Albert King (April 25, 1923 – December 21, 1992)
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Albert King was an American blues guitarist and singer, and a major influence in the world of blues guitar playing.
One of the “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar” (along with B. B. King and Freddy King), Albert King stood 6′ 4″ (192 cm) (some reports say 6′ 7″) and weighed 250 lbs (118 kg) and was known as “The Velvet Bulldozer”. He was born Albert Nelson on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi, also the birthplace of B.B. King. Although the two were not related, Albert occasionally referred to himself as “B.B. King’s half brother”. During his childhood he would sing at a family gospel group at a church where his father played the guitar. One of 13 children, King grew up picking cotton on plantations near Forrest City, Arkansas, where the family moved when he was eight.
He began his professional work as a musician with a group called In The Groove Boys in Osceola, Arkansas. Moving north to Gary, Indiana and later St. Louis, Missouri, he briefly played drums for Jimmy Reed‘s band and on several early Reed recordings. Influenced by blues musicians Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, but also, interestingly enough, Hawaiian music, the electric guitar became his signature instrument, his preference being the Gibson Flying V which he named “Lucy”. King earned his nickname “The Velvet Bulldozer” during this period as he drove one of them and also worked as a mechanic to make a living.
King moved to Chicago in 1953 where he cut his first single for Parrot Records, but it was only a minor regional success. He then went back to St. Louis in 1956 and formed a new band. It was during this period that he settled on using the Flying V as his primary guitar. He resumed recording in 1959 with his first minor hit “I’m a Lonely Man” written by Bobbin Records A&R man and fellow guitar hero Little Milton, responsible for King’s signing with the label. However, it was not until his 1961 release “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” that he had a major hit, reaching number fourteen on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart. The song was included on his first album The Big Blues, released in 1962. He then signed with jazz artist Leo Gooden’s Coun-Tree label. King’s reputation continued to grow in the Midwest, but a jealous Gooden then dropped him from the label. In 1966, he went to Memphis and signed with the Stax record label. Produced by Al Jackson, Jr., King with Booker T. & the MGs recorded dozens of influential sides, such as “Crosscut Saw” and “As The Years Go Passing By”, and in 1967 Stax released the album, Born Under a Bad Sign. The title track of that album (written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell) became King’s best known song and has been covered by many artists (from Cream to Homer Simpson). The success of the album made King nationally known for the first time and began to influence white musicians.
Another landmark album followed in Live Wire/Blues Power from one of many dates King played at promoter Bill Graham’s Fillmore venues. It had a wide and long-term influence on Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, and later Gary Moore and Stevie Ray Vaughan (“Criminal World”, on David Bowie’s 1983 release “Let’s Dance”, features a guitar solo copied note-for-note from his hero Albert King by young session musician Stevie Ray Vaughan).
Albert King playing at the Fillmore East in October, 1968 with his Gibson Flying V guitar
In 1969, King performed live with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. During the early ’70s, he recorded an album Lovejoy with a group of white rock singers, an Elvis Presley tribute album, Albert King Does The King’s Things, and a cameo on a Mel Brooks comedy album A Star is Bought.
According to Bill Graham, “Albert was one of the artists I used many times for various reasons. He wasn’t just a good guitar player; he had a wonderful stage presence, he was very congenial and warm, he was relaxed on stage, and he related to the public. Also he never became a shuck-and-jiver. One of the things that happened in the ’60s–it’s not a very nice thing to say, but it happens to be true–was that blues musicians began to realize that white America would accept anything they did on stage. And so many of them became jive. But Albert remained a guy who just went on stage and said ‘Let’s play.'”
On June 6, 1970, King joined The Doors on stage at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, Canada. He lent his distinctive guitar to blues cuts such as “Little Red Rooster,” “Money,” “Rock Me” and “Who Do You Love.”
In the 1970s, King was teamed with members of The Bar-Kays and The Movement (Isaac Hayes’s backing group), including bassist James Alexander and drummer Willie Hall adding strong funk elements to his music. Adding strings and multiple rhythm guitarists, producers Allen Jones and Henry Bush created a wall of sound that contrasted the sparse, punchy records King made with Booker T. & the MGs. Among these was another of King’s signature tunes “I’ll Play the Blues For You” in 1972.
King influenced others such as Mick Taylor, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Mike Bloomfield and Joe Walsh (the James Gang guitarist spoke at King’s funeral). He also had an impact on contemporaries Albert Collins and Otis Rush. Clapton has said that his work on the 1967 Cream hit “Strange Brew” and throughout the album Disraeli Gears was inspired by King.
By the late 1980s, King began to muse about retirement, not unreasonable given that he had health problems. He continued regular tours and appearances at blues festivals, using (since the ’70s) a customized Greyhound tour bus with “I’ll Play The Blues For You” painted on the side. Shortly before his death, he was planning yet another overseas tour. His final album, Red House, was recorded in 1992 and named for the Jimi Hendrix song that he covered on it. The album was largely ignored because of bad production quality (the background instrumentals drowning out King’s guitar playing), and original copies of it are scarce.
King died on December 21, 1992 from a heart attack in his Memphis, Tennessee home. His final concert had been in Los Angeles two days earlier. He was given a funeral procession with the Memphis Horns playing When The Saints Go Marching In and buried in Edmonson, Arkansas near his childhood home.
King’s first instrument was a diddley bow. Next, he built himself a cigar box guitar, before buying a Guild acoustic. The instrument he is usually associated with is a 1958 Gibson Flying V, “Lucy.” He retired Lucy in 1974 and began using a Flying V built by Dan Erlewine, and after 1980 also one built by Radley Prokopow.
King was left-handed, but usually played right-handed guitars flipped over upside-down. He used a dropped minor tuning, reportedly C♯-G♯-B-E-G♯-C♯ (but he never used the sixth string).
For amplification, King used a solid-state Acoustic amplifier, with a speaker cabinet with 2 15″ speakers and a horn (“which may or may not have been operative”). Later in his career he also used a MXR Phase 90.