By: Greg Johnson
If the annals are ever logged as to who the most influential guitar greats of all time were, then there would be no question regarding the inclusion of the three "Kings" of the Blues: B.B., Freddie and Albert. There is little doubt of the impact that each of these artists brought to the future sounds of Blues, Soul and Rock 'n' Roll. Albert King was a master of the single-string attack and was intrigued by Blues performers that he heard while growing up outside of Memphis. In turn, he influenced a new generation of guitar players that would include the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Albert King was born Albert Nelson, on April 25, 1923, in Indianola, Mississippi. This was the same location known as the birthplace of his namesake Riley (B.B.) King, and though the two were not related, Albert would sometimes claim that B.B. was his half-brother. One of 13 children, King grew up learning the life of picking cotton on the plantations near Osceola, Arkansas, where the family moved to in 1931. His first introduction to music would be singing in church and listening to his father, Will Nelson, play guitar. Another early influence came from the family's records where a young Albert would spend hours attempting to copy the sounds of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on his homemade cigar box guitars and diddley-bows. King obtained his first real guitar in 1942. He was fascinated by the playing of the Blues musicians that frequented nearby West Memphis, Arkansas, most notably the works of Robert Nighthawk and Elmore James, and Albert decided that playing this style of music would be his desired calling.
King was a large man, standing 6-foot-4-inches and weighing well over 250 pounds. A natural left-hander, King taught himself to play the guitar upside-down while keeping the strings strung for a right-handed player and playing with his thumb as opposed to a pick. He was a moody man and known to carry a .45 in the band of his pants. He also disliked performing live with musicians he felt were his superiors, wanting the sole command of the stage just for himself.
During his early performing career, King worked in construction driving a bulldozer to make ends meet and made several moves to cities seeking his fortune as a musician. In the late 1940s, he first tried St. Louis and then moved to Gary, Indiana, where he had the opportunity to play alongside well-known guitarists Jimmy Reed and John Brim. Next, he spent a short period living in Chicago, where he cut his first recordings on the Parrot label. Released in 1953, the single "Bad Luck Blues" b/w "Be On Your Merry Way" found moderate regional success, but King saw little return in his pocket and he decided to move back to St. Louis in 1956.
St. Louis had a thriving Blues scene during Albert's stay in the city. Recording for the Bobbin and King labels, he competed with the popularity of Ike Turner and Little Milton Campbell. It was also here in St. Louis that Albert took to using a Gibson Flying V model guitar which would become his lifelong trademark instrument and he would name "Lucy". In 1961, Albert released the single "Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong" finding national recognition as the number climbed to #14 on the R&B charts. After that, he appeared on the Coun-Tree label, owned by Jazz singer Leo Gooden, and his reputation continued to grow throughout Missouri and Chicago. But, Gooden was jealous of the attention that King was receiving, and dropped him from the label.
King moved closer to home in 1966, arriving in Memphis and signing with the upstart Soul label, Stax. While recording for Stax, he was backed by the label's house band, Booker T & The MGs. A handful of successful singles emerged almost immediately for King, beginning with "Laundromat Blues" in 1966; and followed by an updated cover of Tommy McClennan's "Crosscut Saw" and "Born Under A Bad Sign", both released in 1967. A collection of these singles were compiled onto an LP in 1967, and it proved to be one of the most pivotal recordings in Blues history. Titled, "Born Under A Bad Sign", it brought attention to the 43-year-old King, taking him from the dark, smokey juke joints and clubs of the Mid-South to the larger Rock 'n' Roll venues around the world. A strong recording, the album also included numbers such as "As The Years Go Passing By" and "The Hunter", which would prove to be staples for Blues and Rock guitarists for years to come (Eric Clapton has admitted that the riff for "Layla" was a direct lift from "As The Years Go Passing By"). Perhaps more importantly, the album caught the attention of the white Rock 'n' Roll audiences and pointed them directly down the path of the Blues.
On February 1, 1968, Albert King shared a bill that included John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix for opening night at a new venue in San Francisco called The Fillmore Auditorium. This popular music hall would become a second home for King, and later that same year he returned to record a live album "Live Wire / Blues Power" became one of the best-selling Live Blue! recordings ever and helped establish King's career further. Two other albums were released in the early 1990s that were taped during these same performances ("Wednesday Night In San Francisco: Recorded Live At The Fillmore Auditorium" and "Thursday Night In San Francisco..." Though weaker than the original both serve as true testaments to the talents of Albert King's guitar.
King continued to record with Stax, until the demise of the label in the mid-1970s. The output of this period included some strange mixtures for a Blues musician. In 1969, Albert became the first Blues performer to perform with a symphony orchestra in a concert that teamed him with the St. Louis Symphony. He recorded the album "Lovejoy "at Muscle Shoals with white Southern rockers and even released a tribute album to Elvis Presley, "Blues For Elvis: Albert King Does The King's Things". There was even an appearance on a comedy LP by Albert Brooks, "A Star Is Bought". After Stax folded, King would record for a number of labels that would include Tomato, Utopia and Fantasy, until he decided to retire in the mid-1980s. Though Albert King had given up on recording, he still managed to find time to perform. He made cameo appearances on albums by up-coming Bluesmen like Chris Cain ("Cuttin' Loose") and Gary Moore ("Still Got The Blues"). He also made frequent stops at Blues festivals around the world, continuing to influence new generations of guitarists including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray.
King played his final concert in Los Angeles on December 19, 1992. He died two days later at home in Memphis after suffering a sudden heart attack. After his funeral, a procession was led down Beale Street in a true New Orleans-style Jazz tradition, as the hearse bearing King's body was led by the Memphis Horns playing "When The Saints Go Marching In". King was laid to rest across the Mississippi River in the Paradise Gardens Cemetery in Edmondson, Arkansas, not far from where he spent his childhood.
Albert King has been honored by The Blues Foundation with his induction into their Hall of Fame. Both "Born Under A Bad Sign" and "Live Wire / Blues Power" are also honored as Classics of Blues Recordings. But, the real honor for King is the love and everlasting respect that so many of his peers have given him. Stevie Ray Vaughan would call him "Daddy" and John Lee Hooker named him as one of his all-time favorite guitarists. Michael Bloomfield once said, "Albert can take four notes and write a volume. He can say more with fewer notes than anyone I've ever known." B.B. King stated in his autobiography "He wasn't my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in Blues." Albert King's legend will live on. Every time a Blues or Rock combo is on stage, in an arena or small nightclub, or just playing in their garage and grinds into "Born Under A Bad Sign" or "Crosscut Saw", his influence will be shining true.
© 1999 Cascade Blues Association