Photo Courtesy of Concord
In the 1960s and 1970s, the sound of the modern blues guitar was defined by the playing styles of three “Kings” of the Blues: Albert, B.B., and Freddie. B.B. had the biggest-selling records, and Freddie was the greatest virtuoso, but Albert was perhaps the most influential of the trio. His blistering, string-bending solos helped shape the playing of guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, while his fusion of blues and Southern soul gave his music a contemporary spin that would resonate with listeners and peers for years to come.
King was born Albert Nelson, probably in Aberdeen, Mississippi, in 1923 or 1924. His early career found him playing all across middle America: first in Osceola, Arkansas, where he formed his first band, the In the Groove Boys, then in Gary, Indiana, where he played drums behind bluesman Jimmy Reed, and also in Lovejoy, Illinois, where he established a solid following just across the river in St. Louis. After unsuccessful recordings on several small labels, his Bobbin Records recording of “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” was licensed to King Records in Cincinnati in 1961. The record reached number 14 on the Billboard R&B chart.
King’s next move, perhaps the most fortuitous of his career, was to Memphis, where he signed with the fledgling Stax Records label. Working with producer/drummer Al Jackson, Jr., the Stax stable of songwriters, and the impeccable rhythm section of Booker T and the MGs, he recorded a string of singles that would become his definitive work.
His 1967 debut album on Stax, Born Under a Bad Sign, provided a new template for the blues. With its funky, focused grooves alongside the crisp counterpoint of the Memphis Horns, King was given the perfect modern setting for his relaxed vocals and pure blues guitar playing. While none of the songs were major hits at the time, the album’s slow-burn influence cannot be underestimated, as it paved a way for a new Southern blues/soul sound that would soon be manifested in hits by artists such as Z.Z. Hill on the Jackson, Mississippi-based Malaco label.
The album prompted promoter Bill Graham to book King at the Fillmore West, where a new audience discovered King, and where his Live Wire/Blue Power album was recorded. Subsequently, he had a major Southern soul hit on Stax with “I’ll Play the Blues for You.”
Born Under a Bad Sign has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, while King himself was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
A self-taught, left-handed musician who played the guitar upside down and in hotly-debated open tunings, Albert King’s signature instrument was the distinctive Gibson Flying V guitar, or later guitars made in the same style made by luthier Dan Erlewine. In this article, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and actor/guitar collector Steven Seagal discuss three of these guitars.
Stevie Ray Vaughan first sat in with Albert King at Antoine’s Club in Austin, Texas, when he was just 22 years old, and the two men developed a lifelong bond. The notoriously grumpy King was proud of his protégé, and the two would later record together on the In Session album.
One of Albert King’s signature sounds was the double bend, in which he would bend two strings at once, as far up as a full musical step. His upside-down guitar enabled him to push the strings down with what must have been an exceptionally strong grip. This article offers some insight on his technique.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...
“Born Under a Bad Sign”
Guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn play the song’s signature riff in unison, giving this twelve-bar blues a thoroughly modern spin. Funk, rock, and deep blues are all implied in this groundbreaking track. Written by Booker T. Jones and Williams Bell, the song was subsequently recorded by Paul Butterfield, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, and has become a blues standard.
In other hands, “The Hunter” might have been a novelty song, but King’s stinging guitar and sincere vocal make it ring true. The groove is something else—a syncopated march that would have made a perfect instrumental motif for the MGs. Note especially Steve Cropper’s counterpoint rhythm guitar part during King’s solo and during the vamp.
“The Very Thought of You”
King’s take on the Ray Noble standard is unexpected, but his voice is perfectly suited to the song. He was not a shouter, nor was his vocal style overtly influenced by gospel tradition, but his lighter approach gave him great flexibility. With his gentle vibrato and clear enunciation, you can even detect a hint of Nat King Cole.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Albert Nelson’s chosen stage name and claim to be B.B. King’s half-brother were early attempts to bolster his career. He also called his guitar “Lucy,” after B.B. King’s “Lucille.” Like Aleck Ford, the second “Sonny Boy Williamson” who borrowed his professional name from the most popular harmonica player of the 1940s, Albert King’s talent did not need the artificial boost. B.B. King was later quoted as graciously saying that Albert was his “brother in the blues.”
- The double-entendre “Crosscut Saw,” credited to R.G. Ford on the LP release of Born Under a Bad Sign, was in fact a remake of Tommy McClennan’s 1941 Bluebird Records hit “Cross Cut Saw Blues.” Albert King’s version of the song is remarkably transformed by the Afro-Cuban groove of Al Jackson’s drums.
- Post-Stax, King and his producers continued to experiment with contemporary styles, including disco. His “Hold Hands with One Another,” with its string-laden Bert deCoteaux arrangement, is an endearing period piece that King pulls off remarkably well. He was adept at learning non-blues material, even as everything he played became imbued with the blues.
Words by Scott Billington