As an electric guitar player who focused more on tone and intensity than flash, Albert King had a tremendous impact on countless rock and roll guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
King was also one of the first bluesmen who crossed over into the world of soul music, signing with Stax Records and recording such classic songs as “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crosscut Saw.”
Albert King was born Albert Nelson on April 25, 1923, in Indianola, Mississippi, the same town where B.B. King grew up. As a child, he sang with his family’s gospel group at a church where his father played the guitar. When King was eight, his family moved to Forrest City, Arkansas, and he would pick cotton on plantations in the area. Around that same time, King bought his first guitar, paying only $1.25. His first inspiration was T-Bone Walker.
King began working as a professional musician when he joined a group called In the Groove Boys in Osceola, Arkansas, in the late Forties. He then moved north and played drums with Jimmy Reed, both onstage and on several early Reed recordings. In the early Fifties, King moved to Gary, Indiana, and then, in 1953, to Chicago. It was in Chicago that King cut his first singles, “Lonesome in My Bedroom” and “Bad Luck Blues,” for Parrot Records.
The electric guitar quickly became King's primary instrument, his preferred instrument being a Gibson Flying V that he played left-handed, holding it upside down and tuning it for a right-handed player. A huge man, weighing more than 250 pounds and standing six-feet-four, King was a commanding physical presence onstage.
In 1956, King returned to St. Louis and formed a new band. He resumed recording in 1959 and scored his first minor hit, “I’m a Lonely Man.” The song was written by Little Milton, who was an A&R man for Bobbin Records, the label that released the record. King recorded for several other small labels during this period, including King Records. In 1961, he scored his first major hit, “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me Too Strong,” which reached Number 14 on the R&B chart.
King’s real breakthrough came in 1966, when he moved to Memphis and signed with Stax Records. Working with producer Al Jackson Jr. and backed by Booker T. and the M.G.'s, King recorded such classics as "Crosscut Saw" and "As the Years Go Passing By.” In 1967, Stax released Born Under a Bad Sign. The title track became King's best-known song and has been covered by many artists, including Cream. King played many shows at promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore East and the Fillmore West venues. One show was recorded and released as the albumLive Wire/Blues Power.
In 1969, King performed live with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, forming what was called an “87-piece blues band.” During the early Seventies, he recorded the album Lovejoy with a group of white rock singers and an Elvis Presley tribute album, Albert King Does the King's Things. King continued to tour throughout the Seventies, and in June 1970, he joined the Doors onstage at a show in Vancouver, Canada.
King’s sound underwent a major change in the Seventies, as he teamed up with the Bar-Kays and the Memphis Horns on the albums I’ll Play the Blues for You and I Wanna Get Funky. That partnership gave his music a much funkier sound than it had on his earlier recordings, and the former album’s title track became one of his signature songs. King also worked with Allen Toussaint and some of the Meters during this period.
During the Eighties, King received considerable praise from many young blues guitarists, most notably Stevie Ray Vaughan. The two appeared together on the Canadian television show In Session in December 1983, a performance that was issued on CD in 1993. One British writer described Vaughan as a “young Texan who apparently believes that Albert King is God and the Lord should be praised regularly.”
King continued to perform until his death from a heart attack on December 21, 1992. At his funeral, Joe Walsh played a slide-guitar rendition of “Amazing Grace” as a tribute to King.
From Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield and Johnny Winter, to Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Derek Trucks and beyond, the influence of Albert King’s husky vocals and his signature Gibson Flying V guitar will live on forever.
Albert King (guitar, vocals; born Albert Nelson on April 25, 1923, died December 21, 1992)