasant situation. I never drank, but I was into drugs pretty good. I had gotten fed up with frankly all the violence. Our new manager used to tell Ronnie "Hey, the crazier you are, the better you're gonna be." And I think, he kind of took it to heart. It just got a little too nutty for me. So, in the middle of the night, I just walked out. It had been a bad night the night before. I had good reason to leave. (laughs) I should never have done it the way I did it.
Q - Would the new manager have been Peter Rudge?
A - Yeah.
Q - He managed The Who.
A - He managed The Stones and Tanya Tucker at that time. Big time. His English accent really won Ronnie over. He couldn't see any longevity for the band. His thing was just to pull as much of it out now as you could. Everything kind of changed once we signed with him.
Q - Were you with Skynyrd when they played the Syracuse War Memorial in the early 70s? They were staying at the downtown Holiday Inn.
A - What happened?
Q - The band was staying on the 13th floor of the Holiday Inn and the Syracuse Police were called in to investigate some kind of a disturbance on the floor. What was going on anyway?
A - I don't remember Syracuse. I remember a bunch of other nonsense that happened up there. I mean, I can't remember every time the cops were called. (laughs) Unless somebody lost their life or the tour bus ran over a sports car in the parking lot...which happened. Things like that I remember.
Q - You re-joined Skynyrd in 1987?
A - Right.
Q - That had to be hard, 'cause it really wasn't the same band.
A - It wasn't that hard of a decision. It was something I felt I had to do to kind of make it right.
Q - Did you see that plane crash coming in '77?
A - I could see something coming, but I didn't know it was that. I didn't even know they were flying. When I was in the band, we hated to fly. There was one flight that Ronnie and I took, just the two of us, from Atlanta to Detroit one time. We got off the ground and it's like the engines cut off or something. The plane floated and you could feel your stomach roll up into your oesophagus.
Q - That was a commercial flight?
A - Yeah. Everybody on the plane gasped. Ronnie and I looked at each other and went "whoa...this might be it!" We kind of agreed, why fly when you can take a bus? He hated to fly.
Q - Did you ever talk to anybody in the band after you left, about the plane, prior to the plane crash?
A - I never talked to anybody about that plane. I never talked to anybody about the crash. I never brought it up.
Q - Are you still in Skynyrd?
A - No. I haven't played in Skynyrd in ten years.
Q - So, that means your doing what today?
A - I'm doing nothing. I'm retired and enjoying it. I don't have to be any place at any time. I really like that.
Q - The royalties must be good then?
A - That whole catalogue sells about a million and a half to two million copies a year. It does very well. I don't have to work and I really don't enjoy going out and doing that whole thing anymore. I just kind of enjoy being by myself. Just me and my wife and my dogs. (laughs)
Q - What do you do with yourself in the course of a day?
A - Oh, we go places and see things. Robert Nix of Atlanta Rhythm Section put together this band with him and Dean Daughtry and Jeff Carlisi of 38 Special, myself, Artimus Pyle of Skynyrd and Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie and a couple of others from Memphis. We're going to be out doing some gigs in the next few months and in the next year. Eventually, that's gonna take me out some weekends. Then I've been playing with a Skynyrd tribute band in Long Island, New York and that's really been a hoot. These guys are really good. They're called Saturday Night Special and actually in the band is myself and Artimus Pyle and two of the original Honkettes, Leslie Hawkins and Jo Jo Billingsly. And the band is really good. If it wasn't, I couldn't do it. The band sounds just like the old records. The lead singer, his name is Thane Shearon. He's from Nashville. He sounds like a Van Zant. He's got great pipes. As a matter of fact, I haven't heard anybody sing the old Skynyrd songs as well as Thane. I'm also doing some things with Jeff Carlis and Derek St. Holmes (Nugent's band) and Liberty DeVitto & Mark Rivera (Billy Joel's band). That band is a REAL blast. Totally spontaneous and unrehearsed. It just falls into place natural like!