I developed an affinity for the blues, and guitar style, of Albert King long before I started appreciating the blues of B B King, principally because my introduction to B B was an album of big band urban R & B, emphasising jazzy horn arrangements over incisive guitar solos, while my first Albert King album was Years Gone By (1969) on the Stax label, where Albert was backed by Booker T & MGs, the Stax house band, who gave Albert that patented Stax soul groove to work with while playing stinging, sharp lead guitar in stark contrast to B B King's churchy emoting and almost pretty playing. Of course, years later, I realised that B B King could play as tough a blues lead as Albert could but Albert King is still my first love amongst the Kings.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was much influenced by Albert and one can hear it in his playing though Stevie was prone to indulging in much lengthier solos than Albert ever did, and was more fluent with it. Albert was the master of the short, sharp flurry of intense notes.
In one of the first explanations of the Albert King guitar style I ever read, the writer pointed out that Albert is not as technically able and fluent as, for example, B B King, but that he has learnt how to make the most of his vocabulary and is a genius at playing three notes in so many different ways that it never becomes boring. That he plays left handed on a conventionally strung guitar apparently also makes a huge difference in the sound he is able to pull from his instrument.
My initial interest in blues was sparked by the music of John Lee Hooker, particularly the furious primitivism of "Boogie Chillen" and then by the Chicago style of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. It took me a while to get into the lead guitar oriented stuff by the Kings, Buddy Guy and others because a lot of that seemed a tad one dimensional. I preferred the ensemble interplay of the Muddy Waters band.
I bought Years Gone By at the cosmically aptly named Stax discount store in Cape Town somewhere in the late Seventies when I was starting to build up a collection of blues records from the various discount bins at record stores around Cape Town. Stax was not a record store; it simply had a basket full of cheap albums.
I had read about Albert King yet had no idea what he sounded like. The unique selling proposition was that the record cost 99c.
On the album cover King stands on the stage of what probably was the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, in front of a psychedelic light show, dressed in a smart-casual sports jacket, holding his Gibson Flying Vee guitar, looking like some weird, large professor of the blues.
Anyhow, the album cover seemed to be a marketing ploy to bring home to the various audiences who might be buying the album that Albert was hip to the psychedelic vibe yet still knew where his roots were. Curiously, too, Albert King smoked a pipe on stage. Not many bluesmen did that. You'd think he should also have been wearing slippers and a comfy cardigan.
The music on the record was pretty straightforward Stax soul with Albert King's piercing blues licks and fervent vocals on top. "Lonely Man" had an insistently catchy riff (that is, coincidentally, also the riff to "I Take What I Want" on Sam & Dave's debut album), and "Cockroach" was perhaps the most interesting, "real life" blues lyric I'd heard particularly given that the album was recorded in 1969 when one would have expected even blues guys to have had a more modern take on the trials and tribulations of the man kicked out of his woman's bed. "The Sky Is Crying" is a straightforward blues trope, written by Elmore James, recorded by many.
"Drownin' On Dry Land" is a great double whammy: it comes in two parts. The first part is the vocal blues, with the great punch line of the narration about a dog on a railway line who "lost his whole head looking for little piece of tail." This double entendre was pretty amazing and very funny. The second part is an instrumental.
I love this album. It is deep blues and deep soul at the same time. A terrific combination.
A couple of years later I bought Live Wire / Blues Power (1968), a selection of tracks from a concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco in June of 1968. This was a pretty good collection though not as powerful as Years Gone By. For the most part the performances seemed a tad lacking in the fire of the studio set. It might be due to the fact that the MGs are not the backing band. The best number was "Blues Power" where Albert carefully explains to the White kids what the blues are before tearing loose on a vicious solo that still gives me the same visceral thrill each time I hear it.
Somewhere in the Eighties I came across a cassette version of the 1974 Stax album, The Pinch, with a pointlessly updated version of "Oh, Pretty Woman" and King's version of the soul classic "I Can't Stand the Rain." The title track was one part double entendre vocal version and one part instrumental. I guess the genre can be called relaxed, funk-inflected blues but it was not very engaging because of its easy listening appeal. King was trying to modernise his sound and looking to record tunes that had more in common with the big R & B ballads of the day than with downhome blues. This state of affairs was not at all satisfactory to the blues freak in me. Little Milton, and for that matter, B B King or Z Z Hill, did it so much better. I wanted my Albert King with some bite and not with the smooth affectations of a Grover Washington Jnr.
Some years later I bought the CD of Wednesday Night in San Francisco, which comprises of performances from the same series of shows as Live Wire / Blues Power, and also a greatest hits set on a budget label that specialised in blues compilations. This collection showcased tracks from the early Fifties, when Albert's style and musical backing was not a million miles different to what B B King was doing at the time, to the full flowering with the Stax label and the better known King songs.
My latest acquisition, and first successful download from the iTunes store, is King of The Blues Guitar, a compilation album released by Atlantic Records in 1969 that combines the tracks from King's debut album on Stax Records, Born Under a Bad Sign, with six tunes previously released as Stax singles.
Several of the tracks on King of the Blues Guitar were covered by any number of White blues bands of the era. Cream did "Born Under A Bad Sign" and Led Zeppelin incorporated elements of "The Hunter" into "How Many More Times" (from their debut album) and many years later, deep into his blues move, Gary Moore recorded "Oh, Pretty Woman."
"I Almost Lost My Mind" (written by Ivory Joe Hunter) and "The Very Thought Of You" (the signature composition of Ray Noble, an English band leader and not really a bluesman) find Albert in crooning style, with tinkling jazz piano, saxophone solos and flute, as if he were adumbrating the Tony Bennett blues album of the early years of the 21st century. King sings sweetly and affectively yet it is an anomaly in the company of the other, more gut-wrenching blues. Even the guitar solos are a tad cloying. Late night, supper club blues. I guess Albert King was venturing into B B King territory, seeking pop hits with a blues inflection.
"Born Under A Bad Sign", "Personal Manager", "Cross Cut Saw" and "Laundromat Blues" are the real deal, the best of King's time at Stax. The rhythm section is taut and tight, the horns incisive and the lyrics present an up to date twist on the age old concerns of the blues.
"Overall Junction" and "Funk-Shun" are instrumentals with punchy horns and stabbing lead guitar licks, and one can see them as set openers for the mood setting effect they would have on an eager audience anticipating a great show of fierce guitar blues.
These instrumentals seem to be little more than excuses for extended solos and do not have the instantly memorable riffs or hooks of, for example, Freddie King's "Hideaway" or "San-Ho-Zay" that were probably written as ear catching dance floor fillers. In Albert's case his instrumentals may have been simply album fillers.
Since I bought Years Gone By I've also became familiar with the work of various other blues guitarists, like T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Jimmy Dawkins and, of course, Jimi Hendrix, and the White guys who followed them, like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Jimmy Page, Duke Robillard, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Margolin, and beyond. Whereas there are very few blues bands that emulate the great Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf bands of the Fifties and Sixties, there are a great many lead guitarists out there playing variations on the blues themes established by their predecessors. Most of them are basically journeymen who are adept at the craft of playing the blues without much brilliance or innovation. Albert King obviously also worked hard at learning his craft but he had that spark of individuality that set him apart from the pack (for all his vaunted, or real, rivalry with B B King, down to having guitars with similar names) and still makes him a unique instrumental voice in the blues genre.
Albert King was physically big, had a big personality and a matching big sound. He never became the ambassador of the blues that B B King has become, partly simply because he has outlived so many of his peers and partly because, like Louis Armstrong, B B King craves the validation for a genuinely outstanding career.
Albert King just got on with it and then found himself in the right place at the right time with the right sound to reap maximum benefit from the interest a young, affluent White audience started showing in blues and so he ended up bestriding the Fillmore stage in his houndstooth tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, in front of a psychedelic light show and bringing his blues power to a roomful of stoned hippies.