One of the founding fathers of the electric blues, Albert King was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18, 2013, alongside Rush, Public Enemy, Randy Newman, Donna Summer and Heart, with Donna Summer being another posthumous inductee.
Albert Nelson was born on April 25, 1923 on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. Nelson’s first instrument was a diddley bow. He would go onto build his own cigar box guitar and played it until he finally bought himself a Guild acoustic guitar. Eventually, he would become identified with Flying V guitars, which were his mainstay throughout his career.
Though his personal history and identity – especially early life – is a thing of mystery, Nelson’s story is perhaps better told through his legacy, his extensive catalog of music.
Like Jimi Hendrix, Nelson was left-handed and chose to play right-handed guitars upside down. He was known to use dropped open tunings and reportedly never used the sixth string in his playing. His instantly recognizable signature sound has a lot to do with these nuances.
Nelson made his first record in 1953. At this point, B.B. King was already a national blues star, so Nelson became King. Not surprisingly, this led people to speculate that he was in fact B.B. King’s brother, something Albert King himself supposedly went on record to say. Official documentation seems to conflict with this claim, however.
King is perhaps best known for his 1967 Stax Records release, Born Under a Bad Sign. Some even consider this to be the greatest electric blues album of all time. Having listened to it ourselves, we can honestly say it seems like the stars aligned on this release – song choice, arrangements, production, performance, personnel… you might be hard pressed to find another album that sounds this pristine from the late 60s.
Booker T. Jones said the success of this album had to do with the slick production and upbeat R&B vibe, contrasting with King’s previous releases, which featured more of a slower, traditional blues vibe.
King would go on to record another landmark album, Live Wire/Blues Power, and his accomplishments would continue to stack in the late 60s and early 70s. In 1969, he would perform with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In the early 1970s, he would record an Elvis Presley tribute album titled Albert King Does the King’s Things.
King’s career would continue to gain momentum until 1975, when Stax Records filed for bankruptcy. King would take a four-year break and come back to his roots as a blues artist. In 1983, he released a new live album and also recorded a live television session featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan. King would record his final studio album, I’m in a Phone Booth, Baby, in 1984.
Persistent health problems would have King consider retiring in the 1980s. But he kept pushing on, frequently going on tour and making appearances at blues festivals. Before he passed away, he was even starting to plan an overseas tour. King would leave us with one final album, Red House (named after the Jimi Hendrix song) before passing of a heart attack on December 21, 1992 in his home in Memphis.
King influenced the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Taylor, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Walsh, Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. We all know how influential Hendrix, Vaughan and Clapton have been, and from that perspective, we can’t understate the importance of King’s incredible body of work.