This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special.
Last week, we partied like a rock star with Freddie King.
This week, we’ll conclude the Three Kings with Albert King.
Here’s what we know: Albert Nelson was born on April 25, 1923 on a cotton plantation in Indianola, MS. During this early period of his life, he made a living picking cotton, as a mechanic, and a bulldozer operator, among other jobs until his musical career picked up.
King moved to Chicago in 1953 and recorded his first single, “Bad Luck Blues”. It was on this first record that he began going by the surname “King”, playing on the popularity of fellow Indianola native, B.B. King. is first record didn’t make a splash and he moved to St. Louis. In 1961, he finally made his first big hit, “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”, which hit #14 on the Billboard R&B chart.
King’s career was moderately successful. Every so often, he’d make a hit like “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crosscut Saw”, but never really rose to the same level of prominence of the other two Kings. That didn’t stop him from playing though and he continued to tour through the 1980’s. On December 19, 1992 he played his last concert in Los Angeles and died of a heart attack on December 21, two days later. Albert King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
While Albert King wasn’t himself a mainstream sensation, he helped shape the blues and rock music world as we know it today. King was a major influence on such artists as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Derek Trucks, Joe Walsh, Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Rory Gallagher, John Mayer, and Gary Clark Jr among many, many others.
Albert King’s musical stylings may seem ubiquitous at this point in the game, but it’s important to remember that it’s not Albert King trying to sound like everyone else. It’s everyone else trying to sound like Albert King. His smoky, smooth baritone voice comes through in the vocals of Clapton, Hendrix, and SRV. The rhythm section and horns provide a canvas for his guitar to shine. His playing is distinct, but understated, often just punctuating lyrical lines. Probably the most significant contribution to the electric guitar today is his ability to bend notes. King played in a low open-C tuning on an upside-down guitar (he was left-handed, but taught himself how to play on a right-handed guitar flipped so that the low strings were on the bottom). This allowed him to produce powerful bends so deep you need to sit a spell in a decompression chamber afterward. The humbucker pickups on his Gibson Flying V produced sustain for those bends so violin-like that Itzhak Perlman would have picked up the guitar had he heard Albert King first.
Albert King’s smooth, smoky voice brings to mind Laphroaig 15 year Scotch whisky with its rich and peaty character. While not a king (yet), Prince Charles is such a big fan, he granted Laphroaig the Royal Warrant and even celebrated his 60th birthday at the distillery.
Listen to Albert King's "Born Under A Bad Sign" below.