Birth of the Blues - Albert King Part I

Author: Ben A Martin 

"Ain't got no big name, Lord, and I ain't no big star I'll play the blues for you, on my guitar"

Albert King from I'll Play The Blues For You

Wielding an upside down Gibson Flying-V guitar (with the strings set for a right handed guitarist) and a huge, thunderous voice that was capable of rolling out a smooth slow blues as well, Albert King was the consummate blues man of his era. Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing in at a modest 250 pounds, King commanded every stage he played, schooling the crowd with blues lessons in a rich, razor sharp tone. He had an adoring collection of fans and fellow performers and proved every single time why he was known as 'The Velvet Bulldozer'. King was a solid blues man who influenced the sound and direction of blues guitar with his unique style of play.

Born on April 25, 1923 as Albert Nelson in Indianola, Mississippi, King came into the world like so many blues guitar players before him; into poverty. His father was dead and his mother struggling to pay the bills. He attended school sporadically but spent most of his time working the fields and as a farm hand by the time he was 9 years old. While still a child, his mother relocated the family to Forest City, Arkansas where King began his blues education by listening to local blues artists and catching other acts when they would come through town. "When I was a little itty bitty boy, I used to listen to a blues singer called Dorothy Dailey (a man).

Back in those days, now, Lonnie Johnson used to play blues guitar and Mercer D. was a piano player then. He kept time with his feet; he played the bass with one hand, played the lead with the other, and sang and they would record him. If you listen to him, he really gets your attention because he's a man who really played from the heart, you know what I mean?" He also used to go to hear Memphis Minnie and other stars of the day; however watching and listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson play at the park in Forest City had a tremendous impact on the young King. Even as much as the music struck him, Jefferson's mere presence stayed with him throughout his life. "We put nickels in his cup and he would play a song. It was amazing to me to see him count his money. He could feel the face of the coin and tell you what it was. Then he would put it into his pocket and then play some more'.

King was first attracted to the guitar at an early age through his step-father Will Nelson. Albert once recalled "He had a guitar but I couldn't play it. I used to climb up on a chair and hit the box hanging upside the wall; sounded good to me". There are stories that when the family had first relocated to Forest City, King fashioned a 'diddleybow' for his first attempts at making music. From there he graduated to building his own 'cigar box' guitar.

King purchased his first 'real' guitar from a friend for a $1.25 and then spent every spare moment for months teaching himself how to play, never taking guitar lessons. The only problem was that the guitar was a right handed guitar which King had to learn upside down and he did this without reversing the strings. According to King, in an article in Guitar Player Magazine, the way he procured the guitar was a bit of fancy negotiation: "See this guy had a guitar. He'd paid $2.00 for it. Well he had a girl, and they wanted to go the afternoon movie show, but he didn't have the money. I didn't have a little girl, but I had the allowance my mother gave me. So it was getting close to show time, and this girl was getting really upset to get into see this movie. I offered him my $1.25 for it. 'No, I ain't gonna sell my guitar. Give me $1.50.' I said 'You just wait around; that girl's gonna be ready to get to the movies soon'. It was really funny. All the guys who didn't have girls were gathered around waiting to take her. Well, I had my mind on that blasted guitar. She was getting ready to go in with another guy, and he couldn't stand that, so he came over and said 'Give that $1.25, man; you can have the guitar'. So that's how I got my first guitar'.

When he became reasonably proficient King played for family, friends and occasionally at parties or in small local clubs. For King, the guitar was a diversion and hobby more than anything else. To earn a living he worked primarily in construction, eventually specializing in running a bulldozer.

In 1940, King had relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas, working on various levee projects during the day and eventually forming his own band to perform in local clubs at night and on the weekends, giving the crowd a real blues guitar lesson in the process. He had purchased his first electric guitar, an Epiphone, and began to handle the lead vocals as well for his band, The In The Groove Boys, who made Osceola, Arkansas their home base. Over time, the In The Groove Boys became local hits (although they were up against stiff competition from bands from Memphis, which was located across the river in Tennessee.) By the time mid-50's rolled around, King noted that he was able to pull in up to $15 a night for his shows. Not bad money for a weekend gig at the time.

In 1962 King decided to head north in search of a better life. He spent a little time in South Bend, Indiana working as a gas station attendant and left there for Gary, Indiana. Once in Gary, King met up with a representative from Parrot Records (a small, local label) and cut a record for them, Bad Luck Blues' and 'Be On Your Merry Way'. According to King, Al Benson (the then head of Parrot Records) told him to cut the record and if it sold, he would give him a contract. Benson never came through on the contract. Although the record failed to bring King any money (despite selling over 350,000 copies), it did one better; it brought him recognition from the Chicago blues scene and to blues patriarch Muddy Waters.

While still in Gary, King became friends with singer-DJ Jimmy Reed. The two worked together in local clubs and cut a few tracks for Vee-Jay Records with King playing drums. King also cut a track with a group called The Duotones called 'Shake A Tail Feather'. The tracks all became local hits. (Jimmy Reed went onto to have a very successful career as a solo artist).
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