At a time when even B.B. King adopted a more soulful pop sound in order to achieve commercial success, Albert King was instrumental in keeping a traditional blues sound on the R&B charts. His raw, rootsy style—modeled on blues shouters like Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Witherspoon and bottleneck guitar specialists Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk—was a primary influence on a large number of late twentieth century blues musicians, including Robert Cray, Joe Louis Walker, and Donald Kinsey.
Born Albert Nelson in Indianola, Mississippi, he performed live in Memphis area clubs as well as with the Harmony Kings gospel group between 1949-1951. By the early 1950s he had relocated to the Gary, Indiana-Chicago area, where he played occasionally on recording sessions for Chess. He would cut a series of tracks as a soloist for the label in the late 1950s and early 1960s, adhering closely to the prevailing Chicago blues style then being popularized by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. His first sessions as a leader, however, were recorded in St. Louis for the Parrot label (purchased by Chess in 1959); the surviving tracks—currently available Door To Door (MCA 9322; 1990)—include the self-penned "Bad Luck" (master #U53-177), "Merry Way" (#U53-178), and "Murder" (#U53-179). He was based in St. Louis by the mid-1950s, where his recordings for Bobbin brought him increased stature, but little commercial success.
King’s first hit came in 1962 in the King/Federal firm (which owned his contract after purchasing Bobbin) with "Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" (King 5575; #14 R&B). As a result, the Memphis-based Stax label added him to its roster. Accompanied by members of the company’s renowned house band, Booker T. and the MGs as well as the Bar-Kays and Memphis Horns, he enjoyed a long string of chart successes, including "Laundromat Blues" (Stax 190; 1966; #29 R&B), "Crosscut Saw" (Stax 201; 1967; #34 R&B), ""Cold Feet" (Stax 241; 1968; #20 R&B, #67 pop), "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" (Stax 0101; 1971; #38 R&B), "I’ll Play the Blues for You" (Stax 0135; 1972; #31 R&B), "Breaking Up Somebody’s Home" (Stax 0147; 1972; #35 R&B), and "That’s What the Blues Is All About" (Stax 0189; 1974; #15 R&B). Many of his Stax albums—most notably, Born Under a Bad Sign (MFSL/ Atlantic 577; c1967), King Does the King’s Things (Stax 8504; 1991), Wednesday Night in San Francisco (Stax 8536; c1968), Thursday Night in San Francisco (Stax 8537; c1968), Years Gone By (Stax 2010; 1969), I’ll Play the Blues For You (Stax 8513; c1972), Blues at Sunrise (Stax 8546; c1973)—are still considered classics today.
King landed with Utopia/Tomato following Stax’s descent into bankruptcy in 1974. His output, however, was marred by unsympathetic supporting players, bland arrangements, and a preponderance of brass and strings. His fortunes improved somewhat when he signed with Fantasy in the early 1980s. However, he was better appreciated live than on record during the decade preceding his death.
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