King, Albert (1924-1992)

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King, Albert (1924-1992)

Albert King was one of the most distinctive, innovative, and influential blues guitarists of the postwar era. He was one of the only blues players to sell records and play for white audiences without losing his traditional black following. His years with Stax Records in the 1960s produced a series of albums that blended classic blues with modern R & B and soul.

King was an imposing figure—standing 6 [.minute] 4 [.second] and weighing over 250 pounds—and it could be heard in his music. His muscular guitar tone and economical use of notes was sustained by a raw power nearly impossible to copy. A left-handed player, King played his Gibson Flying-V guitar upside down and backwards, so rather than fret notes quickly up and down the neck, King was forced to use his strength to bend notes, producing a strikingly vocal quality. His tone was an inspiration to white guitarists Stevie Ray Vaughan and Michael Bloomfield as well as fellow lefty Otis Rush. British guitarist Eric Clapton played an Albert King solo nearly note-for-note in his 1967 hit "Strange Brew" with Cream.

King was born in Indianola, Mississippi, not far from fellow blues guitarist B. B. King, who was about 18 months younger. Albert would often joke that they were brothers, but the two didn't meet until both were famous. Although they cited the same musicians—Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and T-Bone Walker—as their biggest influences, the two Kings sounded nothing alike. While B. B. danced above the beat with a jazz player's phrasing and a trebly tone, Albert dug deep into the groove with thick, meaty bends. While B. B. rose to prominence in the 1950s, Albert had to wait into the mid-1960s, when he was over 40 years old, to make his mark.

As a child, King built his own guitar from a cigar box and whisk broom wires. He finally bought his first real guitar, a Guild acoustic, from another young man for $1.25 when he was 18. He spent the next 15 years picking cotton, working construction, driving a bulldozer, and developing his beefy musical style. In the early 1950s while living in Oceana, Arkansas, King formed the In the Groove Boys, his first band, with some friends.

King soon moved to Gary, Indiana, where he began playing drums for Jimmy Reed. In 1953, he cut his first singles, "Bad Luck Blues" and "Be on Your Merry Way," for the Parrot label in Chicago. King's next recordings were for the Bobbin label in St. Louis in 1959. Here he adopted a big band swing style, led by Johnnie Johnson, the pianist who played on many of Chuck Berry's greatest recordings. King remained with Bobbin and Cincinnati's King label, which leased some of the Bobbin sides, until 1963, when he made the move to Stax Records in Memphis.

King's union with the Stax house band of Booker T. and the MGs resulted in some of the best and most popular blues records ever produced. Drummer and producer Al Jackson, organist Booker T. Washington, bass player Donald "Duck" Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper, plus the Memphis Horns of Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, provided the perfect foundation for King's career. Born under a Bad Sign, released in 1967, was a revelation. Most of the songs strayed from typical 12-bar blues shuffles, but King was right at home.

"We were, basically, on top of the music scene as far as what we thought the R&B public wanted to hear," Cropper said in Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music. "So it was a little more polished, a little slicker than some of the other blues coming out. He had his own unique style, and it still got in the blues rack. But the songs that we picked for him and some of the arrangements we did wound up in the pop and R&B racks, too."

Rock critic Robert Palmer said in the liner notes to Albert Live, a double album released in 1977 and available on the Tomato label, that King's impact at the time of the release of Born under a Bad Sign "was as inescapable among blues players as John Coltrane's influence was on jazz."

King became popular with young, white audiences in the late 1960s when rock promoter Bill Graham booked King to open a series of shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, sharing bills with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. King's second album on Stax, Live Wire/Blues Power, was recorded at the Fillmore, and is regarded as one the finest recordings of blues in concert.

King continued to push the boundaries of blues into the 1970s by playing with the St. Louis Symphony and becoming the first blues player to appear with full orchestration. His 1972 album, I'll Play the Blues for You built upon Born under a Bad Sign with a James Brown funk feel.

King's mid-to late 1970s releases took on a disco feel, which was an attempt to update his sound. These albums were overproduced and failed to capture the energy of his previous work. King continued to record for Fantasy Records of Berkeley, California, which had bought out Stax, and returned to form with his final album I'm in a Phone Booth, Baby in 1984. King continued to tour until his death from a heart attack on December 21, 1992, in Memphis.

—Jon Klinkowitz

Further Reading:

DeCurtis, Anthony. "Living Legends." Rolling Stone. September21, 1989, 89-99.

Obrecht, Jas, editor. Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music. San Francisco, GPI Books, 1990.

Paul, Alan. "Live Wire." Guitar World. July, 1991, 68-79.