An Albert King Primer

On February 7th 2020 » By Ryan Reed

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To help people who bought VMP Anthology: The Story Of Stax Records dive deep into the catalogs of the artists featured in our box set, we’ve created primers for every artist featured.

“I play the singing guitar,” Albert King told Guitar World in 1991. “That’s what I’ve always called it.” It was a spot-on self-reflection: Though not as technically skilled as other iconic bluesmen — or even his rock followers, including Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan — King specialized in guttural, lyrical solos that resonated on emotional level beyond flash, conveying heartache and anguish better than a vocal ever could.

That raw power cemented him as one of the genre’s most revered players, particularly during his iconic tenure on Memphis’ Stax label starting in 1966. Over a near-decade, the Mississippi native refined a malleable style of electric blues that drew from his own guitar heroes (including T-Bone Walker), along with horn-heavy soul, jazz, funk, and gospel — the latter of which creeped in during childhood while singing at church.

King was technically born Albert Nelson, but he adopted his stage name in the early 1950s — a clear attempt to capitalize on the fame of B.B. King. (According to legend, he even claimed to be B.B.’s half-brother and named his guitar “Lucy,” a nod to the other King’s trademark “Lucille.”) And while he never attained the same level of fame as his peer, he wound up nearly as influential: The left-handed King utilized an unorthodox playing style — an alternate tuning on a right-handed guitar flipped upside-down — that gave his stinging, bent-note, vibrato-heavy leads a signature tone.

His Stax debut, 1967’s Born Under a Bad Sign, became a definitive touchstone for the era’s burgeoning blues-rock and psych-rock artists: Clapton famously nicked King’s style on Cream’s “Strange Brew” from that year, and Jimi Hendrix closely studied his fretwork. (“Hendrix used to take pictures of my fingers to try and see what I was doing,” he told Guitar World. “He never quite figured it out, but Jimi was a hell of guitar player, the fastest dude around — at the time.”)

Though his output slowed down in the late 1970s, King remained active his entire life: He played his final show two days before his death in December 1992, and his final LP, Red House, came out the previous year. There are memorable moments throughout his catalog, but King reached a creative peak during his stint with Stax. To offer the unacquainted a starting point, let’s revisit the five albums worth checking out first.

Born Under a Bad Sign (1967)

If you only check out one King album, look no further than his monumental starting act with Stax. Backed by the label’s ace backing band — including Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Memphis Horns and Isaac Hayes on keys — the guitarist ventures from the title-track’s yearning, socially conscious blues (“I can’t read, haven’t learned how to write / My whole life has been one big fight,” he belts with a husky, silky vibrato) to the dewy, gospel-tinged balladry of “I Almost Lost My Mind” to the nimble rendition of Tommy McClennan’s “Crosscut Saw,” built on an Afro-Cuban groove.

Jammed Together (With Steve Cropper, Pops Staples) (1969)

Stax’s in-house ace Steve Cropper had already supported King on multiple sessions prior to this grooving, laid-back record — offering a steady guitar anchor for the bandleader’s lead fireworks. But he and “Pops” (or “Pop”) Staples get co-lead billing on Jammed Together, a fitting testament to Cropper’s own influence with his band Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The vibe here is loose and playful, the three guitarists swapping solos and riffs over an ever-cooking rhythm section. The original tracks all bleed confidence (including Cropper’s soulful lead vocal on “Water”), but the low-stakes cover versions pack the most punch, particularly a funky, King-led take on Ray Charles staple “What’d I Say.”

Lovejoy (1971)

Memphis soul producer Don Nix guided King into funkier territory on Lovejoy, employing an expanded crew of session players — including drummer Jim Keltner and Muscle Shoals bass god David Hood — that added extra muscle to his established blues palette. The album opens with a polished rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman,” mingling gritty guitar licks and snapping piano; and his take on Taj Mahal’s “She Caught the Katy (and Left Me a Mule to Ride)” also conjures a Stones-y swagger, with King moaning about a “hard-headed woman” amid the greasy riffs. But the centerpiece is the deeply funky “Bay Area Blues,” co-authored by bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, which documents the grind of touring life.

I’ll Play the Blues for You (1972)

While Lovejoy gentle waded into funk waters, I’ll Play the Blues for You dove into the deep-end (and, well, low end): James Alexander’s thumping, melodic bass carries most of the material, including the maximalist groove of “I’ll Be Doggone” (outfitted with wah-wah, horns and congas) and the strutting “Little Brother (Make a Way).” King sounds comfortable operating as one piece in a larger puzzle — like on “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” with his scorching guitar trails woven through rippling Hammond organ and growling baritone sax lines.

I Wanna Get Funky (1974)

Mission accomplished. On the second-to-last album of his prime Stax run (issued one year before the label filed for bankruptcy), King continues to stretch beyond standard 12-bar blues with cinematic soul arrangements (the horn- and string-adorned arrangement of “Flat Tire”) and period-friendly funk (an aggressive, nearly eight-minute revamp of “Crosscut Saw,” which mutates into a slinky groove around halfway through). He also churns out some of his most tasteful solos, including, on the latter cut, a torrent of bent notes smokier than the cigarette fumes that adorn the album cover.

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