Personalities | Albert King | Sixties | Jazz & Blues

Albert King’s late 1960s and early 1970s recordings for the Stax label remain cornerstones of modern blues. Tunes like ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, ‘Crosscut Saw’ and ‘I’ll Play the Blues For You’ are also an antidote to the over-the-top playing indulged in by so many contemporary blues guitarists. For King, a six-foot-four, 250-pound man possessed of a big, mellow voice and an equally proportional guitar tone, each carefully chiselled note took on the resonance of a life experience.

Born Albert Nelson on 25 April 1923 in Indianola, Mississippi, near the birthplace of B.B. King, Albert King was raised on a plantation in Arkansas, where he occasionally heard Howlin’ Wolf perform at parties and roadhouses. He taught himself guitar and began playing local juke joints in 1939. King travelled north and sang lead tenor with the Harmony Kings gospel quartet around South Bend, Indiana for several years before arriving in Chicago, where he played drums with Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton and others.

Guitar Prowess

As a guitarist, King’s technique was evolving. He graduated from acoustic to electric guitar, playing in a single-note style based on that of B.B. King, whose surname he also borrowed. These B.B. approximations can be heard on his early singles for the Parrot and Bobbin labels, including his first national hit, ‘Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong’, from 1961. By the time King signed to Stax Records in Memphis in 1966, he had developed his own brawny style. In the late 1950s he had purchased the Gibson Flying V guitar that became his signature instrument. The left-handed musician turned it upside down, tuned it to an open E-minor chord and turned his amplifier’s volume up. The resulting sound – round-toned, deliberately squeezed from each string and full of melismatic bent notes – was the soulful equivalent of his gospel-honed voice.

The Stax Years

Featuring a roster of artists and session players that included Booker T. And The M.G.s, Isaac Hayes and the Memphis Horns, King’s Stax singles and albums brought blues into the soul era. The spread of FM radio, along with Eric Clapton’s incorporation of King’s licks and a cover of his ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ into Cream’s repertoire, introduced King to white listeners. In 1964 King was invited to open a series of shows for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, which solidified his reputation with the rock audience.

King’s popularity remained strong until the late 1970s, which was an especially difficult time for blues, as arena rock captured the commercial airwaves and disco claimed clubs that had patronized live music. However, thanks to an association he made with a young guitarist and fan named Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Austin, Texas club Armadillo World Headquarters, King would again experience something of a renaissance. Vaughan continually sang King’s praises after his own ascent to blues and rock stardom in the early 1980s, and invited King to...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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