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Albert King: A Centennial Appreciation
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Albert King: A Centennial Appreciation

Remembering a blues legend on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

American blues guitarist Albert King (1923 - 1992) performs at the Village Gate nightclub in Greenwich Village, New York City, 11th April 1969. (Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

To hear him tell it, blues musician Albert King was born on April 25, 1923, in Indianola, Mississippi; half-brother to B.B. King, and, like his more famous sibling, a self-taught guitarist who transformed one of America’s great native art forms. That last part is certainly true, but Albert was no relation to B.B. His birth name was Albert Nelson, and he was probably born in Aberdeen, Mississippi (150 miles from B.B.’s native Indianola), likely in 1923, but possibly a year later. 

Why the fibs about his birth? For one thing, he enjoyed telling tall tales. Everything was larger than life with Albert King. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound, pipe-smoking behemoth worked his way up from a hardscrabble childhood—one of 13 children, he spent his youth picking cotton and doing other manual tasks before he could support himself with music. At one point, he even worked as a bulldozer operator, which was one reason some people later called him “The Velvet Bulldozer.” Another was the brilliant contrast between his soothing voice and the wailing notes of his guitar, Lucy (named, he insisted, for comedienne Lucille Ball, not for B.B.’s beloved Lucille). In any case, he found it convenient as a struggling young bluesman in the 1950s to lead the public to think he had some connection to the well-known B.B. 

In his 30s, Albert traveled and the Mississippi River Valley, finally ending up in Memphis, where he joined the Stax record label and gained a following with singles like “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” “Laundromat Blues,” and “Crosscut Saw.” His insistent, wiry guitar stood out like lightning against a smooth rhythm section, creating a sound that owed much to Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker, but with a brashness miles apart from Walker’s elegant crooning. In fact, King’s distinctive playing would eventually set the standard for many of the next generation’s best musicians, and make him probably the most influential blues musician after Robert Johnson.

Surely nobody who heard them ever confused him with B.B. Where the latter wrought a fine, slightly woody tone and elegant vibrato from his glossy black Gibson semi hollow-body, Albert would stand on the stage, sweat pouring from his face like a monsoon, and wring out of Lucy—a rocket-shaped 1959 Flying V—a voice as insistent as barbed wire and as electrified as a jet engine. He was left-handed, so he played Lucy upside-down—not stringing her as a left-handed guitar, but simply flipping her over—and employed totally idiosyncratic tunings, while hitting her strings with his thumb instead of a pick, because, he said, he got so into the music that he always dropped a pick. 

Most of all, he bent notes like nobody else—pulling the strings downward on Lucy’s neck to shift their tones far out of their usual place—which created a sound alternately longing and playful. The next generation of aspiring guitarists could only dream of matching it. With songs like “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “I’ll Play The Blues For You,” and his 10 minute masterpiece “Blues Power,” he gave his instrument a voice that artists from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Joe Bonamassa have emulated ever since.

“Born Under a Bad Sign” was King’s breakout hit, written especially for him in in 1967 by Stax’s Booker T. Jones, who knew a funky bass line would form the perfect backdrop for Lucy’s piercing cry and King’s manly baritone intoning lines like “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” The song and the album it appeared on—also called Born Under a Bad Sign, and available in a newly remastered version to honor King’s centennial—became instant classics. Music critic Robert Palmer later named it “the most influential blues album of the sixties,” and the song has been covered by everyone from Hendrix to Homer Simpson

“Everybody in the world that I know of who plays any kind of blues guitar was affected by him to a small degree at least,” said Chicago guitarist Elvin Bishop. Eric Clapton copied King’s “Personal Manager” solo for his own on “Strange Brew,” and today performers from Mato Nanji to Kingfish Ingram to Tab Benoit still use phrases King fashioned. (“I can play it any way I want to / cause these blues is all mine,” sings Benoit before launching into a series of licks indebted to King). In the end, Albert never became a household name like B.B., but as an artist, his impact on the blues was far greater.

Of course, the blues was born in King’s native Mississippi, where former slaves and their impoverished children fashioned not only the style’s distinctive “I-IV-V” chord progression, but also its entire mystique: the sexual innuendo of its lyrics; the legend of the traveling balladeer who trades his soul to the devil at the crossroads for supernatural skills; and the very idea of “blues”—a term whose origin is obscure but which came to mean a music with words focused on suffering but which was somehow not actually sad, and which featured instrumentals that miraculously burn away whatever misery the lyrics describe. 

In fact, for all its “weeping and moaning,” the blues is not actually sad—it’s musically incapable of being about victimhood or alienation. It hardly ever uses the minor scale, for one thing, which is how musicians typically convey sensations of melancholy or defeat. Instead, it exploits “seventh chords,” which build a subtly haunting or spooky feeling alongside a sensation of movement. That combination is perfect for conveying a feeling of sly resistance, not subjugation. Wynton Marsalis once likened the blues to a vaccine: a tiny dose of sadness to build up resilience, just as “the doctor gives you smallpox to keep you from getting smallpox.” 

You don’t come away from the blues feeling like a persecuted revolutionary or the prey of outside forces. You come away feeling that you’ll survive whatever life dishes out next. “Wait, I don’t think you’re with me!” King shouts to the audience in “Blues Power.” “Let’s everybody get a thing going right here!”—and as he leads the audience to clap with the beat, he cries, “Can you feel it? Sounds awful good…. The blues! When you’re doing the blues, they’re so strong, that’s why they named it—they call it ‘blues power.’ And would you believe I invented blues power?” The audience roars its joyful approval. 

That sense of defiant confidence is one reason the blues—which grew out of the black experience of segregation in the post-Civil War era—is so distinctively American. But there’s another reason, too: Like its brother, jazz, the blues is a music of freedom. With its emphasis on individual improvisation, it’s a perfect style for highlighting the virtuoso’s unique personality, and it rewards genius as much as it penalizes timidity. In his introduction to Paradise Lost, the poet John Milton argued that rhymed poetry is inappropriate for a free society because “trivial” poetic rules are a “vexation, hindrance, and constraint” which prevent writers from expressing their ideas. Milton knew rules of poetic form were necessary, of course, to prevent poetry from becoming mere noise, but he considered unrhymed iambic pentameter best for a literature of liberty, because it combines order and freedom—balancing artistic license with the demands of self-control. In the same way, the blues and jazz blend creativity and restraint by establishing bare-bones restrictions, and leaving performers free to elaborate on their own. 

That also makes it a demanding musical form, and Albert King rose to the challenge with the nonchalance typical of extraordinarily disciplined artists. He seemed at ease during performances—inviting the audience to dance and advising them, “if you’ve got bad corns, take off your shoes and slide ’em under your seat”—but he was actually a perfectionist who had no qualms about correcting band members on stage if their work displeased him. In a video from a 1980 concert in Sweden, he can be heard barking at the drummer, “Chop your notes right!” Two years later, in a show with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he repeatedly shouts at them to play quieter. Stax cashed in on King’s reputation for grouchiness with a 1968 instrumental jam that intersperses his comical grumbling about a variety of topics—even commanding his girlfriend to get warmer feet.

But King demanded as much from himself as he did from others. “I rehearsed to myself for five years before I played with another soul,” he told an interviewer a year before his death. “I knew that playing the blues was a life I chose to lead. And when I started there were three things I decided to do: play the blues, play ’em right, and make all the gigs. And I have. I’ve never drank liquor in my life or used dope, and I don’t allow it around me. That has a lot to do with why I’m still doing what I’m doing, still feeling good and still in good health. It makes me sick to see the things that people do to themselves when they get all messed up.”

As he spoke, he probably had in mind two of his protégés, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, both of whom predeceased him—Hendrix at 28 from a drug overdose and Vaughan at 36 in a helicopter crash only a year after finally getting sober. Hendrix, also a southpaw, was said to have photographed King’s hands in hopes of copying his technique, and sometimes even used a Flying V guitar when playing the blues. But King had qualms about Hendrix—“I could play his stuff; he couldn’t play mine,” he said—and considered Vaughan his greatest student. They met in 1976, when King played a gig in Austin and the 22-year-old prodigy got a chance to sit in. King was so impressed he took “Little Stevie” under his wing. 

What Vaughan admired most was the way King sang with his guitar, bending Lucy’s voice into a personality as real as his own. In “Laundromat Blues,” she’s alternately sassy and vindictive; in “I Wanna Get Funky,” she’s a confident, cunning seducer; in “As the Years Go Passing By,” her brooding matches Albert’s introspective vocals. That took more than proficiency; it required a grasp of the emotional impact of Lucy’s sound, and a willingness to hold back. “If you play too fast or too loud, you cancel yourself out,” King advised young players. “First, you got to get in your mind what you want to play. If you hear a good lick—even if you’re just rehearsing to yourself—and you feel it, then hit another one…. But if you rush right through, hitting them all, you’re not even going to know what you did. You’ve got to…take your time in your delivery.” 

It wasn’t that King played slow, but he had a spare form of expression, with the patience to build a mood. “When we’d get tired of jumping up and down in the clubs,” he told Stevie Ray, “we’d back up—reach and get one from the bottom.” The conservatism of his playing in such slow-burn tunes as “The Sky is Crying” (performed here with Vaughan, Paul Butterfield, Phil Collins, and B.B.) shows the wisdom of not confusing profusion with eloquence. “[King] can take four notes and write a volume,” said bluesman Michael Bloomfield. “He can say more with fewer note than anybody I’ve ever known.”

Vaughan was certainly not a slow player either, but he found ways to adapt King’s precision to the speed demanded by the post-Woodstock era, and King was delighted. When the two reunited in 1983 to record an episode of a TV show called In Session, King beamed with pride in the young man’s achievements. “There are lots of guitar players out here,” he advised Vaughan, who happily took a back seat to his mentor. “[But] they play fast, they don’t concentrate on no soul. But you’ve got ’em both.” After another song, he expressed his hopes that Vaughan would carry on his legacy. “I know you can do it. … You’re qualified. … And the most important thing: the better you get, the harder you work. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’ve got it made, I got enough.’ Don’t do that. … You’re already pretty good. But you’re gonna be better. And I’m gonna be watchin’ for you, and prayin’ for you, and be right there with that bull whip.”

It was a message King often repeated to young musicians who idolized him. “He was goal- and achievement-oriented,” said Chicago guitarist Carl Weathersby, who met him in the early eighties and became an acolyte. “He didn’t compromise. He wanted to get the job done. That was the only thing that mattered. … I can’t think of anything he was afraid of, including dying.” He gave the same advice to 18-year-old guitarist Donald Kinsey who toured with him in the 80s. “One day we was on the bus and he just came to me and said, ‘Hey, when you solo, slow yourself down,’” recalled Kinsey. “He said…‘It’s better for you to utilize four or five notes in some type of melody that can really connect with the people than to play 150 notes within a solo….’ It done me good.” King could be strict, but young men like Kinsey and Weathersby found that severity irresistible in a teacher. When Albert took on a 24-year-old left-handed guitarist named Emmanuel Gales as a student, Gales was so moved he changed his name to Jimmy King. 

Entrepreneurial self-discipline affected everything about King’s art. His music rarely commented on politics, but it always expressed that undeniable sense of self-reliance, and a fundamental determination to overcome challenges so central to America’s self-conception. For example, in “Cadillac Assembly Line,” he expresses his determination to quit “pickin’ that nasty cotton” and get a better job in a Detroit factory, and promises his girl, “When I make my first check, / I’ll put you on the Delta jet.” King was certainly aware of the drastic social changes of his era, but his only political song was 1972’s “Little Brother (Make A Way),” and it offered some characteristic reflections to the younger, and more agitated, generation of black Americans:

I had to work every day.

On my job, I didn’t get much pay.

Had to say “yes, sir” to the other man. 

Had to do things, yeah, against my will.

If I hadn’t, looked further,

You wouldn’t have made it. 

Now you’ve got the future in your hand.

Now don’t you be no lazy man.

We laid the ground, made the way for you.

Come on and show us that you’re proud of us.

You have a hard time to get through,

But keep on pushin’.

It was after attending one of Jimmy King’s concerts in December 1992 that the 69-year-old Albert suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to a hospital, where he died the following day. Memphis’ blues community gave him a full-scale funeral parade down Beale Street, attended by Joe Walsh, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and 2,000 other people. The Memphis Horns played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” 

“He had a unique ability to say so much with each note,” said Walsh. “Less is more.” But King, who had risen through single-minded determination from poverty in the Deep South’s cotton fields to become arguably the most influential blues guitarist of all time, had written a better epitaph years before. In a lyric from his song “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge” he sings: 

Aw, today I’m drivin’ a Chevrolet,

Tomorrow, might be driving a Cadillac.