He’s one of the “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar” – not as well-known as B.B., but slightly more so than Freddie. As one of several Mississippi-born musicians who moved north to make a name in the blues scene, Albert King is still one of the most influential of them all. Up to now, it’s virtually impossible to copy his unorthodox string bending technique or the subsequent tone. Albert King played a right-handed guitar upside down with his left hand, a style that would eventually be used by Jimi Hendrix. Here’s a deeper look at the life and times of this “other” King of the Blues.
Albert Nelson was born on April 25, 1923 in Indianola, Mississippi and grew up to be an extremely large man. Standing at least 6’4” and weighing at least 230 pounds, he was nicknamed the “Velvet Bulldozer” not just because of his size, but more because of his early occupation as a construction worker. Albert would adopt the surname King early on in his career as he would often bill himself as B.B. King’s “half-brother”, despite the fact they are of no relation to each other. Coincidentally, Albert King named his signature Flying V “Lucy”, a name quite similar to “Lucille,” the Gibson guitar favored by B.B. King.
After brief periods living in St. Louis, Missouri and Gary, Indiana, King moved to Chicago in 1953 and began his recording career in earnest. Eight years later, now based again in St. Louis, he had his first big hit on the R&B charts, “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”, a song that peaked at #14. This would all serve as a portent of things to come, as King would achieve his greatest success with the pride of Memphis, Tennessee, Stax Records.
As a Stax recording artist, King teamed up with the label’s house band, Booker T. and the MGs, recording the classic album Born Under a Bad Sign in 1967. It is described as the album that had saved the blues, exposing King to a white, rock-oriented audience and spawning many classic singles, including the frequently-covered title track. King would also perform at the Fillmore East and West, Bill Graham’s legendary concert halls. Recordings from those concerts would make up his next great release, Live Wire/Blues Power.
King would add more funk and R&B elements to his music in the ‘70s, adding more backing musicians to his entourage and switching to a more commercial sound upon moving to RCA subsidiary Utopia Records. It wouldn’t be long, however, before King returned to a pure blues-oriented sound with his late ‘70s and ‘80s releases under Tomato Records and Fantasy Records.
Despite briefly considering retirement in the mid-late ‘80s, King continued touring and gigging till the early ‘90s. It all came to an abrupt end on December 21, 1992, just four days before Christmas and two days after his last performance. At the age of 69, Albert King suffered a fatal heart attack at home in Memphis. Though not a rock performer per se, many feel he deserves a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, together with the rest of the “Three Kings” – B.B. (inducted in 1987) and Freddie (inducted in 2012).