My one and only interview with legendary bluesman Albert King

albert king 1


By Steve Newton

The influence of the blues on British supergroups is well documented. The Stones, Zeppelin, Cream—they all lapped up the seminal works of people like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf. Across the sea in Ireland, a young guitarist named Gary Moore also picked up on the feel and technique of the blues, and his biggest idol was Albert King.

Moore went on to play hard rock in bands like Thin Lizzy and G-Force, but recently he’s come full circle and released Still Got the Blues, an LP that features the 67-year-old King playing guitar on an old gem he’s noted for, “Oh Pretty Woman”. There’s also a song Moore wrote in homage to King, called “King of the Blues”. But hold on there, bub. I thought that title already belonged to a guy called B.B.

“No comment on that,” laughs Albert, on the line from Poughkeepsie, New York. “I let people judge for themselves, you know.”

Local blues fans can do just that when Albert King visits the PNE Exhibition Bowl this Saturday (September 1), but yours truly tends to agree with Moore. And we’re not the only ones who feel this way: Albert King’s famed versions of tunes like “Oh Pretty Woman”, “Crosscut Saw”, “As the Years Go Passing By”, and “Born Under a Bad Sign” (all still in his current repertoire) had a tremendous effect on English musicians like John Mayall, Mick Taylor, and Eric Clapton—who even copied King’s singing guitar style note-for-note on tunes like “Strange Brew” and Cream’s cover of “Bad Sign”—as well as on the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Born Albert Nelson near Indianola, Mississippi on April 25, 1923, King’s early life involved hard farm work on various plantations and singing in country churches. Around 1931 his family—which included 13 kids—moved to Osceola, Arkansas, a hopping blues spot not far from Memphis and the Missouri state line. There, King continued to pick cotton and started to develop as a blues guitarist, first using home-made items like a one-string “diddley-bow” and a cigar-box guitar before paying $1.25 for his first real guitar in ’39. He cut his teeth on records by Texans Blind Lemon Jefferson and, in particular, T-Bone Walker.

“When T-Bone played, that’s what really gave me the idea that I wanted to do my thang,” drawls King. “When he came out with his style I listened to it and it was unique, you know, and it was different. I couldn’t pick exactly like him ’cause I don’t use a pick and I’m left-handed. But he had his own style, so I said, ‘Well hell, I’ll just develop mine.’”

As well as the awesome bluesmen he’d come across, King found inspiration in some rather unusual, non-musical influences. “We used to live close to the highway,” he says, “and I’d hear the trucks at night. The running motors sounded like voices harmonizing, and they would change tunes as far as you could hear them. I still remember that, and I can still feel it as I’m playing.”

Musical forays to St. Louis and Gary, Indiana, nights playing drums behind people like Robert Nighthawk, and days spent driving a bulldozer followed King’s introduction to the blues. As he mastered the guitar, King learned to combine the rhythmic precision of a sharp drummer with the heaving power of a bulldozer, and in 1966—with his fat tone, suspenseful phrasing, and passionate string-choking—he was ready to make his mark on the world.

At that time King hooked up with the Memphis-based Stax label, and backed by the premier soul rhythm section of the period (Booker T and the MG’s) and the strutting Memphis Horns, he recorded a number of national R&B hits. These tunes were collected on the ’68 Stax album Born Under a Bad Sign, one of the most influential blues albums of the ’60s.

With his trademark Flying V guitar in tow, King left the chitlin circuit and began performing at prestigious rock halls like the Fillmore East, where he played on a bill with John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix. But even though he named his guitar Lucy and claimed that he was B.B. King’s half-brother, Albert King never quite attained the widespread popularity or show business stature that B.B. did.

Not that he’s too concerned about that in 1990. Nowadays Albert King is touring with a band that includes his 25-year-old grandson Jimmy, another lefty, on guitar, and that’s his main interest these days. “He’s doin’ a good job,” claims the elder King. “I’m right in there with him, you know, watchin’ him and showin’ him pointers. I’m trying to get him on the right track.”

King recently recorded an album in Memphis that features Joe Walsh, among others, but for the most part his career continues to be a succession of tours, taking his killer blues wherever the winding road leads. King still drives himself, and his four years as a diesel mechanic come in handy along the way. You won’t see this 6′ 4″ blues howler flagging for help if his wheels break down.

“I’m glad I got that kind of experience,” he says, “’cause it can help you out in lots of places. When you got a problem, you know how to solve it, whereas lots of people get stuck and don’t know what to do.”

To hear the full audio of my 1990 interview with Albert King, become a patron of the Newt on Patreon.

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