Albert King was born on this day in 1923. He’s always been one of my very favorites and writing Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan has only deepened and renewed my appreciation for him. He was Stevie’s number one influence. Let’s take another look at this old story, one of the highlights of my years at Guitar World.
Just days after I became the Guitar World Managing Editor in February, 1991, I sat at my desk listening two of my colleagues (“bosses” would have been the word I used at the time) discussing an interview with Albert King, scheduled for the following week in Cleveland. They couldn’t think of anyone up to the task of interviewing the great and ornery bluesman. I shifted my weight, cleared my throat and waited for them to ask if I was interested. When the offer didn’t come, I piped up that King was my favorite guitarist and I would be honored to take the assignment. After a bit of back and forth, the job was mine.
As the day grew near, I became increasingly nervous. I desperately wanted to do a great job and he had a reputation as a tough, mean old man. I once saw him fire a sax player on the bandstand – surely he’d cancel an interview without a second thought. I called his manager just before I left for the airport to verify our arrangements. “I told Albert about it,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll remember and feel like doing it.”
I spent the day at my cousin Stephen’s house in Cleveland, preparing for the interview and growing increasingly edgy. It started to snow, first lightly, then heavily, and I drove to the theater through a pelting blizzard. Albert was playing with Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King on a spinning theater in the round, and I fidgeted throughout his set. Following his performance, I arrived backstage at my appointed hour, praying that I would be granted an audience with the King.
I was brought to a small dressing room, crowded with band members and their lady friends. King shook my hand and pointed to a seat next to him. As we began to talk, he turned to the others and shouted, “Be quiet! I’m doing an interview.” Silence fell over the room and all eyes and ears turned to me. I have never felt younger, whiter, shorter, or more insignificant. Albert leaned forward and extended his long arm directly over my shoulder to get at some popcorn. Leaning close, he smiled, flashing two gold front teeth, and told me to commence my questioning.
For 45 minutes, Albert answered my questions, though when he considered something foolish or misguided, he shot me a look that could freeze a volcano. He was patient, professional – and every bit as intimidating as I could have imagined, which somehow made me happy. His personality fit his music to a tee; no one has ever played the guitar with more authority or focused intent.
King, who died of a heart attack at age 69 on December 21, 1992, was a vastly influential guitarist for many reasons: He played with a raw ferocity that appealed equally to fellow bluesman and younger rockers. He was one of the first black electric bluesmen to cross over to white audiences, and one of the first to adapt his playing to Sixties funk and soul backings, on classics like “Born Under a Bad Sign.” But perhaps King’s ultimate legacy is that he embodied two of guitardom’s most sacred tenets: what you don’t play counts as much as what you do, and speed can be learned, but feeling must come from within. The left-handed guitarist played “Lucy,” his upside-down flying V, with absolute conviction and economy. He could slice through a listener’s soul with a single screaming note, and play a gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring 10-minute solo without venturing above the 12th fret.
I last saw King perform about eight months before his death, at Tramp’s, a mid-sized Manhattan club. Arriving after midnight, I imagined his final set would be brief, even perfunctory, and was dismayed when he came onstage and sat down – his towering, 6’-5” hulk was always such a large part of his stage presence. Was he feeling infirm? I was further shaken up when he began noodling leads around the band’s funky vamp in the wrong key. I began to wonder if my hero had lost it, but then he found his footing, caught the groove and began to soar.
King delivered a stirring, two-and-half hour performance, seeming to gain strength as the night wore on, closing the show at 3:00 AM with a coolly passionate version of “The Sky Is Crying” that will remain forever etched in my mind. I left the club with a renewed conviction that music is not about showing off, or impressing fellow musicians, or anything else other than creating sounds that forge a mystical bond with listeners. It’s something that Albert King did with unsurpassed skill.
Blues legend has it that Mike Bloomfield, lead guitarist of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and for a time the Sixties guitar hero, once engaged Jimi Hendrix in a cutting contest before thousands of screaming fans. Hendrix drew first and unleashed a soaring, cosmic blues attack. As Bloomfield stood transfixed in awe, struggling to plot a response to Hendrix’s brilliant fury, one thought ran like a mantra through his mindæ“I wish I were Albert King… I wish I were Albert King….”
Two decades have passed, and both Bloomfield and Hendrix are gone. But King and his music remain hale and heartyæeven on a blustery Cleveland night some months ago, when brutal winds and two feet of swirling snow made the city inhospitable to man and blues alike. Inside a suburban club, however, a force of nature even more powerful than a blizzard held sway as Albert Kingæall six-feet-five inches of himæstood puffing a pipe, his upside down Flying V looking like a toy guitar in his massive hands. As clouds of smoke billowed from his snarling mouth, the left-handed King ripped off scorching, jagged blues lines.
On that wintry Ohio night it was easy to understand Bloomfield’s desperate invocation of the massive bluesman in his hour of need. And it was equally clear that King has lost little of the of the devastating blues power that has made his playing the standard of excellence for guitarists from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore.
Several nights after the Cleveland show King, resplendent in an open-collared tuxedo, stepped from a limousine in midtown Manhattan. His pipe was still gripped tightly between his teeth, but the on stage snarl was gone. King was all smiles as he headed into a posh nightclub to receive a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
“I never really considered myself r&b,” King said. “I’m a bluesman. But there’s nothing like being honored by your peers. There’s also nothing like this.” His gold teeth sparkled in a broad smile as he held up a check for $15,000, his bounty for a lifetime of groundbreaking work.
While King is inarguably a bluesman, his earliest recordings for Bobbin Records (recently re-released on CD by Modern Blues as Let’s Have a Natural Ball) featured hard-swinging big band arrangements. Later, he would record his most influential workæincluding “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crosscut Saw”æfor Stax, backed by Booker T and the MGs, the r&b label’s famed house band.
But whatever the musical setting, King’s lead playing has always been characterized by stinging, river deep tone and a totally identifiable style, developed as a result of his unorthodox technique. The left-handed King plays with his guitar held upside down, treble strings up, which, among other things, causes him to bend his strings down.
“I learned that style myself,” King said. “And no one can duplicate it, though many have tried.”
AP: You’ve recorded a very wide variety of material, much of which has departed from the standard blues formats. How did you arrive at the appropriate approach for any given song?
KING: I did that in the studio. We would come up with different styles to go behind songsæthen I’d do whatever fit. I might try three or four rhythms behind a song, find the one that feels just right and record it. I can hear real good and I never saw the point of limiting what I listened toælots of times I heard new things that surprised me. The guys at Stax [guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson and organist Booker T. Jones, plus the Memphis Horns] were real good for playing with different grooves and helping me find the right one. I liked playing with them because they were good idea peopleæthey’d twist things around into different grooves. It worked real good.
AP: Your guitar style changed noticeably from your early recordings with the Bobbin label to your work with Stax. You didn’t use a much vibrato originally, for instance.
KING: No, I didn’t. I never made a decision to change my style. Some of it I forgot and some of it just automatically changed. Nothing can stay the same forever. I do all of the vibrato with my hand. I don’t use no gadgets or anything. I used to only use Acoustic amps, but I went to a Roland 120 because it’s easier to handle and it puts out for me.
AP: There has always been so much swing to your music. Have you listened to a lot of jazz?
KING: Yes. I’ve always been a lover of jazz – especially big band jazz. On the Bobbin stuff, I used a lot of orchestration and big band arrangements to mix the jazz with the blues. I went for the swinging jazz arrangements and the pure blues guitar.
AP: Your lead guitar has always been very lyrical. Do you think of the guitar as a second voice?
KING: Yes, I do. I play the singing guitar, that’s what I’ve always called it. I also sing along with my notesæit’s how I think about where I’m going.
AP: You don’t play a lot of chords.
KING: No, I play single-note. I can play chords but I don’t like ’emæI don’t have time for them. I’m paying enough people around me to play chords. [Laughs.]
AP: You’re also noted for your tendency to bend two strings at one time.
KING: Yeah. Lots of times I don’t intend to do that but I’m reaching for a bend and bring another one along. My fingers get mixed up, because I don’t practice. When I get through with a concert, I don’t even want to see my guitar for a while.
AP: Have you always felt that way?
KING: No, no. Just lately – in the last four or five years. Since I’ve been really feeling like I want to retire.
AP: You are one the only guitarists I’ve ever heard who will start a song with a bent noteæon “Angel of Mercy,” for instance.
KING: Again, I didn’t plan that out. It’s just what I felt and the way I recorded it. The bent note is my thing, man, and I’ll put one anywhere it feels right. There are no rules.
AP: I’ve heard stories of people who tried to copy your sound but didn’t know that you were playing upside down.
KING: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. And people who try to restring their guitars to get my sound, and everything else you can imagine. Jimi Hendrix used to take pictures of my fingers to try and see what I was doing. He never quite figured it out, but Jimi was a hell of guitar player, the fastest dude around – at the time. There’s some kids who are coming around now… Whew! Forget about it. They burn up the fretboard.
AP: Obviously, Hendrix was a great guitarist. But what do you think of him as a blues player?
KING: Well, to me, he was overplaying to play the blues. He’d hit two or three good licks here and there and then speed them up and hit them over and over until he’d drown out all the good ones. The kids loved it and I liked his playing, tooæthat was his style. But don’t call him a great bluesman. I think he was going more in that direction, but we’ll never know. He didn’t take care of himself.
AP: Your tone is so tough. How do you make it so heavy?
KING: For one thing, I usually keep my treble all the way up, unless I want to play real soft. Then I zip it down.
AP: You really do utilize dynamics effectively. Do you think that’s something a lot of younger players miss the point of?
KING: Definitely. Because they like to play loud and high all the time. And when you get ready to play chords, you got nothing to go to. I like to mix volumes, treble and bass. There’s a high, there’s a mid-range and there’s a bottom. If you don’t ever mix that stuff up, you’re not a complete player.
AP: What is the single most common mistake young players make with the blues?
KING: Overplaying. They play too loud, scream too high, and run too fast. See, when you overplay, you get too loud and people are gonna mistake what you’re doing for a hole in the air. [Laughs.]
AP: You recently appeared on Gary Moore’s Still Got the Blues album. What did you think of Moore’s guitar work?
KING: Gary’s a good player. To me, Gary and Stevie Ray Vaughan were two of our best young players. I was sure hurt when we lost Stevie. I really wanted to see him and Gary hook up together. I wanted to see that concert. I don’t care where it wasæI would have caught a plane. No doubt about it, both those guys had what it takes to really do it.
AP: Did you give Gary any pointers?
KING: Yeah. I learned a few things from him, he learned a few things from me. I told him to slow it down, double up on his licksæplay every other oneæso that you could feel what he’s doing. If you play too fast or too loud, you cancel yourself out. But Gary plays a whole lot of notes and still sounds good. Every now and then you’re bound to put them in place if you play enough. [Laughs.]
AP: A lot of blues players hit the right note and play the right changes. Yet, something’s missing. What is that something?
KING: I’m going to ask you. You’re the listener. What do you hear or not hear?
AP: It’s hard to describe. It’s more of a feeling.
KING: That’s it. That’s it, man. Stop right there. Don’t overthink this. I just told you: Once you lose the feeling, you ain’t got nothin’ but a show going. It’s not deep.
AP: So can you learn how to play the blues from a book or reading music?
KING: No way, man. First, you got to get in your mind what you want to play. If you hear a good lick – even if you’re just rehearsing to yourself — and you feel it, then hit another one and another one and another one. The next thing you know you got 15 or 20 different licks you can hit and they all feel good. But if you rush right through, hitting them all, you’re not even going to know what you did. You’ve got to take your time and learn your bag one lick at a time. And take your time in your delivery.
AP: Your first appearance at the Fillmore  opened up a whole new audience for you. Were you surprised that those people were waiting to hear your music?
KING: Yes, I was very surprise — and very glad. They made me welcome, treated me nice. Bill Graham opened up a young, white crowd for me by putting me in there.
AP: Robert Cray told me that he had one of the biggest thrills of his life when you recorded his song, “Phone Booth.” [“I’m in a Phone Booth, Baby,” Fantasy, 1984]
KING: Yeah, I did one of his songs because the groove fit and that’s what I look for. Robert is a good player and a very nice person, but I haven’t seen him in a while and I hope that success hasn’t gotten to his head. I’ve seen that happen to many, many people, and it’s one of the saddest things you’ll ever see. It matters who you are and what you’re made of. Anytime you think you’re greater than the people that buy your records, that’s when you lose it.
AP: You have such a commanding stage presence. Is there anyone who would intimidate you if they walked on stage?
KING: No. If it’s my show, it’s my stage, and I won’t let anyone mess with me. Believe me.
AP: When did you start using the Flying V?
KING: Oh, man. Way back around 1958. Just about every one I’ve ever had has been custom-made.
AP: Why did you name your guitar “Lucy?”
KING: Lucille Ball. I loved her.
AP: It didn’t have anything to do with B.B.’s Lucille?
KING: You’d have to ask B.B. — mine was named Lucy first.
AP: Have you and B.B. always gotten along, or has there been any tension between youfor instance over the fact that B.B. is always called “The King of the Blues?”
KING:: Oh God, no. Me and B.B. and Bobby [Bland] always got along great. We go all over the country and sell out every theater we go to. No misunderstandings, no arguments. I’ll open the show for anybody as long as I get paid off. I’ll be asleep in my hotel while B.B.’s still playing and that’s fine with me. B.B.’s a night owl. He closes the show because he stays up most of the night talking, anyhow. [Laughs.]
AP: Has the fact that you once played drums affected your guitar style much?
KING: Not really, except that I can tell immediately if a tempo is off. Being left-handed affected my style more than anything. I started playing drums just because I got a gig with Jimmy Reed and needed the money.
AP: Why haven’t you ever used a pick?
KING: I couldn’t hold one- my fingers were too big. I kept trying and the thing would fly across the house. I just always had a real hard time gripping it, so I learned to play without one.
AP: What type of music did your first band, the In the Groove Boys play?
KING: We only knew three songs and we’d play them fast, medium and slowæthat made nine songs. Somehow that got over all night long.
AP: Did you play strictly by yourself when you started?
KING: I rehearsed to myself for five years before I played with another soul. That may account for some of my style. I knew that playing the blues was a life I chose to lead. And when I started there were three things I decided to doæplay the blues, play ’em right, and make all the gigs. And I have. I’ve never drank liquor in my life or used dope, and I don’t allow it around me. That has a lot to do with why I’m still doing what I’m doing, still feeling good and still in good health. It makes me sick to see the things that people do to themselves when they get all messed up.
AP: Every 10 or 15 years there seems to be a blues renaissance, and people say there’s one happening now. Is it real?
KING: The blues “come back” whenever people realize that they can make money booking it. You didn’t hear about young bluesman for a while until Stevie Ray and Robert hit, but they were always around. It’s just a matter of exposure.
This interview originally appeared in Guitar World, July ’91.