The Definitive Albert King on Stax
By Ray Hogan
A title like “The Definitive Albert King on Stax” lets fans of modern electric blues know that, if the two-disc set is marketed honestly, they are going to get some of the best guitar blues of the past 50 years. Stax Records, with its obscenely great house band in Booker T. and the MG’s, became a surprisingly suitable fit for the man called “The Velvet Bulldozer.” He joined the Memphis label in 1967 and stayed with it until its demise in 1975.
This compilation features 34 cuts from that eight-year relationship and includes the lion’s share of King’s greatest work. It takes nothing more than the first disc’s opening punch of “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” and “Laundromat Blues” to realize (or be reminded) that King could say more with a cluster of three notes than other guitarists could say in a lifetime. His influence on generations of rockers and bluesmen is more evident now than ever. Because King played his Flying Vs left-handed and didn’t switch the strings, he had a control of the fretboard and a vibrato that very few have ever come close to. He literally bulldozes through the rhumba (“Crosscut Saw”) and funky rhythms (“Playing on Me”) so effortlessly laid down by the ace Stax musicians, which, in addition to Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Al Jackson Jr. and Booker T. Jones of the MG’s includes Blue Mitchell, Pop Staples, Marvell Thomas and The Bar-Kays. If the Bulldozer part of the nickname covers his guitar playing, the Velvet part undoubtedly references King’s laid-back singing style, best exemplified on the smooth and cool “I’ll Play the Blues For You.”
All of King’s best-known songs are included. A couple of nice surprises pop up from the “Jammed Together” disc with Cropper and Staples, with each taking a lead vocal on the psychedelic “Water” and cautionary “Tupelo (Pt. 1),” respectively. King also does well with Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.” Two cuts — “Cold Feet” and “(I Love) Lucy” — border on novelty (they’re kind of corny, at the least), and the only real throwaway is “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’,” which probably doesn’t need to appear except on a throwaway 1970s Christmas album.
Fans of Albert King more than likely own most of this material in its original sets. “The Definitive Albert King on Stax” is more for a casual fan or first-time listener, for whom it’s bound to be a treasure trove. Nearly 20 after his death, King’s six-string sounds nowhere near dated.