Saturday, April 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, Albert King

Bluesman Albert King (April 25, 1923December 21, 1992), pictured with his Gibson Flying V guitar. Like a lot of the rediscovered bluesmen of the '60's and '70's, King put on uneven shows in larger mostly white rock concert venues around the country, most notably Bill Graham's Fillmores. When he was good though, he was very very good.

His early records on Bobbin and later Chess are classics for sure, but the killer stuff is, I think, the Stax releases. Booker T drummer Al Jackson figured out a new approach to blues, well within the Stax house sound, but still completely authentic and yet contemporary. If you think that's easy, just listen to any contemporary blues record today. Most try for the early '50's Chess sound, or Cosimo Mattassa's New Orleans' sound. King's records blended right into any southern radio station's playlist, sandwiched between Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett.

But Albert King wasn't interested in revisionist music; he wanted hits, and felt he deserved them. "Born Under a Bad Sign" was a hit and one of the breaths of fresh blues air (like "Scratch My Back" and "Grits Ain't Groceries") on the soul stations here in DC, especially WOL, the home of the Nighthawk (now there's a story).

The cut that really conveyed the impact of King's guitar style was a slow blues from the "Bad Sign" record called "Personal Manager". He delivers a blistering two verse solo ("Head's up!" he says at the start) that sums up all his best trademarks: the bent strings, the octave slides, the signature scale runs, and the brevity of his licks. The Stax house band of Booker T (who played bass on "Born Under"), Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson and Isaac Hayes, along with the sweet, languid lines of the Memphis Horns keep the cut uncluttered but rock solid. This was a huge contrast to the BB King recordings of the time, which still adhered to the dictates set down by Maxwell Davis's late '50's arrangements. Albert King's recordings sounded fresh in comparison, thanks to Al Jackson's production.

The live shows were another story. Some performers, like BB King for instance, project enormous warmth onstage. Tony Bennett is another. You want to hang out with these guys, they seem so decent. Albert King wasn't like that. He glared at his bands, fired personnel onstage during shows and collected his money with a gun in his hand. "You don't need that here, Albert," Bill Graham allegedly told him, as he counted out the band's pay.

Towards the end of his career he seemed to mellow a bit, found a good road band out of Memphis made of former Hi Records musicians and a protege, Little Jimmy King (formerly Gales), who ran his band until he died in 1992. He forged a genuine friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughn, and stopped bad- mouthing his contemporaries and admirers. The shows that I saw were all uniformly good and very entertaining.

So, happy birthday to you, Albert. Happy 86th birthday, wherever you are. Head's up!

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