Albert King: The Velvet Bulldozer
by Todd Beebe
In the history of the Blues, the name Albert King will always be known as one of the great guitarists, a man who helped define the style. At 6 ft. 4 in. and weighing in at 250 pounds, Mr. King’s towering presence was only matched by his intimidating prowess on the 6 string. Playing his guitar “upside down” (he was left handed but played a guitar strung right handed), he incorporated a unique minor tuning combined with extreme string bends and a tone from Heaven to lead him to be called “the Velvet Bulldozer.”
Albert Nelson King was born in Indianola, Mississippi on April 25, 1923. He started with music by singing in a family Gospel group. Soon, however, the Blues came calling, and he found himself drawn to its power by great artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. Albert’s first real group, The In The Groove Boys, began to make a name for themselves after relocating to Osceola, Arkansas. By the dawn of the 1950’s he would move again; first to Gary, Indiana, then St. Louis, Missouri. For a short time he actually played drums behind bluesman Jimmy Reed.
Eventually, King landed in Chicago and cut his first single for the Parrot label. It was around this time he began using the instrument he would become known for: The Gibson Flying V guitar. His was a 1958 that he lovingly named “Lucy.” With it’s distinct “V” shape, the guitar looked like a mere toy in the hands of the giant Albert King- and the two became a match made in Blues heaven.
King played up and down the Blues circuit during this time, paying his dues. He did have one early hit, 1961’s “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong,” which became a hugely popular and remained on King’s set list for the rest of his life. But it wasn’t until 1966, when Albert signed with the great Stax label in Memphis, Tennessee that the real sparks began to fly. He was backed up in the studio (as well as on numerous live gigs) by the great Stax house band, Booker T. & the MG’s. Together they cranked out the Blues like a well oiled machine, with monster hits like “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw,” and “As The Years Go Passing By.” Many of the songs they produced are now considered Blues standards.
These tunes, along with Albert’s earlier work, influenced a whole new generation of Rock guitarists. [pullquote]As the late 1960’s psychedelic scene dawned, he found himself a hero to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, who did his own cover version of “Born Under A Bad Sign” with Cream. [/pullquote]This opened up new audiences for King, as he was booked alongside many Rock acts of the day at great venues such as Bill Graham’s Fillmore East and West. Said 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.” Albert was now exposed to a whole new generation as he jammed onstage with everyone from Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the Doors.
Graham’s words are indeed true. There was no room for “shuck-and-jive” in Albert King’s world. His no-nonsense, hard working attitude saw him play the Blues and carry its torch through numerous musical fads and trends. None of that mattered to him. He was a Bluesman, and wasn’t ashamed to let the world know it. On many live recordings King tells the audience, “we’re here to hold down the Blues end of things!” Albert was a true master of his craft who could play to any audience. He could share the bill with numerous acts of other styles, yet go out and play straight Blues for that same crowd and win them over. He brought new fans to the Blues.
The 1980’s saw King touring and continuing to influence an even newer breed of Blues musicians, with Stevie Ray Vaughan at the top of that list. Check out the great “In Session” CD/DVD of the 2 greats playing together. It is hands down some of the greatest Blues ever recorded, a lesson in how it’s supposed to be done.
In the 1990’s King talked about retiring, but he never showed signs of doing so. On December 21, 1992, Albert King died in Memphis, Tennessee. No one ever bent the strings on a guitar like Albert. Anytime anyone picks up a guitar and attempts it, even if they’ve never heard the name Albert King, they are keeping his spirit alive. His style is one of the most copied in the music field, without a doubt, and for good reason: Albert King was never a follower. No trends, no jive, just pure, real Blues, straight from the heart. That kind of honesty lives forever. That’s why Albert King lives forever.