As a lifelong lover of the blues, it’s no wonder Keith Richards has a soft spot for Albert King. Watching The ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ singer play his guitar is like watching a master at work. At 1.93 metres, the ‘Velvet Bulldozer’ tended to loom huge above his fellow musicians, his Flying V guitar more a toothpick than a musical instrument.
King formed an essential part of Richards musical education; one that began after he contracted a rare disorder known as “rock ‘n’ roll syndrome”, an illness that proved incredibly hard to shake and set the young guitarist on a journey that led first to Chuck Berry and then to Little Richard.
After that, he found himself unable to resist exploring further, his taste for blues leading him inexorably towards Albert King and his track ‘That’s What The Blues Is All About’, a song he would later feature on his self-penned list of his favourite soul, blues and R&B songs of all time: “I just followed the bosses,” Richards once said. “A lot of those blues players of the mid-’50s, Albert King and B.B. King, were single-note players. T-Bone Walker was one of the first to use the double-string thing, and Chuck got a lot out of T-Bone. Musically impossible, but it works.”
Albert King, born Albert Nelson, is one of those characters veiled in mystery. His early childhood is an enigma made up of misplaced birth certificates and contradictory stories about his childhood home. What emerges from this web of confusion is that King consciously modelled himself off of his hero, the great B.B King – taking his last name and telling everyone he met that he was the guitarist’s brother. He may have been unrelated by blood, but, as B.B King later acknowledged they were certainly brothers in blues.
Throughout his career, he inspired all manner of great guitarists, with the likes of Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan all among his admirers. Hendrix was especially fond of King, a fellow left-hander, and adopted the Flying V himself after watching King perform. Richards himself loved King’s use of open tunings and understated yet highly virtuosic solos. Indeed, the unrepentant kleptomaniac Eric Clapton liked King’s work so much, he stole his solo from ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ and used it in Cream’s Disraeli Gears track ‘Strange Brew.’ I imagine King was fairly peeved about that particular incident, unlike Clapton, however, Richards has made some effort to celebrate the genius that is Albert King rather than stealing his licks and passing them off as his own.