I rehearsed to myself for five years before I played with another soul. That may account for some of my style. 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.
Albert Nelson (April 25, 1923 – December 21, 1992), later known by his stage name Albert King, was one of the first black electric bluesmen to appeal to white audiences and break into the wider pop market. Though he never lost his large down home black following, King felt it was his June 1968 appearance at the Fillmore Auditorium, a historic music venue in San Francisco, California, that led him to also reach a young white audience. This performance became King’s first live album and let to subsequent Fillmore appearances that had him sharing bills with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Byrds, the Allman Brothers Band, Van Morrison, and B.B. King.
Albert King – Get Evil
Recorded live at the Fillmore in 1968 and released on the album Wednesday Night In San Francisco in 1990
King was born on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. During his childhood, King joined his family in picking cotton and singing in a church gospel group in which his father played the guitar. His family, which would eventually include 12 siblings, moved to Arkansas when he was eight following his father’s departure from the family a few years before.
King first played a one-string “diddley bow” – a homemade instrument made of a wooden board and a single wire string that is played by plucking while varying the pitch with a metal or glass slide held in the other hand. The diddley bow, which was based on the remembrance and development of central and west-central African monochord zithers, was generally considered an “entry-level” instrument, normally played by young children. Once proficient on the diddley bow, King graduated to a “cigar box guitar” made with a piece of bush and strand of broom wire, before eventually paying $1.25 for his first real guitar in 1939.
Justin Johnson – Diddley Bow and Cigar Box Guitar
King was 6’4″, 250lb, a self-taught ‘leftie’ guitarist who, as a result of his left-handedness, learned to play the guitar upside-down. King could never use a guitar pick as his fingers were too big to hold them and they would fly across the room every time. He was sometimes referred to as the “Velvet Bulldozer” both for his big size and smooth vocals, and the fact that he used to drive a bulldozer, among other odd jobs, to make ends meet before he was able to fully support himself as a musician.
The main thing that surprised me was the beauty of Albert’s voice. He was really a great communicator and had a soothingly rich baritone voice. When he sang, we always had to drop way down in volume, but still maintain a solid groove. I always loved his Southern almost “Brooklynese” accent and the clarity of his impeccably delivered lyrics. He usually let “Lucy” command the more powerful parts of his songs, although she could whisper sweetly as well. Albert was a total master of effective dynamics and phrasing. Playing next to him was a jaw opening experience. He was the best blues guitar player I ever heard before or since.
Though inspired by the sounds of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and Ellmore James, King particularly loved T-Bone Walker, but he was unable to imitate Walker’s sound due to his ‘left-handed, upside-down, no pick’ guitar style. Still, King felt that T-Bone Walker in particular had developed his own style and was himself inspired to create his own unique stylings. King’s guitar playing took on an almost lyrical tone, a natural development as King was said to consider his “singing” guitar as “his second voice”. King also took inspiration from his environment, including the highway trucks at night.
The running motors sounded like voices harmonizing, and they would change tunes as far as you could hear them. I still remember that, and I can still feel it as I’m playing.
The symbiotic relationship between King’s guitar and voice is one of the blues’ greatest treasures.
Alan di Perna
King’s easily identifiable style made him one of the most important artists in the history of blues. Albert, along with Freddie King and B.B. King, have been styled the “3 Kings of Blues” and with good reason. They are among the most influential of all electric blues players.
Albert King used a normal string set-up and tuning, but he played his guitar reversed. King was known to use single string notes with few chords, notes created by bending or pulling strings down rather than pushing them up, and a mixture of volume/treble and bass for a more complete and dynamic sound. King thought young players often made the mistake of playing too loud/high/fast with no variation. King’s uncommon/upside-down set-up was responsible for a lot of his unique style and tone.
I knew I was going to have to create my own style because I couldn’t make the changes and chords the same as a right-handed man could. I play a few chords, but not many. I always concentrated on my singing guitar sound—more of a sustained note.
You’ve got to take your time and learn your bag one lick at a time.
King began his professional career playing with a group called the Groove Boys in Osceola, Arkansas. He moved around, even briefly playing drums for Jimmy Reed’s band. He can be heard on several of Reed’s early recordings.
King started using the Gibson Flying V guitar around 1958. King said he named his guitar “Lucy” after Lucille Ball, though some point out the similarities in name to Lucille, B.B. King’s famous guitar. By the time of King’s passing in 1992, there were 5 Lucys, though the second Lucy is perhaps the most well-known. Created by Dan Erlewine from a 125-year old piece of black walnut, this Lucy was a true left-handed V that was fashioned specifically for King who asked for his name to be inlaid on the fretboard, and the name Lucy on the peghead.
The first time Albert was playing at the Grande Ballroom [Detroit’s legendary Sixties rock venue, just a few miles from the bridge to Windsor, Ontario], I was backstage after the show. And Albert was pissed at the promoters, who were trying to pay him with Canadian bills. He wouldn’t take them. ‘I don’t want none of that funny money,’ he said. And they got him want he wanted.
He had a reputation as a tough, mean old man. I once saw him fire a sax player on the bandstand.
Some critics feel the lack of horns in much of King’s music ‘lessened the impact’ of his strongest numbers, but it appears that King often felt the frustration wasn’t worth the effort. King was known to pay as much as $150 per song to have an arranger perfect the horn section’s contributions. When the arrangements were not played perfectly to his expectations, King would be understandably frustrated.
He was a very smart, sensitive and kind man beneath that tough intimidating exterior. Albert also had really great sense of humor. He was a huge practical joker!
Though uneducated and, in many ways, an old fashioned bluesman, both blues artists and rock musicians were drawn to the power with which King played. As the tale goes, Mike Bloomfield, lead guitarist of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, once found himself in a cutting contest with Jimi Hendrix to the delight of thousands of fans. Hendrix went first, diving into a torrent of blues and Bloomfield, starting to sweat at the brilliance being displayed, had just one repeating thought “I wish I were Albert King… I wish I were Albert King…”. Bloomfield would have done well to employ King’s philosophy and confidence. When asked whether there is someone who would make him feel intimidated on stage:
Albert King & Stevie Ray Vaughan Blues Jam Session recorded for In Session TV special, Hamilton Ontario, – December 6, 1983 br>
Includes: Born Under a Bad Sign (King, 0:00), Texas Flood (Vaughan, 13:20), Call It Stormy Monday (King, 28:07), Don’t Lie to Me (King, 46:10), Pride and Joy (Vaughan, 56:28), and
Outskirts of Town (King, 1:02:15)
No. If it’s my show, it’s my stage, and I won’t let anyone mess with me. Believe me.
But perhaps Hendrix had an unfair advantage:
Jimi Hendrix used to take pictures of my fingers to try and see what I was doing.
King was known for trying out different rhythms and grooves in the studio. A fan of jazz, King used “the swinging jazz arrangements and the pure blues guitar” in his early recordings for Bobbin Records. He had some success with his 1961 release of “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” but his subsequent recordings failed to chart and he was dropped from the label. King’s departure left him with few options outside of touring the South and Midwest club circuit which led to his relocation to Memphis and eventual signing with Stax Records. He especially liked playing with his fellow musicians at Stax (including the premier soul rhythm section of the period – guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson, and organist Booker T. Jones, and the strutting Memphis Horns) as they were also into trying different sounds and playing around with a song. This experimentation led to the wide variation heard in his music. King became one of the first musicians who was both willing and able to adapt his music to the emergence of funk and soul in the 1960’s. King’s updated, quasi-latin rhythmic version of Crosscut Saw (1967), which had been performed by Mississippi bluesmen as early as the 1930s, is a great example of King’s innovative sound.
Albert King – Crosscut Saw, 1967
He embodied two of guitardom’s most sacred tenets: what you don’t play counts as much as what you do, and speed can be learned, but feeling must come from within.
Albert King – I’ll Play the Blues For You, 1972
He was patient, professional – and every bit as intimidating as I could have imagined, which somehow made me happy. His personality fit his music to a tee; no one has ever played the guitar with more authority or focused intent.
“Albert King”. 2018. En.Wikipedia.Org. Accessed September 24. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_King
di Perna, Alan. 2013. “The Big Blues: Revisiting The Legacy Of Blues Master Albert King”. http://prod.guitaraficionado.com/excerpt-in-celebration-of-his-rock-hall-of-fame-induction-we-revisit-the-legacy-of-albert-king.html
Drozdowski, Ted. 2013. “Life With Flying V Giant Albert King”. http://www.gibson.com/News-Lifestyle/Features/en-us/Life-with-Flying-V-Giant-Albert-King.aspx
Kubik, Gerhard. 1999. Africa And The Blues. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Landau, Jon. 1968. “Albert King: Letting It Roll All Night Long – Rolling Stone”. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/albert-king-letting-it-roll-all-night-long-101688/
Newton, Steve. 1990. “My One And Only Interview With Legendary Bluesman Albert King”. https://earofnewt.com/2014/04/06/my-one-and-only-interview-with-legendary-bluesman-albert-king/
Oakley, Giles. 1997. The Devil’s Music. New York: Da Capo Press.
Palmer, Robert. 1981. Deep Blues. Harmondswort: Penguin Books.
Paul, Alan. 2014. “An Interview With Albert King”. http://alanpaul.net/2014/05/an-interview-with-albert-king/