Albert King Nelson (April 25, 1923 – December 21, 1992), known professionally as Albert King, was an American blues guitarist and singer, and a major influence in the world of blues guitar playing. One of the "Three Kings of the Blues Guitar" (along with B.B. King and Freddie King), he is perhaps best known for the 1967 single "Born Under a Bad Sign".
King stood taller than average, with sources reporting 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) or 6 ft 7 in (2.01 m), and weighed a hefty 250 pounds (110 kg) and was known as "The Velvet Bulldozer" due to his smooth singing and large size.
In May 2013, King was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He was born 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.
King was famed for his powerful string-bending style as well as for his soulful, smoky vocals. King often said he was born in Indianola and was a half-brother of B.B. King, although the scant surviving official documentation suggests otherwise on both counts. King carved his own indelible niche in the blues hierarchy by creating a deep, dramatic sound that was widely imitated by both blues and rock guitarists.
Albert King’s readily identifiable style made him one of the most important artists in the history of the blues, but his own identity was a longtime source of confusion. In interviews he said he was born in Indianola on April 25, 1923 (or 1924), and whenever he appeared in Indianola at Club Ebony, the event was celebrated as a homecoming. He often claimed to be a half-brother of Indianola icon B.B. King, citing the fact that B.B.'s father was named Albert King. But when he applied for a Social Security card in 1942, he gave his birthplace as “Aboden” (most likely Aberdeen), Mississippi, and signed his name as Albert Nelson, listing his father as Will Nelson. Musicians also knew him as Albert Nelson in the 1940s and '50s. But when he made his first record in 1953–when B.B. had become a national blues star–he became Albert King, and by 1959 he was billed in newspaper ads as “B.B. King's brother.” He also sometimes used the same nickname as B.B.–“Blues Boy”–and named his guitar "Lucy" (B.B.'s instrument was named "Lucille"). B.B., however, claimed Albert as just a friend, not a relative, and once retorted, “My name was King before I was famous.”
According to King, he was five when his father left the family and eight when he moved with his mother, Mary Blevins, and two sisters to the Forrest City, Arkansas, area. King said his family had also lived in Arcola, Mississippi, at one time. He made his first guitar out of a cigar box, a piece of a bush, and a strand of broom wire, and later bought a real guitar for $1.25. As a left-hander learning guitar on his own, he used a normal string setup and tuning, but played with his guitar reversed, "bending" strings by pulling them down, not pushing them up. King picked cotton, drove a bulldozer, worked in construction, and other jobs until he was finally able to support himself as a musician.
He began his professional work as a musician with a group called 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. His smooth vocal style was influenced by R&B/Pop balladeers like the Mills Brothers.
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 US 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.
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 "Duck" Dunn, which at some points approached an early metal feel.
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 Under 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.
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 re-recordings of old material such as "Born Under A Bad Sign".
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. The same year he recorded a 1 hour-plus studio television session for CHCH Television in Canada featuring then up-and-coming blues sensation Stevie Ray Vaughan, subsequently released on audio album (and later as audio album plus DVD) as In Session.
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. Eric 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. performed King's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and was then joined by John Mayer and Booker T Jones to perform 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 open tuning, possibly more than one as reports vary: (C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#) or open E-minor (C-B-E-G-B-E) or open F (C-F-C-F-A-D). He never used the sixth string. Steve Cropper (who played rhythm guitar on many of King's Stax sessions), told Guitar Player Magazine that King tuned his guitar to C-B-E-F#-B-E (low to high). Luthier Dan Erlewine said King tuned C-F-C-F-A-D with light gauge strings (.009", .012", .024" wound, .028, .038", .050"). The lighter gauge strings were a factor in King's string bending technique.
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 an MXR Phase 90.
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