Well…being ill for 3 weeks really sucked. Spending the Easter Holiday in hospital was a shock but the wonderful members of the National Health Service prodded & probed, gave care & consideration & reassured me that I was receiving the best attention. Any time your body gives out then self-absorption is, I suppose, inevitable. Perfect for some crappy blog post about me, me. me. So… fuck that noise ! I have heard too much of it & there are others who have it worse. The hospital has helped me to recover & the nicotine withdrawal, after 40 years of addiction, is too dull to write about. Man ! it is good to be well enough to be writing this thing again. Back to the music.
Albert King is known as one of the “3 Kings of the Blues”. B.B., the most established of the 3 had many hits in the 1950s, enough to claim the title for himself. Freddie was selling records too though “Freddie King Goes Surfin” was hardly for the purist. By the mid-1960s Albert was in his 40s, had some success with 45s but had released just the one LP.All 3 had worked the “chitlin circuit” for years but the Blues was hardly the current thing. If it was then it was the Blues as interpreted by the young long-haired British boys. Albert had a fine reputation, a lovely Gibson Flying V & the killer nickname of “The Velvet Bulldozer”. In 1966 he made a very smart though surprising career move when he signed with the Stax label in Memphis.
The resulting LP was many things, every one of them good. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is recorded with the Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, young men who were proving to have a facility for writing, producing & playing on records which had a heart full of soul & sold by the truck load. They rose to the challenge of making a Blues LP & I am sure that Albert King knew that these guys intended to do his music right. The title track, written by William Bell & Booker T Jones, is either Soul/Blues or Blues/Soul. No matter…it is a stone dead monster classic of a track, a solid slab of rhythm which moved Blues music into 1967. The sessions were originally recorded as singles, “Bad Sign” was the 4th to be released, It was this concentration on quality along with a respectful & inspired selection of standards which made the LP a breakthrough in electric Blues & really made Albert King’s career.
By 1969 the Blues were back in the foreground of popular music. There was a new “Blues Boom” in Great Britain as the graduates of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers began to form their own bands. Cream, Jimi Hendrix (honorary Brit…no doubt !) & the wonderful Free all made their own stabs at Albert’s songs. In the US Canned Heat were listening while Led Zeppelin lifted a chunk of the lyrics from “The Hunter” for “How Many More Times”. Record labels contorted themselves to position their bluesmen in to the youth market. “Electric Mud” (1968) is a startling re-imagining of Muddy Waters as a psychedelic musician. The records made when players were sent to London to play with the young guys were less successful.
Albert King was already there with a cool label & the best studio band in the world. This gig at the Fillmore East shows his confidence, his great touring band &, above all, the style of the man as a singer & player. He was probably happy to be with a label which got his records into the shops & could even get radio play. He certainly stayed with Stax until the final financial meltdown of 1975.
He was not immune to the “let’s make this shit modern” syndrome (Rick Rubin did not invent this lame-ass notion). There’s a “King Plays the King” LP of Elvis covers. The early R&B hits at least, not the post-Army awfulness. Don Nix produced a record at Muscle Shoals with new songs, Taj Mahal covers & such. It was, however, when Albert played the blues straight that it really came together. In 1972 “I’ll Play The Blues For You”, a record made with the Movement, the studio band on the massive hits of Isaac Hayes, he made his other essential record & enjoyed his biggest hit. This clip of the title track is from the momentous 1972 Wattstax concert when the entire Stax roster played in L.A. for just $1 entrance fee.
So, this “Velvet Bulldozer” tag ? Wiki claims that Albert drove such a vehicle in the 1950s when the music was not full-time. I am just not buying that. Albert King just played his Blues. He did not, as Bill Graham said, jive & shuck his audience with tricks & showmanship. His smooth runs, a beautiful tone & technique, kept on coming & would get to you inevitably. Albert kept on doing it until his passing in 1992 & there were always young guitarists willing to collaborate & to pay tribute to his influence. It is these records he made for Stax which stand as the first time the Blues met the 1960s head-on & produced some serious relevance to match these young white boys who were stealing their shit.