Singer, songwriter, guitarist
“A Ibert King is a legend,” stated guitarist Joe Walsh in Guitar World. “I can’t think of anybody who would go out onstage with Albert on a good night and not be absolutely terrified to play the blues next to him. That guy’ll run over you like Amtrak.” Many guitarists (Rory Gallagher and Louisiana Red, to name two) have had the unfortunate experience of trying to take on Mr. Albert King, a.k.a. “the velvet bulldozer.” Of the four blues Kings, Freddie, B.B., Earl and Albert, the latter certainly has the most recognizable and unorthodox style. To start with, he is left-handed but plays a right-handed guitar upside down (bass strings on the bottom) and tuned to an E-minor chord with a low C on the bottom. But it’s not so much the equipment and setup; it’s what he does with it. Instead of bending up as a right-hander would, King pulls the strings down with so much force that the notes sound like they’re falling off a cliff and bouncing back up. “He’s the best bender in the business,” former Roomful of Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl told Guitar Player. “He’s got three of the five best blues licks in the world. Three of the best notes in the history of music.”
King was born in 1923 (or 1924, sources vary) in Indianola, Mississippi, and raised in Osceola, Arkansas. After being exposed to the blues while working in the fields, King made his first instrument, a one-string diddley bow, fashioned after the washtub bass. The six-year-old soon progressed to a guitar with a cigar box for a body but it would take another twelve years before he would purchase his first real six-string from a friend for $1.25. King learned from locals like Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Nighthawk, but because he played backwards, he was forced to make adjustments. “I knew I was going to have to create my own style,” King informed Dan Forte of Guitar Player, “because I couldn’t make the changes and the chords the same as a right-handed man could. I play a few chords, but not many. I always concentrated on my singing guitar sound—more of a sustained note.” King tried to imitate the sound of truck motors roaring by his window as a youth.
Once he felt his chops were up to par, King began sitting in with the group Yancey’s Band while still maintaining his daytime gig as a bulldozer driver. King was trying to emulate the T-Bone walker guitar style when he left his next group, the In The Groove Boys, and moved to South Bend, Indiana. He sang with a gospel vocal group, the Harmony Boys, before moving onto Chicago. During his stay in the Windy City, King worked as a drummer, providing the backbeat for Jimmy Reed as well as for Brook Benton and Jackie Wilson.
In 1953, King got his first taste of the recording industry when he entered the studios of disc jockey and record
Born Albert Nelson, April 25, 1923 (some sources say 1924), in Indianola, Miss.; son of Mary Blevins (a church singer); stepson of Will Nelson (an itinerant preacher).
Worked as a bulldozer driver while learning to play guitar; played guitar with Yancy’s Band and the In the Groove Boys during the 1940s; singer in gospel group, the Harmony Boys; worked as a drummer for Jimmy Reed, Brook Benton, and Jackie Wilson; recording artist (as guitarist), 1953—.
Awards: Inducted into W.C. Handy International Blues Awards Hall of Fame, 1983.
Addresses: Home— Lovejoy, 111.
company (Parrot) owner Al Benson. “And that’s when I recorded the very first tunes I ever recorded in my life—’Walking From Door To Door’ and ‘Lonesome In My Bed.’ Them two tunes sold better than 350, 000 for his label. All I got out of it was fourteen dollars,” he told Guitar World. “Bad Luck Blues” also did very well for King’s reputation but little for his pocketbook. It would take another six years before King would again record. From 1959 until 1962, over a dozen singles were released on the Bobbin and King labels, the most notable being “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong,” a Top Twenty rhythm and blues hit from 1961. Once again, however, King was enormously underpaid, this time receiving only $800 for his efforts.
After a couple of tunes on Tennessee’s Count-Tree label, King signed with Stax Records out of Memphis in 1966. His debut album, Born Under a Bad Sign, was a collection of his top singles from the previous two years, including “Crosscut Saw,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “As The Years Go Passing By,” “Personal Manager,” “The Hunter,” and the title track. It would prove to be one of King’s most popular albums and perhaps his most influential. Backed by Booker T and the MG’s (Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Al Jackson, and the Mar-Keys horn section), it was a perfect blend of blues and funk with arrangements that satisfied both the black and white markets. Guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and the late Mike Bloomfield, were soon busy trying to figure out the secret to King’s uniquely economical licks. “He can take four notes and write a volume,” Bloomfield told Guitar Player.
Although King’s recordings for Stax were incredible, his business dealings with them were just as one-sided as his Parrot days thirteen years earlier. “AI Bell talked me into signing an eight-year contract, and during all the rest of it, for eight years, I got cheated and beat out of money,” King told Guitar World of his Stax days. In 1968, concert promoter Bill Graham offered King $16, 000 for a three-night stand at San Francisco’s Fillmore West. Opening for John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix, King stole the show and became a favorite among rock fans. His Live Wire/Blues Power album gives testament to King’s subtle, yet powerful, style that wins over audiences. “He wasn’t just a good guitar player; he had a wonderful stage presence,” Graham told Guitar Player, “he never became a shuck-and-jiver.” King performed so well and enjoyed the Bay Area so much that he would later record another live album there.
King’s sound was placed in many different settings while at Stax, which normally would cause an artist to alter their style to fit the music. But King has always been able to adapt to the settings and still retain his signature sound. Nearly a half-dozen different producers have tried everything from string sections and disco arrangements to female back-up singers and soul songs in their attempts to keep King sounding “modern.” Sometimes it worked, but, even when it didn’t, King’s guitar work remained respectable. As Robert Palmer wrote in the liner notes to Masterwords, “[King’s] mature playing and singing and the definitive soul rhythm section of the sixties clicked together to produce music that would fundamentally alter the mainstream of white rock as well as the sound of commercial blues within a few years’ time.”
In 1969 King became the first blues guitarist to perform with a symphony and at one point he even took night classes in music theory. But some critics have suggested that his style is too simple and repetitive. “The blues is like that anyway,” King countered in Guitar World. “We know them changes, expect their arrival and aren’t caught up in suspense as to where the blues is going.” King uses his thumb instead of a pick, and although he cannot sing and play simultaneously, what separates him from the rest of the pack is his ability to keep his listeners on the edge until just the right moment, when the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder pulls the rug out from under with one of his patented blues bends.
After leaving Stax, King signed with Utopia Records, where Bert de Couteaux overproduced both Truckload Of Lovin’ and Albert. Similarly, Allen Toussaint’s production of New Orleans Heat for Tomato did its best to hide King’s sound in the arrangements. Luckily, in 1983 King signed to the Fantasy label and released two blues classics: the Grammy-nominated San Francisco ’83 and I’m In A Phone Booth, Baby from 1984. Both albums offer some of King’s best guitar work to date.
Although it’s been over five years since King’s last album, his sound has been kept alive through constant touring and by other artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose “Texas Flood” is homage to the master. “I do owe a lot to that man,” Vaughan confessed to Guitar World. “I don’t know of anybody who can play sassier than Albert.” Vaughan’s work on David Bowie’s Lei’s Dance LP introduced the King sound to a younger audience. “I kind of wanted to see how many places Albert King’s stuff would fit,” Vaughan said in Guitar Player. “It always does.” The two squared off on the Cinemax session, B.B. King and Friends, and there is talk of Vaughan producing an Albert King album in the future if and when he signs with a new label. Joe Walsh has also been doing some recording with King as the deal shopping continues.
The Big Blues, King, 1962.
Travelling to California, King, 1967.
Born Under a Bad Sign, Stax, 1967.
King of the Blues Guitar, Atco, 1968.
Live Wire/Blues Power, Stax, 1968.
Albert King Does the King Thing, Stax, 1968.
I’ll Play the Blues for You, Stax, 1972.
Truckload of Lovin’, Utopia, 1976.
Albert, Utopia, 1977.
New Orleans Heat, Tomato, 1978.
The Pinch, Stax, 1978.
Masterworks, Atlantic, 1982.
Blues for Elvis, Stax, 1983.,
San Francisco ’83, Fantasy, 1983.
I’m In a Phone Booth, Baby, Fantasy, 1984.,
The Lost Session, Fantasy, 1986.
I Wanna Get Funky, Stax, 1987.
Blues At Sunrise, Stax, 1988.
Door to Door, Chess.
Laundromat Blues, Edsel.,
Years Gone By, Stax.
With Steve Cropper and Pop Staples
Jammed Together, Stax, 1988.
With Little Milton
With Little Milton and Chico Hamilton
Montreux Festival, Stax.
Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway, Vintage Books, 1982.
Guralnick, The Listener’s Guide to the Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Da Capo, 1979.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Harmony, 1977.
Kozinn, Allan, Pete Welding, Dan Forte, and Gene Santoro, The Guitar: The History, The Music, The Players, Quill, 1984.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
down beat, November, 1976; March, 1984; November, 1984.
Guitar Player, August, 1977; September, 1977; July, 1981; November, 1983; October, 1984; January, 1986; January, 1987.
Guitar World, March, 1984; November, 1985; September, 1988; December, 1988.
Living Blues, January/February, 1988.
Masterworks (album liner notes by Robert Palmer), Atlantic, 1982.
—Calen D. Stone
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