Friday, September 7, 2012

Blues Legends - Albert King

It's hard to find any blues guitar player, and very few rock guitarists as well, who don't owe a debt to Albert King.  Certainly some of the biggest names (Otis Rush, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan) were heavily influence by King's rugged, muscular style.  In fact, many modern guitarists owe a huge debt to King, and may not even realize it because they learned from other guitarists who picked up King's style.  He's influenced multiple generations of guitarists in blues and rock.

The amazing thing about King's style was that, even though he grew up listening to blues guitarists like Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, from the very beginning his style and his tone was uniquely his own.  He played guitar left-handed, but strung right-handed, which accounted for the difference in his tone......he pulled down on the strings that most right-handed guitarists pulled up on when bending notes.  As a result, he possessed one of the most distinctive and recognizable styles of all blues distinctive that you can identify his influence on scores of blues musicians today whenever they step up to take a solo simply by listening.

King was born Albert Nelson in Indianola, MS in 1923, but was raised in Forrest City, AR.  As a youngster, he grew up singing in a family gospel group, where his dad played guitar. King built his first guitar out of a cigar box and taught himself to play.  In 1950, he met the owner of the T-99 nightclub in Osceola, AR, MC Reeder, and joined the T-99 house band (The In The Groove Boys), enjoying regional success playing local gigs and appearing on various radio programs.

Soon, King moved to Gary, IN, where he joined a group that included Jimmy Reed and John Brim.  As Reed and Brim were both guitarists, King switched to drums (even playing on several Reed singles) and adopted Albert King as his stage name, trying to capitalize on the success of B.B. King, who was enjoying popularity with his newest hit, "Three O'Clock Blues."  It was also during his stint in Gary that King chose the electric guitar, eventually settling on the Gibson Flying V, as his signature instrument.

King also met Willie Dixon during this time and Dixon set him up an audition with Parrot Records.  His first session was in 1953 and two sides were released ("Be On Your Merry Way"/"Bad Luck Blues"), which was a limited regional success, not enough to get a second session with Parrot.  King returned to Osceola in 1954 and rejoined The In The Groove Boys, staying in Arkansas for the next two years. 

In 1956, King relocated to St. Louis, where he was soon headlining several local clubs in the area.  In 1958, he signed with Bobbin Records, where his first sides featured a piano and horns, giving them more of a jump feel than his usual traditional fare, though his guitar was clearly out front.  His Bobbin sides sold well in St. Louis, and King Records picked up his single, "Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong," in 1961, sending it to #14 on the Billboard R&B charts.  King also picked up an album's worth of material, called The Big Blues.  Some of King's Bobbin recordings also ended up at Chess Records in the late 60's.

After a short-lived stint with King Records, King briefly signed with Coun-Tree Records, but his local success made the label owner, jazz singer Leo Gooden, jealous and he dropped King from the label after a brief period.  At that time, 1966, King signed with Stax Records and things began to get exciting.

King's tenure with Stax Records was phenomenal.  For all of his 60's recordings, King had the Stax house band for backing.....none other than Booker T. & the MG's.  The result of that collaboration gave King a slicker sound, similar to the soul recordings that Stax was renowned for at the time.  This resulted in more crossover appeal for King, and more success....three songs ("Laundromat Blues," "Crosscut Saw," and "Born Under A Bad Sign") were Top 50 R&B hits.  Other songs, like "As The Years Go Passing By," "The Hunter," "Personal Manager," and "You're Gonna Need Me" became blues standards.

King also recorded a landmark live album in the late 60's, called Live Wire/Blues Power (backed by a young drummer named Son Seals), recorded at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1968.  During the late 60's, King became a favorite performer not just for the blues crowd, but also for young rock & roll fans, so he appeared at the Fillmore many times, inspiring artists like Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Gary Moore, Joe Walsh, Warren Haynes, and Robbie Robertson.

In the 70's, Stax teamed King with the Bar-Kays, the Memphis Horns, and Isaac Hayes' backing group, The Movement.  Adding additional rhythm guitarists and strings, King's sound was now funkier and with a fuller sound.  During these sessions, King produced another of his standards, "I'll Play The Blues For You."

After Stax folded in the mid 70's, King jumped around to several labels (Utopia, Tomato, and Fantasy), and his music began moving back more toward traditional blues and away from the soul underpinnings.  All of these recordings were strong, with some fine moments, but King began to experience health problems and contemplated retirement.  In the mid 80's, he briefly retired, but soon returned to playing concerts and festivals.

King was planning another overseas tour and had just released a new album in 1992, when he died suddenly from a heart attack on December 21.  He had played a concert in Los Angeles two nights earlier.  His loss was a major one for the blues one has really been able to completely capture Albert King's unique sound, but you can hear a little Albert King in just about every blues and rock guitarist you hear, even twenty years after he played his last note.

Selected Discography

Fortunately for blues fans, there are several compilations of Albert King's recordings, so it's pretty easy to get a comprehensive set of his best sides.  Here are a few to choose from.....

The Big Blues (King) - This is a pretty solid set of some of King's best recordings for Bobbin Records in the late 50's/early 60's, and includes songs like "Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong," "Natural Ball," "I Get Evil," "I've Made Nights By Myself," and "Dyna Flow."  His Bobbin recordings are underrepresented on the compilations for licensing reasons or whatever, so this set captures this underrated era of King's nicely.

Born Under A Bad Sign (Stax) - Okay, if you can only one album's worth of music from King's Stax recordings, it should be this one.  You won't find a stronger set of music on a single CD.  This is the majority of King's uniformly fine work for Stax, with superlative backing from one of the greatest bands of all time (Booker T & the MGs).  It's the perfect blend of blues and soul and should be part of every blues fan's collection.

King of the Blues Guitar (Atlantic) - When I made the switch to CDs eons ago, this was one of the first CDs I bought and is still a favorite.  It was originally released to capture all of King's Stax singles on one LP.  When the CD version came out, it added extra tracks, including all of Born Under A Bad Sign and one of my all-time favorite King tracks, "You're Gonna Need Me."  The sound could be better, but just turn it up because the music can't be beat.

The Ultimate Collection (Rhino) - Welllll, not exactly.....this two disc set doesn't have any of the Bobbin recordings, but what's here is pretty darn close to ultimate, including a healthy selection of his later work for Utopia, Tomato, and Fantasy, and plenty of his Stax recordings.

Live Wire/Blues Power (Stax) - This stellar set, recorded at the Fillmore in 1968, is a textbook on blues guitar.  Scores of blues and rock guitarists were influenced by King's fretwork here, which is amazing and makes this disc one of the finest live blues recordings ever.

In Session (Stax) - King is joined by Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983, just prior to SRV's breakout album, Texas Flood, and before his time with David Bowie on his Let's Dance tour.  Anyone who has heard both guitarists knows that SRV was influenced by King, and it's even more obvious when you hear them playing together.  It's really cool though, because each guitarist really pushes the other to greater heights during this session.  I like the DVD a little bit more though, because you can actually see how much fun each man is having while they're playing.

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