Birth of the Blues - Albert King Part II

By Ben A Martin 

Again, King hit the road returning briefly to Osceola and then deciding to settle in Love Joy, Illinois (a suburb of St. Louis) where he formed another band. This time however, King was finally starting to gain a little national exposure. His work in the mid-60's came to the attention of Al Bell of Stax Records out of Memphis. Bell signed King and with legendary house sound of the Stax label backing him up, King was hitting on all cylinders. He struck hits on the R&B charts with singles like 'Blues At Sunrise', 'Let's Have A Natural Ball' and 'Travelin' To California'.

Even the normally acidic NY Times music critic, Albert Goldman, praised King in a review by writing about his style as "a fusion of the ancient Mississippi 'bottleneck' style and the sighing, swooning, 'psychedelic' sound of the Hawaiian steel guitar. King's blue note is so 'nasty', so cruelly inciting, that after a quarter hour under its spell, one itches for a bottle to break and a face to cut."

Most critics agree that what most likely propelled King into the national spotlight was his collaboration with fellow Stax label mates, Booker T. and the M.G.'s. With Booker T. backing him, King cut the 'must have' blues album Born Under A Bad Sign in 1967. The album contained two singles that are most often associated with Albert King (and blues standards for any self-respecting blues guitarist) the title track 'Born Under A Bad Sign' and 'Crosscut Saw'.

King came to the attention of a variety of blues guitar and blues-rock luminaries in the mid to late 60s to the point where Michael Bloomfield persuaded noted promoter Bill Graham to book him for the initial show at the Filmore East in Manhattan. On March 8, 1968, Albert King shared the stage with Tim Buckley and Big Brother and The Holding Company. King's brand of smooth R&B and down and raw amped Delta style blues made him an audience favorite, giving them blues guitar lessons as they had never seen them. King played both the Filmore's East and West several times in his career even once sharing the bill with Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall.

In an interview, King discussed having known Hendrix in his early days. "I knew him personally from when he was a boy in Nashville, Tennessee; he was Jimmy James Jr. He came to St. Louis during the time that Ike Turner was real hot. He sat in with Ike, and they made fun of him. I talked to him; he said he was leaving for California. I didn't see him again until years later when I was hired to play the Filmore, and he had that big hit 'Foxy Lady'."

Throughout the remainder of the 60s and into the 70s, King peppered the blues and R&B charts with several albums, although none made it to number one, they all fared well.

When the blues began to fall out of favor in the mid-70s and with Stax records closing, King continued to perform his brand of blues guitar at small clubs and festivals. By the start of the 80s, King began to climb back up into prominence in the blues / blues rock community when he was given constant praise and acknowledgment from the young blues super-power, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Vaughn never failed to cite King as a primary guitar lesson influence on him and his guitar playing. A critic in England summed up Vaughn's admiration of King rather succinctly when he wrote of Vaughn as "a young Texan who apparently believes that Albert King is God and the Lord should be praised regularly".

When asked about the quip, King responded to a reporter in San Francisco, "He's a good player. He's trying too hard to play like me, but he'll never get it all. How's he gonna do it when I don't know how I'm doing it?" It was a truism when it came to Albert King; so much of what he did on stage was pure improvisation and it was this sense of freedom in his playing that made Albert King a favorite of live blues audiences. There was always something a little different each time he would perform a song.

In 1983 King signed with Fantasy Records and released San Francisco, '83, his first new disc in five years. Fantasy released a few new discs by King while he was under their label including reissuing (using the defunct Stax logo) the impressive Jammed Together which featured King, Steve Cropper and Pops Staple of the Staple Singers.

King continued to tour throughout the Eighties, catching plenty of work both home and over-seas and had gave no impression whatsoever of slowing down. However on December 21st, 1992, on the verge of launching a major tour of Europe, Albert King died of a massive heart attack in Memphis, Tennessee.

One of the things that made King such an influential blues guitarist was his mastery of the single string lead and his powerful tone. It has been said that no one could make a guitar sound like a human voice quite like King. He has said that he developed his own style of playing because he learned to play a right handed guitar upside down and without re-stringing it for a left-handed player. "I couldn't make the changes and the chords the same as a right-handed man could. I play a few chords, but not many. I always concentrated on my singing guitar sound - more of a sustained note'. King also utilized a variety of different and unique tunings (according to Steve Cropper, King tuned to an E-minor with a C on the low E string). Another thing that helped created his distinct sound and playing style was that rather than bend the notes 'up', King bent the notes 'down' and he bent them hard.

Blues legend Johnny Winter once said of King, 'I could hear that he played the guitar different than other guitarists, but I couldn't figure it out until I saw him in person. Then I realized that he played backwards. He was a huge, immense man, and his hands would just dwarf his Flying-V guitar. He played with his thumb, and he played horizontally - across the fingerboard, as opposed to vertically. If he had to go seven frets, he'd bend the guitar seven frets!'

Another aspect of Kings style was that he played without a pick. King said of his choice to play with just his fingers, 'I never could hold a pick in my hand. I started out playing with one, but I'd really be getting into it, and after a while the pick would just sail across the house. I said the hell with this. So I just play with meat of my thumb.'

When King passed away, an era of the blues came to a close. He had influenced so many rock and blues-rock guitarists, from Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter and beyond that it would be enough to say that he was a primary mover of the blues. But when you consider too that Albert King was one of the only blues players to sell as steadily to black audiences in the sixties and seventies as he did to white audiences that he can be seen a true keeper of the blues during a time when a majority of black audiences had begun to turn their back on the genre.

Rock critic and journalist Dave Marsh, when writing about 'Born Under A Bad Sign', said that '... so classic it sounds like it must have been unearthed rather than written, the result is virtually timeless."

In a way, I think he could have been writing about King himself.
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