Albert King, one of the single most influential bluesman in history, single-handedly ushered blues into the modern era by combining his direct, urgent Mississippi blues style with contemporary soul rhythms. He continually redefined the state of contemporary blues with his dry, husky voice and torrid Flying V guitar sound.
One of 13 children, King was born on April 25, 1923 in Indianola, Mississippi and moved to Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight. As a youth, he worked in the fields but was drawn to the blues sounds he heard all around him. “I listened to the slide guitar by Elmore James,” King said, “and a couple of more people I knew way back there. Then along came T-Bone Walker, and that did it. So I just mixed it all together and I couldn’t get it exactly like they had it, but I just put my thing to it.” Part of his thing was playing upside-down and backwards. “I knew I was going to have to create my own style,” the left-handed guitarist told Dan Forte of Guitar Player magazine, “because I couldn’t make the changes and the chords the same as a right-handed man could. I play a few chords, but not many. I always concentrated on my singing guitar sound – more of a sustained note.” King played without a pick, he told Forte, because “I never could hold [one] in my hand. I started out playing with one, but I’d be really gettin’ into it, and after a while the pick would sail across the house. I said to hell with this. So I just play with the meat of the thumb.”
Albert bought his first electric guitar for $125 at a pawnshop in Little Rock. After practicing for a few years, he began sitting in around Osceola, Arkansas with a group called Yancey’s Band. “They learned me my chords and what key was what,” he recalled. “I didn’t know but two or three songs.” Driving a bulldozer during the day, King soon formed his own group, the In the Groove Boys. “I learned ’em those three songs that I knew,” he explained with a chuckle, “and we’d play ’em fast, slow, and medium, but we got over.”
After singing lead tenor with the Harmony Kings gospel quartet in South Bend, Indiana and playing drums with Jimmy Reed in Gary, King made his first record, Bad Luck Blues, for the Parrot label in Chicago in 1953. The title proved prophetic, however, and he returned to Osceola for a while, then settled in East St. Louis, where he began recording for the local Bobbin label in 1959. He scored his first national hit, “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” three years later on the King label. Signing with Stax in 1966, he permanently altered the course of blues with a series of innovative hits, including “Laundromat Blues,” “Oh Pretty Woman,” “Crosscut Saw,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” and “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.”
Until this time, King had performed strictly on the black R&B circuit, though such rock guitar giants as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix had already brought elements of his searing sound to legions of young white rock fans. That changed in 1968, when rock impresario Bill Graham walked into the Manhattan Club in East St. Louis, Illinois and offered King $1,600 to play three nights at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium.
“I hadn’t made $1,600 for three days in my life,” King recalled. “He said, ‘How much deposit do you want?’ I said, ‘$500.’ I sent him a contract and he sent me a check for $1000. When I got there, I found out I was on the show with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. We started out at the old Fillmore but it was too small, so we had to move to Winterland. He kept us for three more weeks. People had been waiting to hear me play for a long time before I even showed my face out there.” Following his success at the Fillmore, King became one of the few blues singers to attract large numbers of both black and white fans.
In 1983, after an absence of nearly five years, King returned to the recording scene with San Francisco ’83, which earned a Grammy nomination and much critical acclaim. I’m in a Phone Booth Baby was released in 1984, followed by numerous live albums.