Apart from interviewing Albert King in 1978 upon the release of his New Orleans Heat album on the Tomato label, where he was continuing the roll he had enjoyed during the previous five years on Stax, my enduring memories of this true giant of a man (6’4” and weighing in at a reported 250 pounds) are twofold, from 1990 and ’91 in Memphis, where I was spending a lot of good days researching a biography of Carl Perkins. One late winter night I wandered down to a near-deserted Beale Street (far grittier then than the faux Bourbon Street tourist trap and drunken frat boy destination it has become today), where I saw a sign in the window of the Band Box club announcing the night’s star attraction: Albert King. Without hesitation, needless to say, I entered and took a seat at a table right up front, close enough to the action that when Albert came on I could have reached out and shined his shoes (and would have, had he asked). Albert came on around 10 p.m., as I recall, and played an astonishing hour and a half set of hot blues and piercing ballads. He could be tough on his bandmates, but on this occasion everything was clicking, and he was simply, to paraphrase one of his greatest songs, playing the blues for us: powerful, aching bent note cries of despair, soaring, stinging, triumphant wails; breathtaking, brittle single-string runs and elegant long lines arcing up to Heaven before making their soft descent and alighting on this mortal coil. Sweat pouring off his face and soaking his white shirt, he deployed his husky voice as masterfully as he constructed his solos, with attention to each song’s emotional nuances and narrative structure. In this particular set he leaned heavily on ballads, delivering them with such deeply felt sincerity that more than a few patrons, yours truly included, were moved to tears by the beauty emanating from his massive soul. After an hour and a half set, he announced he was taking a break and would be back in a few minutes. So it was that he returned at midnight. I figured this would be a short set, but no: he played another hour and a half, and seemed to gain energy as the night wore on: he was even more astonishing on the back end of his three-hour performance than he had been before his break. I don’t know that there were more than 20 or 30 people in the Band Box that night, but if I could find all them I’m betting each and every one would remember Albert’s performance as vividly and fondly as do I.
Albert King, ‘I’ll Play the Blues for You,’ live at the Sound Coliseum, Tokyo, Japan, 1989
The other memory I retain of Albert during these years is of the numerous occasions–including during the abovementioned set break–when I would see him sitting in the corner booth of Doe’s Eat Place, next door to the Band Box and connected by a common passageway, with never less than two women in his company. All I could think was, God bless Albert King; and, Now there’s a man knows how to live. Well, everything about Sir Albert was larger than life anyway.
Now the Band Box is long gone; Doe’s (whose Little Rock location was a Bill Clinton favorite) is gone; and a year after that amazing set I saw Albert deliver at the Band Box, he was gone too. On December 21, 1992, only two days after playing a concert in Los Angeles, he was felled by a massive heart attack. Burial was near his childhood home in Edmondson, Arkansas, but only after his life had been celebrated with a funeral procession in the streets of his beloved Memphis, with the Memphis Horns leading the way with a joyous rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
From I’ll Play the Blues for You, Albert King’s socially conscious ‘Little Brother (Make a Way)’
Though he first recorded in the early ’50s for the Parrot label, King remained fairly obscure even in blues circles until signing with the St. Louis-based Bobbin label in 1959. There he turned out some raucous sides that found him blazing away on guitar in front of a jump band outfitted with a saxophone section and a piano player, thus laying the foundation for his startling breakthrough the next decade. A 1961 single, “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” became a national R&B hit, but of the one-shot variety. Frustrated by his holding pattern on Bobbin (and on the King label, to which the Bobbin owner had leased some of Albert’s sides, now available, along with some tracks cut for Parrot, on the MCA/Chess reissue, Door to Door), King moved to the East St. Louis-based Coun-Tree label. Working with a quintet (complete with organ), King cut four sides (two singles) that garnered some solid airplay in the Midwest and created a demand for King on the concert circuit. Two years later he jumped at an offer from Memphis’s Stax label and made an immediate and lasting impact on blues history. For the ensuing two-plus decades, while under contract to Stax and Tomato, he delivered a remarkable number of high-quality albums that adhered to no formula save that of remaining adventurous within the context of an identifiable sound signature.
Once installed at Stax, working with producer Al Jackson Jr. and supported in the studio by Booker T. & the MG’s, Albert made his label debut with instant blues classics in “Crosscut Saw,” “As the Years Go Passing By” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The latter was the title of his first Stax album, issued in 1967, and with the song and the album Albert joined the pantheon of the era’s great and most influential blues artists; his second album, 1968’s Live Wire/Blues Power, recorded live in San Francisco, captured the raw energy and stirring soulfulness of his stage performance, not unlike what I witnessed on that fateful night at the Band Box.
As part of its Stax Remasters Series, the Concord Music Group has reissued one of Albert’s finest Stax statements, the appropriately titled I’ll Play the Blues for You, originally issued in 1972. King released so many good albums in his day that it’s hard to single out one, even Born Under a Bad Sign, as the unqualified peak of his oeuvre, but I’ll Play the Blues for You certainly ranks in the upper echelon. Working with producers Allen Jones and Henry Bush, and backed by the restored Bar-Kays lineup (with new members having replaced those killed in the same plane crash that claimed Otis Redding) and Isaac Hayes’s funkified Movement band, with the Memphis Horns supplying the brass in more ways than one, Albert, as was his wont, changed things up with the funk while keeping the blues at the forefront, in his vocals and guitar work both.
From I’ll Play the Blues for You, a quintessentially Albert moment: his cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I’ll Be Doggone’
There’s a funny moment here that seems to me quintessentially Albert. With the band percolating behind him, he dives into a jittery, skittering interpretation of the Marvin Gaye smash, “I’ll Be Doggone.” He doesn’t attempt to take on Marvin, but rather reinvents the song to suit his own devices. Which means he stretches it out to nearly six minutes, lets his guitar wail, slice and dice, according to the moment, turns the horns loose behind him, and talks to a live audience that has clearly been spliced into the mix. This usually deadly strategy works for Albert, though, because he addresses his cheering fantasy crowd with endearing conviction–you would never know they weren’t really there–in advising, “You know I’m gettin’ old and I get tired easy, y’know what I mean? And my bunions is hoitin’ now but I’m gonna use my heel for a little while, ‘cause y’all got it goin’ right there, that sounds awful good to me, and I want a little piece of it, y’know what I’m sayin’? I say can I get a little bit of that? Ooooh-wee!” At which point he punctuates the proceedings with some tasty string squeezing that is exceedingly delicious in its taut but fiery execution.
Many Albert fans might say ‘I’ll Be Doggone” is the least of the album’s virtues here, and it’s true it doesn’t pretend to have the depth of feeling other tracks reveal. The title track is an acknowledged Albert King classic, here in its complete seven minute-20 second form (it was cut in half and released as a double-sided single to radio), with those magnificent horns surging and gently pumping; an organ humming warm and steady underneath; the drums’ atmospheric thump; and Albert’s guitar solos curling and cooing all around the melody line. These instrumental flourishes are in service to Albert the love man, in seductive mode, encouraging a lonely friend into his lair where she’ll find comfort among old friends and “I’ll play the blues for you. Let’s rap awhile. See, I’m kind of lonely too; see, loneliness is a really bad thing, if you let it get the best of you. And loneliness can get you down. Yeah, are you comfortable now?” It gets better from there, and those fellows who need some courtship counseling would do well to pay close attention to Dr. Albert’s method. Taking a completely different tack, Albert then dipped into the socially conscious message of “Little Brother (Make a Way),” written in part by Carl Smith, whose other credits included Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” and Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It.” In “Little Brother,” the sensuous, slow grinding groove, laced with Albert’s prickly soloing, serves his appeal to a younger generation to build on the freedoms his generation had fought for back in the day; in typical Albert fashion, he lays out the discriminations of an earlier time with matter of fact cool and then lobs the ball into the other court:“now you’ve got the future in your hands/don’t you be no lazy man/we laid the ground, made the way for you/come on and show us that you’re proud of us/you’ll have it hard, tryin’ to get through/but keep on pushin’, we’re right behind you.” With the Black Power movement in ascendancy, the message was both resolute and pragmatic, at odds with more radical platforms but designed with a view to the struggle’s long-term goals.
Albert King, a live version of ‘Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.’ The studio version is on his newly reissued 1972 album, I’ll Play the Blues for You.
Albert being a blues man, the timeless topics remained close at hand: “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” smolders not with slow boiling love but with resentment born of abject loneliness and the pain of separation; the stomp and propulsion of “High Cost of Loving” fuel a familiar narrative that goes back at least to “How Blue Can You Get” in railing against a woman who can’t be satisfied with anything less than the big-ticket purchase; the classic Stax soul-styled horn-fueled romp “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge (‘Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across)” (which is actually rendered at a more temperate pace than the version he cut on Born Under a Bad Sign) offers Albert a chance to appeal to a gal who’s throwing him out to think twice about acting hastily, lest she find out “tomorrow I might be drivin’ a Cadillac”–kind of a corollary song to “High Cost of Loving” in this context. This reissue includes an alternate, harder-edged take of “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge” more rock-tinged than the version released on the album, which means Albert’s guitar wails a bit more mightily in protest of his plight in a terrific solo that darts, struts and sputters in an impressive minute-plus display of tone and texture in closing out the number.
From their In Session summit in 1983, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan team up on King’s classic ‘Born Under a Bad Sign.’ Recorded live for television broadcast at CHCH-TV Studios in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, released on CD in 1999 and on DVD in 2010.
With the addition of this and three other bonus tracks (including an extended alternate take of “I’ll Play the Blues for You” a full minute-and-a-half longer than the version included on the original album; a spunky “I Need a Love,” it being Albert’s sage advice to “all the young men out there” on how to pick the right woman; and an energizing 2:18 funky instrumental workout with the self-explanatory title of “Albert’s Stomp”), I’ll Play the Blues For You boasts attractive value-added features. Yet the original, if slight, eight-song album packs quite a punch in its prime-time King performances. For this and so much more he left us, here’s hoping the man they called the Velvet Bulldozer (a nickname he picked up early in his working life when he made his living driving a bulldozer, but which so succinctly summed up the persona he adopted as a musician) has a choice corner booth somewhere in Heaven, with a few beautiful women comforting him for eternity.