It’s good to be a King.

Not quite as famous as fellow blues guitarist B.B. King (no relation), Albert King has, nevertheless, had an incredible impact on blues music, blues guitar, and by extension, rock and roll too. Many of the leading artists in both genres have praised him as a remarkably important influence. When it came to guitar playing, he was a top-notch soloist with both an original style and unique tone. And more than anything, it was the passion, musicianship, and dedication that Albert King brought to the blues that makes him one of the most important blues musicians, well, ever. So let us look at the incredible life and work of this wonderful blues musician.

Albert King with Lucy

Image by Lionel DeCoster

Albert King, born as Albert Nelson, was born on April 25, 1923. While growing up, he sang for a church gospel group, where his father also played guitar. He was one of 13 children, and had to help the family by picking cotton in Arkansas, where his family moved when he was 8. As a child he built his own cigar box guitar and taught himself how to play it. His backwards left handed approach lead him to learn to bend strings by pulling them down rather than pushing them up.

Initially he played music with gospel groups, but once he heard the deep feeling blues of such figures as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, he gave up gospel and fully pursued his passion for the blues. He earned the nickname “The Velvet Bulldozer”, as one of his odd jobs while pursuing music was operating a bulldozer, and because he had such a smooth vocal style.

After meeting blues bass and lyrical legend Willie Dixon in 1953, Dixon helped arrange an audition for Albert King at Parrot Records. This lead to the recording of his first sides, and they sold moderately well. He moved to St. Louis in 1956, where he would eventually begin playing his famous 1958 Gibson Flying V. King named the guitar Lucy. He soon scored a record deal with Bobbin Records, with whom he recorded the single “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”. The song was released in 1961 by another record label who leased the song, King Records, and it became a hit, reaching #14 on the R&B charts.

In 1966, Albert King scored a record deal with the legendary label Stax Records after moving to Memphis, Tennessee. King was now on the road to blues superstardom. The Stax records were recorded with the famous Booker T. & the MG’s backing band. This infused his music with a soulful sound that helped pave the way for his crossover success. King would soon score his biggest hit with the blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign”, written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell.

Albert King

Photo by Grant Gouldon

“Born Under a Band Sign”, Albert King’s signature song, was recorded on May 17, 1967 at Stax Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Writer William Bell handled the deft lyrics and Booker T. Jones composed the music. On the lyrics, Bell has said, “We needed a blues song for Albert King … I had this idea in the back of my mind that I was gonna do myself. Astrology and all that stuff was pretty big then. I got this idea that [it] might work.” Bell used the astrological theme to convey the bad luck of the singer in his lyrics, for example:

 

“Born under a bad sign.
I’ve been down since I began to crawl.
If it wasn’t for bad luck,
I wouldn’t have no luck at all.

Bad luck and trouble’s my only friend,
I’ve been down ever since I was ten.”

 

Jones came up with the hypnotizing bass and guitar groove that propels the song, augmented by mimetic horn riffs from The Memphis Horns. The song was considered a hit, reaching #49 on the Billboard R&B charts. “Born Under a Bad Sign” received the cover treatment from a variety of significant artists, including stars like Cream on their Wheels of Fire album, Paul Butterfield, Robben Ford, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, Paul Rodgers, Koko Taylor with Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton – and even Homer Simpson from the beloved cartoon The Simpsons. Each of the song’s writers also recorded their own version of the tune. 


“Born Under a Bad Sign” helped give Albert King the crossover power he needed to play to rock and roll audiences in addition to traditional fans of the blues. A show that Albert King played at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, where he often appeared, was recorded and released as the live album Live Wire/Blues Power. The album was extremely influential to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as to other figures in blues and rock including Robbie Robertson of The Band and Gary Moore of Skid Row and Thin Lizzy.

Two days after playing his final gig, which took place in Los Angeles on December 19 1992, King passed away from a heart attack. Many honors have been bestowed on the legendary blues star, including induction in the Blues Hall of Fame, and Born Under a Bad Sign and Live WireBlues Power have been honored as Classics of Blues Recordings. Other artists that have been influenced by his passionate music include The Doors, Mick Taylor, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, and Albert Collins. Ultimately, Albert King, a literally big man in height and stature, stands quite tall in the annals of the blues as well as being a cruicial rock and roll influencer. I guess he wasn’t born under such a bad sign after all.

-Brian Reiser
J&R Adventures

Image Credit: Lionel Decoster

Image Credit:  Grant Goulder

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