In the late 1950s the Gibson Guitar Company stepped out of its comfort zone of guitar building and made a series of three “futuristic models”—the Flying V, the Explorer, and the Moderne (which wasn’t released until 1982). Compared to their legendary Les Pauls, ES series and string of acoustics, these three new guitar designs were considered radical, especially in 1958, when the Flying V and Explorer were released.
The Flying V didn’t take off with the public and sales were poor, forcing Gibson to discontinue the Flying V within a year. However, a pair of prominent blues players took to the new guitar design immediately. Lonnie Mack, along with Albert King, took to the Flying V like a duck to water and help bring the Flying V back into production a few years later.
The Flying V wasn’t Albert King’s first instrument, however. He started out on the single stringed instrument called the diddley bow before he created his own cigar box guitar. Once King earned enough money—$1.25—he purchased a Guild acoustic until he later found the electric Flying V.
King, a left-handed guitar player who had to play right-handed guitars flipped upside down and reportedly never touched the low E string, would go on to be known as one of the “three kings of the blues,” along with B.B.; and Freddie King.
He was born Albert King Nelson on April 25, 1923, on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. His family would move north to Arkansas for work, where the future blues legend was one of 13 children. Like many future musicians, King, sang in the church choir where his father picked the guitar. He also starting learning songs while picking cotton in the fields at the age of 13.
As he got older and had dreams of being a professional musicians, King had a myriad of jobs to supplement his income, including picking cotton, droving a bulldozer, and construction work. His break came when the guitarist’s first band, the Groove Boys, packed up and headed up to Gary Indiana, but settled in St. Louis instead. King found side work drumming on Jimmy Reed’s recordings, but the-six string was his true calling. Once he discovered what would be his signature instrument, the Flying V, King became a powerhouse, earning the nickname “The Velvet Bulldozer” due to his strapping build (over six foot tall and over 250 pounds), his smooth singing, and his guitar playing style.
Not only was the Flying V his signature instrument, but he built his signature sound on that guitar. King was well known for his powerful string-bending style while singing in his soulful tones.
King bounced around from St. Louis to Chicago looking for work as a musician. He cut his first single for Parrot Records in Chicago, but it only achieved local success. By 1959, with his trusty guitar, King recorded a new single with his new band. “I’m a Lonely Man” was written by fellow bluesman Little Milton, who happened to be the A&R representative at Bobbin Records who got King signed to the label.
It wasn’t until 1961 when King issued his single “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” which became his first major hit, with the single ‘The Big Blues’ climbing the Billboard R&B charts to number 14. A year later, King added the song on his debut long player, ‘The Big Blues.’
King fluttered around playing live and recording singles on various labels, but in 1966 his life would change forever when he moved to Nashville and signed to the iconic label Stax Records. King teamed up with Booker T. & the MGs as his backing band, and the guitarist would find his greatest success recording handfuls of influential singles including “Crosscut Saw” and “As the Years Go Passing By.” The singles would be collected and released under the 1967 album ‘Born Under a Bad Sign.’ The title track of the album was written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell and would become King’s biggest hit. World renowned artist such as Hendrix, Cream, Pat Travers and even Homer Simpson would go on to cover the song. I guess you’ve really made it when The Simpsons cover one of your songs.
With King’s success rising, he was constantly on the road and a regular performer at the famed Fillmore Auditorium. In 1968 King’s show was recorded and released under the album title ‘Live Wire/Blues Power’ and would go on to be a major influence among today’s most talented guitar players. From the Fillmore, King would go on to performing live with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1969 and release his next studio effort ‘Years Gone By’ that same year.
The 1970s brought a new decade and new opportunities for Albert King. He recorded an Elvis Presley covers album, reworking Elvis’ 1950s classics into his own blues signature sound. He would join the Doors at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, British Columbia on June 6, 1970. The concert was captured as King and the Doors ripped through blues classics such as “Little Red Rooster,” “Money,” “Rock Me” and “Who Do You Love.” The famed concert would later be released in 2010 on Rhino Records as ‘The Doors Live in Vancouver 1970.’
King embraced the funk movement of the decade playing with The Bar-Kays and The Movement (Isaac Hayes’s backing group), and worked with new producers Allen Jones and Henry Bush, who added layers upon layers of guitars and strings to his music to give it that wall of sound edge. The gamble paid off and King found chart success once again with the 1972 single, “I’ll play the Blues for You”
However, a few years later Stax Records filed for bankruptcy in 1975, and King had to move on to the much smaller label, Utopia Records. King cut a few records with his new label, but his music didn’t have the same substance it did while at Stax.
In 1978 King signed to Tomato Records and worked with the one and only producer Allen Toussaint. They crafted the album ‘New Orleans Heat,’ but again, it failed to bring him any success. Frustrated, King went on hiatus and did not record for the next four years. At that time he reexamined his music and dismissed any genre he had worked with in the 1970s and went back to his roots of straight 12-bar guitar, bass, drums, and piano. He reemerged in 1983 and released the live album ‘Crosscut Saw: San Francisco’ on Fantasy Records. His last studio album, ‘I’m In A Phone Booth, Baby,’ would come out a year later.
In the 1980s Albert King was well into his 60s. With health failing him, he would carry on playing festivals and touring rolling up in his customized Greyhound tour bus with “I’ll Play the Blues for You” painted on the side.
Albert King made it through the 1980s and on December 21, 1992 he passed away from a heart attack in his Memphis, Tennessee home at the age of 69. His final concert had been in Los Angeles two days earlier. He was given a funeral procession with the Memphis Horns playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and was buried in Paradise Gardens Cemetery in Edmondson, Arkansas near his childhood home. B.B. King eulogized him by stating: “Albert wasn’t my brother in blood, but he was my brother in blues.”
As distinctive as the guitar he played, Albert King was a groundbreaking musician who wasn’t afraid to take chances. Along the way he influenced everyone from Hendrix to Clapton to Joe Walsh and Stevie Ray. In May 2013, King was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his legacy will carry on, hopefully never to be forgotten.
Rest in peace Albert, and thank you.