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Albert King Profile

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Blues guitarist Albert King

Blues guitarist Albert King

Photo courtesy Stax Records

Born: April 25, 1923 in Indianola MS

Died: December 21, 1992 in Memphis TN

Guitarist Albert King was one of the most significant musical influences on the blues-rock artists of the 1960s. In an era blessed with a wealth of fine blues guitarists, King's tone and individual style rose above the competition. His single-string solo style was unmatched, and he would bend the instrument's strings, or use odd tunings to achieve a truly tortured sound. King was one of the first bluesmen to cross over into '60s soul music, and his style would have an impact on young guitarslingers like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Influenced By Texas Bluesmen

King was born Albert Nelson in rural Indianola, Mississippi - B.B. King's hometown - but moved with his family to Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight years old. He taught himself guitar, building his first instrument from a cigar box. King initially sang with the family gospel group, but after hearing Texas bluesmen like T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson, his musical interest turned towards the blues.

King quickly developed his unique sound, the left-handed musician playing his right-handed guitar upside down and backwards. He tried playing with a pick and, finding it unwieldy, picked with his fingers and thumb instead. King bought his first electric guitar for $125 from a pawnshop in Little Rock and, after practicing for a couple of years, he began sitting in with the Osceola, Arkansas outfit the Yancy Band. Later, he would play with the local In The Groove Boys while driving a bulldozer during the day.

Moving To Chicago (Or Thereabouts)

King moved to Gary, Indiana (near Chicago) in 1953. Joining a band that included guitarists Jimmy Reed and John Brim, King would play drums with the outfit. It was around this time that he changed his name to "King," prompted by the success of B.B. King's hit "Three O'Clock Blues." The guitarist found a champion in Chess Records producer and songwriter Willie Dixon, who arranged for King to record several sides for Parrot Records.

Parrot released a just one single on King, "Bad Luck Blues" b/w "Be On Your Merry Way," and although it achieved respectful sales numbers, King made little or no money for his efforts. King returned to Osceola, and hooked up again with the In The Groove Boys. After a couple of years had passed, King relocated to East St. Louis, and he would hone his six-string skills to a fine edge playing the city's blues and soul clubs. King recorded for the local Bobbin label in 1959, and scored his first R&B chart hit in 1961 with "Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong," which Bobbin licensed to King Records.

Memphis & Stax Soul

Bobbin would also license sides for release by Chess Records, and King would later find some regional success with the St. Louis label Coun-Tree Records. It was when King signed with the Memphis soul label Stax Records in 1966 that he would find major league success, though. Recording with the Stax house band, including keyboardist Booker T. Jones, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, drummer Al Jackson, Jr., and guitarist Steve Cropper, King would score hits with such soul-blues romps as "Born Under A Bad Sign," "Laundromat Blues," and "Crosscut Saw."

With guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton borrowing elements of his unique style, King's late-1960s work for Stax was tailor-made for white blues-rock fans. Promoter Bill Graham flew to East St. Louis to offer King the then-grand sum of $1,600 to perform at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. King was the first bluesman to play the Fillmore, topping a bill that included Hendrix and Janis Joplin. King would become a regular draw at the venue, and recorded his Live Wire/Blues Power album there in 1968.

A Hall Of Fame Career

King would leave Stax in 1974 as the label was disintegrating, and he would subsequently record for indie labels like Tomato and Fantasy Records. King became the first blues artist to cross over into the classical realm when he performed with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1969, and he would record a jam session with Stax's Cropper and gospel great Pop Staples, titled Jammed Together, in 1971.

Returning to a harder-edged blues sound after signing with Tomato Records during the mid-1970s, King toured extensively throughout the decade and into well the '80s. His "retirement" during the 1980s would be short-lived, King returning to the road and performing festivals and concerts around the world, frequently with fellow blues guitarist B.B. King.

King passed the figurative blues guitar torch on to Stevie Ray Vaughan when the two performed together during a Canadian TV taping in 1983, the session later released in 1999 as In Session. King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, and died from a heart attack in 1992.

Recommended Albums: Any of King's Stax albums hold up well today, but the CD release of 1967's King of the Blues Guitar includes all of King's early Stax singles, as well as all of that year's Born Under A Bad Sign album. Live Wire/Blues Power, from 1968, captures King's fire and fury onstage at the Fillmore.

Fans shouldn't be confused by the 1972 Stax release I'll Play The Blues For You and the 1977 Tomato Records album of the same name - the latter is a live album that features only four songs from King, the remainder from fellow blues great John Lee Hooker.

Albert King - Select Discography
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