Albert King (April 25, 1923 – December 21, 1992) was an American blues guitarist and singer, and a major influence in the world of blues guitar playing. King was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in May 2013.
One of the "Three Kings of the Blues Guitar" (along with B.B. King and Freddie King), Albert King stood 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m), some reports say 6 ft 7 in (2.01 m) and weighed 250 pounds (110 kg) and was known as "The Velvet Bulldozer". He was born Albert King Nelson, on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. During his childhood he would sing at a family gospel group at a church where his father played the guitar. One of 13 children, King grew up picking cotton on plantations near Forrest City, Arkansas, where the family moved when he was eight.
He began his professional work as a musician with a group called In The Groove Boys in Osceola, Arkansas. Moving north to Gary, Indiana and later St. Louis, Missouri, he briefly played drums for Jimmy Reed's band and on several early Reed recordings. Influenced by blues musicians Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, the electric guitar became his signature instrument, his preference being the Gibson Flying V which he named "Lucy". King earned his nickname "The Velvet Bulldozer" during this period as he drove one of them and also worked as a mechanic to make a living.
King moved to Gary, Indiana in the early 1950s, then to Chicago in 1953 where he cut his first single for Parrot Records, but it was only a minor regional success. He then went back to St. Louis in 1956 and formed a new band. During this period, he settled on using the Flying V as his primary guitar. He resumed recording in 1959 with his first minor hit, "I'm a Lonely Man," written by Little Milton, who was Bobbin Records A&R man, a fellow guitar hero, and responsible for King's signing with the label.
It was not until his 1961 release "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" that King had a major hit, reaching number fourteen on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart. The song was included on his first album The Big Blues, released in 1962. He next signed with jazz artist Leo Gooden's Coun-Tree label. King's reputation continued to grow in the Midwest, but a jealous Gooden dropped him from the label. By modern standards, The Big Blues feels completely generic with little of note except King's guitar, but in 1962 it was fresh and marked a new type of clean, sharp blues over the "dirty" sound that characterized the genre during the 1950s.
In 1966, King moved to Memphis, where he signed with the Stax record label. Produced by Al Jackson, Jr., King with Booker T. & the MGs recorded dozens of influential sides, such as "Crosscut Saw" and "As The Years Go Passing By". In 1967 Stax released the album Born Under a Bad Sign, which was not technically a studio album, but a collection of all the singles King recorded at Stax. The title track of that album (written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell) became King's best-known song and has been covered by many artists (from British rock group Cream, Paul Rodgers, Canadian guitarist Pat Travers, American rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix to cartoon character Homer Simpson). The production of the songs was sparse, clean, and maintained a traditional blues sound while also sounding fresh and thoroughly contemporary. Almost as important as King himself was the "menacing" bass of Donald Dunn, which at some points approached an early metal feel. Born Under A Bad Sign propelled Albert King to mainstream popularity at the comparatively late age of 44 and was one of the last albums recorded by an artist whose career began before the rock-and-roll era to be truly innovative, predictive of future music trends, and influential on young musicians of the era.
Another landmark album followed with Live Wire/Blues Power, from one of many dates King played at promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium. The album influenced musicians Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson, Gary Moore and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In 1969, King performed live with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. That same year, he released a follow-up album to Born On A Bad Sign, Years Gone By. During the early 1970s, he recorded an album Lovejoy with a group of white rock singers, an Elvis Presley tribute album, Albert King Does The King's Things, and a cameo on an Albert Brooks comedy album A Star is Bought. The above-mentioned album was a collection of Elvis's 1950s hits reworked and re-imagined in Albert King's musical sound, although critics felt the results of it were mixed. Lovejoy introduced no really new musical innovations over King's previous two Stax albums, although it notably includes a cover of the Rolling Stones' hit Honky Tonk Women.
According to Bill Graham, "Albert was one of the artists I used many times for various reasons. He wasn't just a good guitar player; he had a wonderful stage presence, he was very congenial and warm, he was relaxed on stage, and he related to the public. Also he never became a shuck-and-jiver. One of the things that happened in the '60s – it's not a very nice thing to say, but it happens to be true – was that blues musicians began to realize that white America would accept anything they did on stage. And so many of them became jive. But Albert remained a guy who just went on stage and said 'Let's play.'"
On June 6, 1970, King joined The Doors on stage at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, Canada. He lent his distinctive guitar to blues cuts such as “Little Red Rooster,” “Money,” “Rock Me” and “Who Do You Love.” (Released on Rhino records as "The Doors Live in Vancouver 1970" in 2010.)
Like many older artists, King wanted to remain relevant and on the charts, and so he eagerly embraced the new sound of funk. King was teamed with members of The Bar-Kays and The Movement (Isaac Hayes's backing group), including bassist James Alexander and drummer Willie Hall adding strong funk elements to his music. Adding strings and multiple rhythm guitarists, producers Allen Jones and Henry Bush created a wall of sound that contrasted with the sparse, punchy records King made with Booker T. & the MGs. Among these was another of King's signature tunes "I'll Play the Blues For You" in 1972. The new instrumental arrangements added a renewed freshness to King's guitar licks; in addition it worked well for The Bar-Kays since funk was still a young genre and most such groups had yet to work with a competent guitarist.
After I'll Play The Blues For You, King recorded another album with the Bar-Kays, I Wanna Get Funky (1974). The record skillfully mixed standard blues licks with the latest in hot funk (although a few traditional-style blues tracks were also included) and it is considered his last strong album.
In 1975, King's career took a turn downward when Stax Records filed for bankruptcy, after which he moved to the small Utopia label. His next two albums, Albert and Truckload Of Lovin' (1976), devolved into generic 1970s pop music and the third album with Utopia, King Albert (1977), while somewhat more subdued, still lacked any standout material and King's guitar took a backseat to the background instruments.
The last recording King did with Utopia was Live Blues in 1977, performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. As the audience here were knowledgeable jazz and blues fans who disliked experimentation, he played it safe and conservative, although As The Years Go Passing By is noteworthy for his duet (and even dueling) with Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher.
In 1978, King moved to a new label, Tomato Records, where he recorded the studio album New Orleans Heat. The label paired him up with R&B producer Allen Toussaint, who had been responsible for scores of 1960s-1970s hits in that genre, but was a novice at working with blues artists. The album was a mix of new songs (including Toussaint's own "Get Out Of My Life, Woman") and rerecordings of old material such as "Born Under A Bad Sign". Keeping with Toussaint's quality standards, production values were high, but the backing instruments were uninspired (if competent).
King took a four-year break from recording after the disappointing results of his late 1970s efforts. During this period, he fully re-embraced his roots as a blues artist and abandoned any arrangements except straight 12-bar guitar, bass, drums, and piano. In 1983, he finally cut a new live album with Fantasy Records, Crosscut Saw: Albert King In San Francisco.
In 1984, King recorded I'm In A Phone Booth, Baby, which turned out to be his last studio album. The recording included a redo of "Truckload Of Lovin'" and two ancient Elmore James tunes, "Dust My Broom" and "The Sky Is Crying". Fantasy Records tried to recreate the sparse instrumentals of King's Stax years and not drown him out.
King influenced others such as Mick Taylor, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Mike Bloomfield and Joe Walsh (the James Gang guitarist spoke at King's funeral). He also had an impact on contemporaries Albert Collins and Otis Rush. He was often cited by Stevie Ray Vaughan as having been his greatest influence. Clapton has said that his work on the 1967 Cream hit "Strange Brew" and throughout the album Disraeli Gears was inspired by King.
King's health problems led him to consider retirement in the 1980s, but he continued regular tours and appearances at blues festivals, using a customized Greyhound tour bus with "I'll Play The Blues For You" painted on the side. Shortly before his death, he was planning an overseas tour. His final album, Red House – named after the Jimi Hendrix song – was recorded in 1992. The album was largely ignored because of bad production quality, and original copies of it are scarce.
King died on December 21, 1992, from a heart attack in his Memphis, Tennessee home. His final concert had been in Los Angeles two days earlier. He was given a funeral procession with the Memphis Horns playing "When The Saints Go Marching In" and buried in Paradise Gardens Cemetery in Edmondson, Arkansas near his childhood home. B.B. King eulogized him by stating: "Albert wasn't my brother in blood, but he was my brother in blues."
On December 11, 2012, it was announced that King would be posthumously inducted into the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Gary Clark Jr., John Mayer, and Booker T Jones performed King's "Born Under A Bad Sign" at the induction ceremony.
King also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
King's first instrument was a diddley bow. Next, he built himself a cigar box guitar, before buying a Guild acoustic. The instrument he is usually associated with is a 1958 Gibson Flying V. In 1974 he began using a Flying V built by Dan Erlewine, and after 1980 also one built by Bradley Prokopow.
King was left-handed, but usually played right-handed guitars flipped over upside-down. He used a dropped minor tuning, reportedly C♯-G♯-B-E-G♯-C♯. He never used the sixth string.
For amplification, King used a solid-state Acoustic amplifier, with a speaker cabinet with two 15" speakers and a horn ("which may or may not have been operative"). Later in his career he also used a MXR Phase 90.