ALBERT KING (By Phil Davies)

Born Albert Nelson, 25 April 1923, Indianola, Mississippi

Died 21 December 1992, Memphis, Tennessee

Raised in Forrest City, Arkansas, Albert taught himself how to play guitar when he was a child, building his own instrument out of a cigar box. At first, he played with gospel groups - most notably the Harmony Kings - but after hearing Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson and several other blues musicians, he solely played the blues.

Albert told Dan Forte in a Guitar Player mag interview, " First one was Blind Lemon, later I heard the records but I used to see him in these parks, like on Saturday afternoons in these little country towns in Arkansas. One day he was playing acoustic guitar , sounded like Richie Havens, he had a crowd around him and we'd put nickels in his cup. It was amazing to see him count his money , he would feel the coin's face and tell you what it was. He'd put it in his pocket and play some more. I also saw Memphis Minnie".

In 1950, he met MC Reeder, who owned the T-99 nightclub in Osceola, AK. King moved to Osceloa shortly afterward, joining the T-99's house band, the In The Groove Boys. The band played several local Arkansas gigs besides the T-99, including several shows for a local radio station.

After enjoying success in the Arkansas area, King moved to Gary, IN, in 1953, where he joined a band that also featured Jimmy Reed and John Brim. Both Reed and Brim were guitarists, which forced King to play drums in the group. Jimmy would often get drunk and wouldn't go to work. At this time, he adopted the name Albert King, which he assumed after B B King's "Three O'Clock Blues" became a huge hit. Albert met Willie Dixon shortly after moving to Gary, and the bassist/songwriter helped the guitarist set up an audition at Parrot Records. King passed the audition and cut his first session late in 1953. Five songs were recorded during the session and only one single, "Be On Your Merry Way" / "Bad Luck Blues," was released; the other tracks appeared on various compilations over the next four decades. Although it sold respectably, the single didn't gather enough attention to earn him another session with Parrot. In early 1954, King returned to Osceola and re-joined the In The Groo ve Boys; he stayed in Arkansas for the next two years.

In 1956, Albert moved to St. Louis, where he initially sat in with local bands. By the fall of 1956, King was headlining several clubs in the area. King continued to play the St. Louis circuit, honing his style. During these years, he began playing his signature Gibson Flying V, which he named Lucy. By 1958, Albert was quite popular in St. Louis, which led to a contract with the fledgling Bobbin Records in the summer of 1959. On his first Bobbin recordings, King recorded with a pianist and a small horn section, which made the music sound closer to jump blues than Delta or Chicago blues. Nevertheless, his guitar was taking a center stage and it was clear that he had developed a unique, forceful sound. King's records for Bobbin sold well in the St. Louis area, enough so that King Records leased the "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" single from the smaller label. When the single was released nationally late in 1961, it became a hit, reaching number 14 on the R&B charts. Ki ng Records continued to lease more material from Bobbin - including a full album, The Big Blues, which was released in 1963 - but nothing else approached the initial success of "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong." Bobbin also leased material to Chess, which appeared in the late '60s.

Albert King left Bobbin in late 1962 and recorded one session for King Records in the spring of 1963, which were much more pop-oriented than his previous work; the singles issued from the session failed to sell. Within a year, he cut four songs for the local St. Louis independent label Coun-Tree, which was run by a jazz singer named Leo Gooden. Though these singles didn't appear in many cities - St. Louis, Chicago, and Kansas City were the only three to register sales - they foreshadowed his coming work with Stax Records. Furthermore, they were very popular within St. Louis, so much so that Gooden resented King's success and pushed him off the label.

Following his stint at Coun-Tree, Albert King signed with Stax Records in 1966. Albert's records for Stax would bring him stardom, both within blues and rock circles. All of his '60s Stax sides were recorded with the label's house band, Booker T. & the MGs, which gave his blues a sleek, soulful sound. That soul underpinning gave King crossover appeal, as evidenced by his R&B chart hits - "Laundromat Blues" (1966) and "Cross Cut Saw" (1967) both went Top 40, while "Born Under a Bad Sign" (1967) charted in the Top 50. Furthermore, King's style was appropriated by several rock & roll players, most notably Hendrix and Clapton, who copied Albert's "Personal Manager" guitar solo on the Cream song, "Strange Brew." Albert King's first album for Stax, 1967's Born Under A Bad Sign, was a collection of his singles for the label and became one of the most popular and influential blues albums of the late '60s. Beginning in 1968, Albert King was playing not only to blues audiences, but als o to crowds of young rock & rollers. He frequently played at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and he even recorded an album, Live Wire/Blues Power, at the hall in the summer of 1968.

Early in 1969, King recorded his first true studio album and later that year, he recorded a tribute album to Elvis, King Does The King's Things and a jam session with Steve Cropper and Pops Staples, Jammed Together, in addition to performing a concert with The St Louis Symphony Orch. For the next few years, Albert toured America and Europe, returning to the studio in 1971, to record the Lovejoy album. In 1972, he recorded I'll Play The Blues for You, which featured accompaniment from the Bar Kays and the Memphis Horns. The album was rooted in the blues, but featured distinctively modern soul and funk overtones.

By the mid-'70s, Stax was suffering major financial problems, so King left the label for Utopia, a small subsidiary of RCA Records. Albert released two albums on Utopia, which featured some concessions to the constraints of commercial soul productions. Although he had a few hits at Utopia, his time there was essentially a transitional period, where he discovered that it was better to follow a straight blues direction and abandon contemporary soul crossovers. King's subtle shift in style was evident on his first albums for Tomato Records, the label he signed with in 1978. Albert stayed at Tomato for several years, switching to Fantasy in 1983, releasing two albums for the label.

In the mid-'80s, Albert King announced his retirement, but it was short-lived - Albert continued to regularly play concerts and festivals throughout America and Europe for the rest of the decade. King continued to perform until his sudden death in 1992, when he suffered a fatal heart attack on December 21. The loss to the blues was a major one - although many guitarists have tried, no one can replace King's distinctive, trailblazing style. Albert King is a tough act to follow.

Blues Rock stars like Bloomfield, Clapton, Hendrix, Vaughan, Cray and Gary Moore have all been heavily influenced by this unique left handed guitarist, holding the guitar upside down and stringing it as for a right handed player!! Albert, BB and Muddy helped keep the real blues alive in the late 60s/70s when the more heavy white blues rock threatened to replace the real thing.

Thanks to the ever reliable All Music Guide, most of the above from an excellent piece by Daniel Erlewine & Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

Recommended Reading:

Rollin' & Tumblin' - Post War Blues Guitarists- edited by Jas Obrecht (from Guitar Player interviews/articles), published by Miller Freeman Books. Albert pages 345 -352.

Recommended Listening:

Ace has/had many Albert Stax cds in catalogue, some 2fers of Stax lps or

I'll Play the Blues For You -Best of / or Blues For You - Best Of (latter has some Fantasy cuts)

a couple of live albums from Montreux in the 70s, some Live in Frisco or the Cropper/Staples Jammed Together

King Does The King's Things

There's a Tomato double that often turns up in bargain bins

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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