Personalities | Albert King | Got Blues & Soul | Guitar Heroes

Few blues guitarists had more style and presence than Albert King (1923–92). At 6ft 4in (1.93m) and 250lbs (113kg), he cut an imposing figure onstage.

Equally distinctive was his Gibson Flying V guitar, a right-handed instrument that King played left-handed and upside down. This gave him an unusual, tormented sound when he bent the strings on his fretboard. He also used his thumb rather than a pick. The master of the single-string solo, King was one of the earliest bluesmen to crossover to soul with his Stax recordings in the 1960s.

Born Albert Nelson in Indianola, Mississippi, the same town as B.B. King, Albert changed his name to King after B.B.’s initial success in the early 1950s. He had grown up in Arkansas, playing guitar from the age of 16. But he didn’t make his first record, ‘Be On Your Merry Way’, until 1953, after he had moved to Gary, Indiana. His progress remained slow, and it wasn’t until 1964 that he scored a minor hit with ‘Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong’.

His fortunes changed when he signed to Memphis rhythm and blues-soul label Stax in 1966 and was paired with Booker T. & The M.G.s, whose soulful grooves transformed King’s blues in the studio. Their first session produced ‘Laundromat Blues’, which put the blues into a modern context. His second hit, ‘Crosscut Saw’, added The Memphis Horns and emphasized how far King had travelled from the Delta. Born Under A Bad Sign (1967), with its magnificent title track, was acclaimed as one of the most stirring blues albums of the late 1960s. Its influence on Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix was soon evident.

King was the first blues artist to play San Francisco’s famed Fillmore, opening up a new audience, and the resulting album, Live Wire/Blues Power (1968), was a template for a new generation of blues bands in the American South. In the 1970s, King added funk to his bluesy soul on I’ll Play The Blues For You (1973), and in later years, he took to smoking a pipe and wearing a hat onstage. By the late 1980s, he was planning to retire, but died of a heart attack in 1992, just two days after another farewell performance.

Essential Recordings

Solo: The Big Blues

Solo: Born Under A Bad Sign

Solo: Live Wire/Blues Power

Solo: I’ll Play The Blues For You

Personalities | B.B. King | Ambassador of Blues | Guitar Heroes


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