Obituary: Albert King
Wednesday 23 December 1992
I REMEMBER, when a teenager living in London, going with schoolfriends to a Starlite ballroom gig. I was off to watch the recently formed super-group the Cream. The lead guitarist, recent ex-member (and god) of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers was Eric Clapton. The Cream ended their first set with a number which was rapidly climbing the charts: 'Strange Brew'. Clapton made his guitar cry and soar with a series of string-bending notes, punctuated leaps and peaks. Suddenly, someone in the audience yelled out: 'Albert King]' A huge grin spread across Clapton's face, and for a moment he had to turn away. Someone in the audience had struck a chord.
Eric Clapton was not the only guitarist to have been influenced by the great Albert King. King's special guitar genius, with its economic style and crying tone, may be found in the style of Gary Moore, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Taj Mahal and Johnny Winter.
King was born Albert Nelson in 1923, in the Mississippi delta town of Indianola (Sunflower County). His father was an itinerant preacher, and his mother Mary Blevins was a church singer. He was one of 13 children raised on a local plantation. Like most black blues singers he began his musical career by singing in his local church, in Arcola, Mississippi.
When he was eight he moved to Forest City, Arkansas, working casually outside the music business. He first learnt guitar on a homemade instrument and in the late Thirties he frequently worked road-houses in the Osceola area, singing lead tenor with the Harmony Kings Gospel Quartet in local churches.
King bought his first electric guitar from a pawnshop in Little Rock, for dollars 125. His first professional gigs were with a group called Yancey's Band, having taught himself guitar, mainly by listening to records and fellow guitarists. He particularly admired T-Bone Walker, whom he set up as a model for his own style. Later, he formed his own band, In the Groove Boys, playing briefly in St Louis in the late Forties.
In the early Fifties he worked outside music, but often played gigs with Jimmy Reed, Pulaski Hall and others, sometimes switching to drums. He played local club dates in Chicago in 1953-54, and recorded his first single, 'Bad Luck Blues', for the Parrot record label in 1953. The single failed to chart, and he returned to Osceola where he drove a bulldozer for six years. In 1959 he moved to East St Louis and was given a contract with the Bobbin record label, with whom he produced his first hit record, 'Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong'. The King label subsequently purchased the material, and produced his first album of repackaged material, The Big Blues.
He continued to play many club dates in the mid-to late Sixties. The Coun-Tree label released two more singles by him in 1965. He worked the Filmore Auditorium, in San Francisco, in 1966-67, and signed a contract with the prestigious soul label Stax. King's first single with the label, 'Laundromat Blues', featured the Stax house band as his backing. In 1967 he had a huge hit with the much-covered 'Born Under A Bad Sign', which he followed with an album of the same name.
The emergence of the British blues boom at this time brought King wider recognition. Guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green (of the Fleetwood Mac), were admitting the influence of the 'three King guitarists': BB King, Freddie King and Albert. John Mayall, father of the British blues scene, frequently featured his versions of Freddie and Albert's work. Through Mayall's album Crusade, the British public learnt of other Albert King songs such as 'Oh Pretty Woman'. (In 1986, Fantasy released The Last Session, which featured the pairing of Mayall with King. The tapes were mysteriously discovered untouched on an office shelf.)
In 1968 Bill Graham asked Albert King to play the famous Filmore gig, which also featured Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The set was recorded and released as Livewire-Blues Power - one of most highly charged live recordings of blues and soul of all time. King's style is sparse, but extraordinarily fluid and inventive, with a vocal that raises goose-bumps.
King toured with the American Folk Blues Festival, working club and concern dates throughout England in 1969. During the early Seventies Stax continued to record him, enabling him to work with producers such as Al Jackson, Don Nix and Allen Jones. In 1975 King played the Montreux Rock/Blues Festival. Stax ceased to be an independent company the following year and King switched to the Utopia label. In 1977 he recorded two albums for the Tomato label.
For the next five years King was without a record label. He also fell from public prominence with the disappearance of the blues boom. He made a remarkable comeback album, San Francisco 83, for the Fantasy label, and another hit album followed, I'm in a Phone Booth Baby.
King was probably one of the most rock-influenced of all the great blues guitarists. He had even covered an entire set of Elvis Presley songs with his Stax album King does the King's Things, a superb tribute. He stood a massive 6ft 4in and wielded a custom-built Gibson Flying V guitar. Many critics have said that his range was narrow, but his distinctive guitar and punchy (yet velvet) vocal style was solid, sustained and powerful. He called it 'Blues Power'. On stage King was a remarkable presence, possessing great humour and warmth. He often made 'tongue-in-cheek' exchanges with his audience, usually about the emotional tensions between men and women. His brass backing ensemble in the early Stax days was ahead of its time. He was one of the last of the great blues guitarists.
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