The blues genre reared more than a few legendary African-American musicians at the height of its inception, but it’s also the other way around. The contribution of some immensely talented musicians helped the genre soar to such levels of acclaim. Among the leading lights was Albert Nelson, a musician whose stage name of Albert King is the most appropriate title to describe his personality and style.
One of the ‘Three Kings of Blue Guitar’, Albert started using the stage name in the latter half of the 1950s. Being a huge admirer of B.B King, he was keen to take on the moniker so that he could feel close to his inspiration. In fact, he also claimed for some time that B.B King was actually his half-brother. The obsession didn’t end here, and he preferred his nickname to be B.B King where B.B stood for ‘Blues Boy’ and named his guitar Lucy, similar to B.B King’s Lucille. The legend B.B King took this matter rather lightly and said while responding to such rumours, “He called his guitar ‘Lucy,’ and for a while, he went around saying he was my brother. That bothered me until I got to know him and realised he was right; he wasn’t my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in the blues.”
However, Albert King didn’t let this strong influence overshadow his own musical sensibilities. From a very young age, he was drawn to experiment with sounds which led him to make a guitar out of a cigar box. Who knew one day this same young boy would outgrow his childhood dream and become an inspiration for others.
His career has not been entirely a bed of roses, however, and there were setbacks without which he could have definitely shined more. That said, the way in which he overcame those hurdles and kept the momentum is commendable. So, let’s revisit his journey and intoxicate ourselves with the whiskey-soaked blues.
Six Definitive Songs of Albert King:
‘Don’t Throw Your Love At Me So Strong’ (1961)
After an unsuccessful period in the 1940s and ’50s, the ’60s proved to be a blessed decade for Albert King. On the poor reception of his first 1953 single ‘Bad Luck Blues’, King moved to Brooklyn, Illinois in 1956 to form a new band there and start afresh. He became popular there in the clubs which lead King records to sign him in 1961.
The song was initially released during Albert King’s Bobbin Records days in 1959, but the King Records version became much more popular giving him his first hit that rose on number 14 in the Billboard R&B Charts. Complimented by deft guitar skills, the song is sure to win one over.
‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ (1967)
As mentioned earlier, Albert King was on a roll during this time. A few years after his first hit he gave us an album that went on to define him. ‘Born Under the Sun’ was his second compilation album released from Stax Records which featured eleven electric blues recorded between 1966-67. This album proved that commercial success wasn’t the yardstick for measuring talent as it gathered critical acclaim for being the best blues album ever made.
The title track, however, became a chartbuster. William Bell, who wrote the song, recalled: “We needed a blues song for Albert King … I had this idea in the back of my mind that I was gonna do myself. Astrology and all that stuff was pretty big then. I got this idea that [it] might work.”
‘Hound Dog’ (1970)
Following his collaborative performance with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1969, Albert king released his fifth studio album which was a tribute album. The 1970 album Blues for Elvis- King Does the King’s Things contained a collection of the superstar singer’s 1950 hits. The speciality of the album lied in the fact that King re-structured the songs infusing his own style.
The twelve-bar blues song which was originally released by Big Mama Thornton in 1952 was popularised by Presley to a great extent. Albert King has to be credited for his bravery in choosing such a song that was already performed by some powerful singers. His capacity to blend the dominant influences with his unique style is praiseworthy.
‘Honky Tonk Women’ (1971)
The album Lovejoy contained the cover of the Rolling Stones’ famous number ‘Honky Tonk Women’ among many. The original song was released as a single in 1969. Jointly written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger the song was inspired by the Caipiras of Brazil. The song is about a dancing girl who works as a prostitute in a bar.
Albert King’s cover saw him embrace a new form, the funk. The inclusion of this new soundscape elevated King’s music from its known territories and placed it on a clean slate from where he could either progress towards a new direction which funk showed him or recede to his comfort zones.
‘Angel of Mercy’ (1978)
1975 onwards his career spiralled down with the Stax Records were bankrupt. King turned to Utopia label from where he released two quintessential pop albums. None of these albums or songs drew much attention which left King high and dry for some time.
This song is undoubtedly King’s finest of the fine. A classic electric blues, it describes a working man’s monotonous life. The guitar work is unsurprisingly terrific supporting the essence of the song. King’s delivery channels an array of emotions where agony is tinged with sarcasm.
‘The Sky is Crying’ (1984)
Disappointed by the poor sales of his late 1970s albums, King took a four-year break. He used this time to reflect on his music and his journey. As a result, he decided to trace back his blues roots and stop any kind of experimentation with music arrangement. Sticking to the traditional format proved to be beneficial as it fetched two consecutive Grammy nominations in the years 1983 and 1984.
‘The Sky is Crying’ was part of the Grammy-nominated 1984 album I’m in a Phone Booth, Baby. Written and originally recorded by Elmore James in1959. Albert James though first recorded the song in 1969 for his album Years Gone By it wasn’t circulated as much as it should have due to the failure of the album. The song grabbed the public attention much later in 1984 with the success of the new album.