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Rock And Roll Hall of Fame welcomes its third blues guitarist named King

You've never heard a guitar sound as distinctive as Lucy, the Flying V, in the hands of her longtime partner, bluesman Albert King.

By Jeb Wright

For those who think Deep Purple has gotten the shaft from the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, let me introduce you to Albert King.

Mr. King really should have been inducted at the Rock Hall’s inaugural ceremony. While he has been long overlooked, at least he is finally going in the hall this year. (Hmm, there may be hope for Deep Purple yet!)

Born Albert Nelson on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Miss., young Albert grew up big — his height is estimated between 6 feet, 4 inches and 6 feet, 7 inches — and he easily tipped the scales at 250 pounds.

Music came naturally to Albert Nelson. As a boy, he sang in church before the family moved to Arkansas, where he put together his first band.

King adored the blues and was heavily influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson. And like his hero, it took a move north, to Chicago to be exact, for Albert to record his music. While this first record enjoyed some regional success, it failed to propel King to national notice.

With his best gal in tow — his signature Gibson Flying V guitar named Lucy — King scored a small hit with the Little Milton-penned song “I’m A Lonely Man” in 1959. It was Milton who signed King to Bobbin Records, where Milton was an A&R man. A couple of years later, King released “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me,” and, this time, he had a major hit, reaching the Top 20 on the Billboard R&B charts.

King went on to record at Stax Records, where he released his iconic “Born Under a Bad Sign” album. The title track has been covered by many artists including Cream, Pat Travers, Robin Trower and the animated character Homer Simpson.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King courtesy PBS Pressroom

In 1983, legendary blues guitarist Albert King, 60, was joined by his disciple Stevie Ray Vaughan, 29, on a Canadian soundstage for the live music TV series. PBS aired this summit of master musicians, "Albert King With Stevie Ray Vaughan" earlier in 2013. It is the only known recording of King and Vaughan performing together. Photo courtesy PBS Pressroom.

Rock concert promoter Bill Graham began booking King at his Fillmore venues, which allowed King to reach a large, white audience. From music recorded at the Fillmore, Albert released the album “Live Wire/Blues Power.” This album influenced guitarists from both sides of the pond, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Walsh and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

ZZ Top Billy Gibbons

ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons counts Albert King as both an influence and a friend, but admits King’s technique gave him pause. “Well, his style on the guitar was puzzling — upside-down and backward — that is, until we learned he started out as a drummer. He played behind Jimmy Reed for a spell. How do you make THAT transition?”

ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons found both an influence and a friend in King.
“We socialized with Albert on a daily basis while residing in Memphis ... BBQ at The Rendezvous, Cone O’ Cream at Tony Fortune’s Daiquiri Works on Beale Street, hanging out with his manager, Gary Belz, at Kiva Studios, bailing Albert outta jail for dice games,” laughs Gibbons. “Man, it was a mighty gift to enjoy being befriended by Albert. He was definitely a king! Showed up for a BFG [Billy F. Gibbons] birthday bash thrown by Christine Reid in the Peabody Suites, where we all took lodging; it was just a remarkable friendship. I hitched many a ride in one of his new Suburbans, complete with a matched pair of locomotive air-horns mounted on the fenders. I wagered many a winning dollar with Albert holding court at the Southland Greyhound Racing Park across the new Mississippi River bridge. Albert preferred enjoying spooning ice cream while smoking his pipe. The tall tales abound when Albert was around.”

Fun, games and quirks aside — King preferred to have his name pronounced “Albin Keen,” Gibbons reveals — the one and only Albert King was able to coax sounds out of Lucy unlike those of his peers. That could be due, at least in part, to the fact King played his famous Flying V upside down. A left-handed guitarist, King played a right-handed guitar backwards, without restringing the instrument. He dropped the standard tuning on Lucy to a lower, minor pitch, which sealed the deal on his signature sound.

“Well, his style on the guitar was puzzling — upside-down and backward — that is, until we learned he started out as a drummer,” confesses Gibbons. “He played behind Jimmy Reed for a spell. How do you make THAT transition?”

Although King slowed down starting in the 1980s, he never retired. King continued to tour and was still considered a living legend until his death of a heart attack on Dec. 21, 1992. King’s final album, “Red House,” is a rare find for collectors. Released in 1992 and named for a Jimi Hendrix tune, the album sold poorly and suffered from substandard production quality, making original copies of the album a rare find today.

Albert King’s Rock Hall induction brings to three the total number of blues guitarists named King enshrined in the hall; Gibbons and ZZ Top bandmate Dusty Hill inducted Freddie King posthumously at the 2012 ceremony; Sting did the honors for B.B. King back in 1987. But for blues guitarists, it could be viewed that the Rock Hall saved the best for last.

Albert King biography

“I suspect there are more Albert followers today than ever before, as his influence surfaces through the legions of guitar players that tend to emulate his intriguing style. There’s not a day that goes by without putting a serious spin with an Albert King track on the deck,” Gibbons said.

Dave Mason is quick to agree.

“Any guitar player worth a damn has been influenced by him. I spent a good deal of time with (Jimi) Hendrix, and we would sit around playing records. Albert was his favorite player; mine, too.”

King’s style was a draw for Deep Purple’s Steve Morse, as well.

“Albert King had a heavy approach to blues playing, in my opinion. His tone was appealing and energetic. Yes, he was ahead of his time ... but to me, he sounded like a rocking blues player and was very easy to listen to,” Morse said.

Paul Rodgers cites King as a lasting influence from the first time he heard King’s music at the hands of one of his bandmates.

“When our guitarist from Free, Paul Kossoff, played me ‘The Hunter’ by Albert King, we decided to include the song in our set. Little did we know that it would become our anthem and inspire me to write the lyrics for ‘All Right Now,’” Rodgers said. “Check out the ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ album, particularly ‘Down Don’t Bother Me,’ and, of course, ‘The Hunter.’ All these years later, and with all of the musicians and music that has been created since, I still draw huge inspiration from Albert King’s music.”

These days, fellow Class of 2013 inductee Howard Leese of Heart fame sometimes performs “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “The Hunter” with Rodgers.

Albert King courtesy Rhino

From the time Albert King met his beloved Gibson Flying V guitar (nicknamed Lucy) in the 1950s (above), the two were a rock-solid musical team, including this outing (left) at the Blues ’89 Festival in New York.

“The classic blues licks, stinging tone, and the way he played his guitar upside down, were all part of what made him one of the ‘Three Kings of Blues,’” Leese said. “I always dug his Flying V guitars, and he always looked sharp. Years later, SRV based his blues style on Albert’s playing and took it to another level.”

While Ted Nugent’s varied opinions don’t usually align with those of his peers (which is putting it mildly), the Motor City Madman’s assessment of King’s legacy and appreciation for his guitar work is one topic on which they can agree.

“Albert King’s music is a defiant soul adventure, breaking musical rules while exuding the ultimate primal scream, both vocally and guitar speak,” Nugent said. “His unbridled fury, with extreme not bending and tormented guitar lyricism, taught us all that individual musical statements have no boundaries, no rules, no compromising.”

Foghat’s Roger Earl remembers King fondly as a fantastic guitarist and musician from the number of shows they performed together in the U.S. during Earl’s time with Savoy Brown from 1968 and 1970.

“He was also a great performer and singer and connected with the audience,” Earl said. “I remember that everyone in the band was excited every time we saw Albert King on the bill. He was a huge influence on all of us. I think Kim (Simmonds) got a Flying V because Albert had one and his guitar sounded so great.”