Albert King: An Appreciation
They called him the big man.
Standing in front of the stage at the original Lone Star Cafe, which may have been all of three and a half feet off the barroom floor, he appeared a giant. From the balcony that wrapped around the front and right-hand side of the stage it seemed like he was almost at eye level with you.
Albert King, born Albert Nelson, stood about six and a half feet tall and weighed , they say, in the neighborhood of 250 pounds. I’d venture he might have carried a bit more weight. His signature guitar, the Gibson Flying V, looked positively small in his massive hands.
I only saw King play once. It was a steamy night in July, the city half empty because, as in The Seven Year Itch, wives, children and teachers had fled town for cooler precincts. It was drawing towards the end of the 1980s, probably within a year or so of the Central Park Jogger attack. The dystopian 1970s were not so distant and the streets not as antiseptic as they now seem. The Bonfire of the Vanities, despite it’s problems as a book, captures the mood of the times pretty well.
As the set began I was down in front but soon moved to a table right above center stage. What air conditioning there was mustn’t have been functioning terribly well because King was drenched in sweat. As I remember the show he played his ass off with a small band propelling the music: bass, drums and another guitar player.
That alone was unexpected. Tight as the Lone Star’s quarters were, I’d seen B.B. King jam his horn section in there. And Clifton Chenier seemed to have half his sprawling Creole family with him. I suppose I hadn’t expected such a stripped down band.
Here’s the thing, though. The music still worked in its starker form. This despite the fact that even more than in B.B.’s case horns seemed a requirement. It was often noted that everyone in Albert’s horn section could solo, unlike B.B.’s.
For me, in fact, what set King apart was his band and how he was produced. I say that proudly despite the fact that it’s a view born of ignorance. I’d sought King’s music out when I was first getting my ears on, playing rudimentary guitar and reading everything I could lay my hands on about the instrument, players and roots music.
In interview after interview, the reigning guitar gods would praise Albert King even as they toured and recorded with B.B. Who says commerce doesn’t loom large? From a pure dollars and cents perspective B.B. was an easier sell, all joviality and smiles. Albert, by contrast, was all business, a player’s player, though not a reluctant showman.
So I went in search of Albert. And I found that orange-covered album pictured nearby, paying full price, a practice I to this day abhor. When the needle dropped into the 7-and-a-half minute long title song that leads off the album I was someplace else. Whatever this was, it was a long way from the urgent, raw sounds of Muddy Waters and Chicago I so loved and bore only passing resemblance to B.B. King’s biggest hit.
Now, having listened more broadly and deeply, I know what I was reacting to was all about the label. King’s most famous works were produced at Stax and that legendary label leant its production prowess to recreating Albert. By the time I’ll Play the Blues for You was released in 1972 they had it down pat.
King’s voice was front and center, a smooth, velvety tenor in a low register; if Issac Hayes‘ voice weren’t so deep he might sound like this. In fact, along with the Bar-Kays and the Memphis Horns, Hayes’ band, The Movement, provided the musicians who backed Albert. The result was a classic piece of what I once called adult music.
But what really blew me away was King’s playing. Until then I had only heard covers of his best-known song, Born Under a Bad Sign, by mostly white, mostly British guitar gods. Those guys are all about fleet fingers playing lots of notes. Albert was much more economical but he could wring the hell out of a riff even as he impossibly bent notes skyward.
That title song we started talking about devolves from a ballad to a long, spoken interlude in which we hear Albert’s side of a conversation. Then he says, “Excuse Me” and starts soloing. If this was Memphis Blues I was in heaven.
I never looked back. You can find more stripped-down Albert–the 1967 singles collection, Born Under a Bad Sign is a good start. You can find the live performances that made him a regular at The Fillmore and underlie his reputation with the guitar gods–I’d check out Live Wire Blues Power, from 1968 (and wonder if Clapton was paying homage a few years later). You can even find the teacher and his soon to be more famous student playing In Session in 1983 (on video, too).
It’s all worth a listen. Albert King was an idiosyncratic giant. A left-handed guitarist, the symmetrical Flying V he played was the perfect modern choice. For anyone looking to cop his licks, and that explains why I was standing in front of the stage, good luck. No one can even agree on what tuning he used although Open E-minor is most commonly cited. That in itself is an odd choice and tells you much of what you need to know about a musician who once said of himself, “I do everything wrong.”
I have evangelical moments around music that don’t always work out. Early on I pressed my friend, the illustrator Leon Strapko who is also blues aficionado, to listen to I’ll Play the Blues for You. In those pre-streaming days it meant he had to go out and drop a sawbuck. His initial verdict offered as an indictment, “It has horns.”
Almost thirty years later he tells me he’s still listening to it.
The best way to experience Albert King is to listen. Here are a couple of handfuls of his songs, including one with his most famous sideman/pupil. Enjoy