Albert King Buyer's Guide

Albert King onstage playing guitar
Albert King
(Image: © Getty)

Blues geeks will happily argue ’til the bars close over who was the greatest or most influential of the Three Kings – Freddie, BB or Albert. Few, however, would quibble over late Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer’s assessment that “[Albert King’s] impact was as inescapable among blues players as John Coltrane’s influence was in jazz.”

Gigantic in both physical and musical stature, the influence of his biting, laconic guitar style – left-handed, upside-down, open-tuned – matches that of BB himself. As Mike Bloomfield put it, “He approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer… If you look at BB, or Freddie King, or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing… Albert just sings in one very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner’s vibrato, almost like a lounge singer. But he makes the guitar talk.”

Albert King was born Albert Nelson in Indianola, Mississippi in 1923, just down the road from where Riley B King would enter the world a couple of years later. But he was in his mid-40s when he signed to the Memphis-based Stax label in 1966 and hit the soul charts by fusing his blues first with the funky grooves which Booker T and Steve Cropper were putting behind Otis Redding and Sam & Dave then in the 70s, with the orchestrated soul of Isaac Hayes’ group, The Movement.

When Stax collapsed, he moved to smaller labels (Tomato and Fantasy), staying out on the road until his December 21 1992 death – at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, of a heart attack – with memorable shows more frequent than memorable records. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray are merely four of the thousands whose music he affected: whenever a blues guitarist takes it slow, sharp and mean, you’re hearing an echo of Albert King.

Essential

The Perfect Introduction

King Of The Blues Guitar (Atlantic)

Skims off the cream of King’s tenure with Stax.

There’s no readily-available career-spanning Albert King one-stop-shop best-of, sadly – the nearest you can get is a hideously rare Rhino 2CD set, 1993’s The Ultimate Collection, currently retailing for well north of £80. But this compilation of his first couple of years at Stax – consisting of his stunning Born Under A Bad Sign album from 1967, expanded by its accompanying singles – rolls out the classic funk stomps, high-drama slow blues and rocking, up-tempo shuffles (plus the odd ballad) which had such a devastating impact on the late 60s blues scene. Born Under A Bad Sign, Crosscut Saw, Oh Pretty Woman, I Love Lucy, Cold Feet, The Hunter, Laundromat Blues… they’re all here, and in excellent company. This was the music which established Albert’s style, made his name and built his rep: not only did these recordings constitute a lick library cheerfully ram-raided by virtually every up-and-coming blues guitarist (and not a few established ones), but they also formed the foundation stone for all the funk-blues which followed, as well as doubling as a 10-tonne calling card to announce the arrival of a towering new presence in Bluesville. Albert made a bunch more records after this, but only the very best of them were much more than elegant footnotes to the texts he and the MGs laid down here, with Booker T (keyboards), Steve Cropper (rhythm guitar), Duck Dunn (bass) and Al Jackson Jr (drums/producer) cooking up the grooves, and Stax’s in-house Memphis Horns blasting the brass. Jimi Hendrix studied these primal solos so assiduously he could sing ’em: not a night goes by without some guitarist, somewhere on the planet, hitting a few of Albert’s unmistakably trademarked licks.

Superior

The releases that built his reputation

I’ll Play The Blues For You: The Best Of Albert King (Stax)

Second phase of Albert’s Stax era ups the funk quotient.

The subtitle isn’t quite accurate – it can’t be ‘The Best Of Albert King’ because it isn’t King Of The Blues Guitar – but it’s a superb encapsulation of what Albert did next: a summary of the Stax Phase II years, stuffed brimful of widescreen Shaft-era extravaganzas like Angel Of Mercy, That’s What The Blues Is All About, Drowning On Dry Land and the title track, placing King’s blues in context of Isaac Hayes’ iconic work for Stax in the 70s. The strings and the extra horns place The Big A on the biggest stage he ever had, and you’d best believe he fills the space.

Live Wire/Blues Power (Stax)

Albert’s first live album casts pearls before hippies.

There are many Albert King live albums, not a single one of them bad, but this was his first. Cut in San Francisco’s Fillmore before a crowd of adoring hippies, Live Wire/Blues Power shows just what he could do when cut loose from time restrictions of the seven-inch single, demonstrating a mastery of dynamics, power and sheer musical charisma, which even challenges BB himself. His efficient but characterless MGs-clone band give him a backdrop but no foils, which matters not, because Albert’s a show all by himself. Two albums’ worth of further material from these concerts were later issued as Wednesday/Thursday Night In San Francisco.

I Wanna Get Funky (Stax)

Backed by the Bar-Kays and The Isaac Hayes Movement, Albert gets down and funky.

Cut in 1972 but unreleased until 1974, this is – by a short head – the finest single album-as-album example of Albert King’s Phase II Stax work, with The Bar-Kays, The Isaac Hayes Movement and rhythm guitarist Donald Kinsey (later of the post-Bob Marley incarnation of The Wailers) giving up the cinerama funk against lavish string and horn arrangements, which offset big A’s mean, slicing guitar and warm, foggy croon to perfection. Even the filler is killer, but it’s mostly meat and motion: listen to this with someone you love… or at least someone you seriously fancy.

Good

Worth a butchers

In Session (Stax)

Student and teacher collaborate for a first rate lesson in the blues.

The soundtrack to a 1983 TV special teaming Albert with his ardent disciple, prodigious 28-year-old Texan blues guitar firebrand Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose debut album, Texas Flood, had surfaced that year. Vaughan takes a vocal lead on his own Pride And Joy but otherwise cedes centre-stage to his mentor.

Master and pupil spar, jam and joke; Albert – not normally one to share a spotlight gracefully – demonstrates unsuspected resources as an accompanist when it comes time for the student to show just how well he’d learned his lessons, and both old lion and precocious cub generate sizzling playing from a relationship combining affection, rivalry and respect.

Live (Charly)

Albert came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline…

Albert King live albums are like salted peanuts or Ramones records: they’re all pretty much the same, but you still need a handful of ’em. In translation to CD, this 1977 Montreux show loses the equivalent of a full side from the original vinyl double – shedding Overall Junction and all 16 minutes of Jam In A Flat in the process – but you still get well over an hour of King Albert tearing them Yurpeens a few new ones. Rory Gallagher sits in on a towering nine-minute version of As The Years Go By, but his solo – gorgeous as it undoubtedly is – constitutes little more than an interruption of Albert’s epic, electrifying performance.

Avoid

Like the plague

Blues For Elvis (Stax)

Albert gets all shook up on this curious mis-step.

This gimmicky and misconceived Presley tribute – which originally sported the lengthier title Blues For Elvis: Albert King Does The King’s Things – is chiefly noteworthy for a jaw-droppingly bizarre liner-note by muck-raker Albert Goldman. For his part, the big man sounds majorly bored and amuses himself by trying to turn almost every song into Crosscut Saw – though he does play a blinder of a solo on the closing Love Me Tender.