My one and only interview with legendary bluesman Albert King

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 30, 1990

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 interview with Albert King subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman of the Guess Who, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

…with hundreds more to come

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