I got no big name and I ain't no big star
I play the blues for you on my guitar
All your loneliness I'll try to soothe
I'll play the blues for you
- Albert King, "I'll Play the Blues for You"
Looking back upon Albert King's I'll Play the Blues for You, there's a certain sense of irony as one of the greatest and most influential blues guitarists of all time sings humbly about being nobody but a man who'll play the blues for you. King had an expansive career that touched hundreds of artists across the world with his signature Gibson Flying V guitar in hand and a pipe dangling from his mouth.
The Velvet Bulldozer
Albert King, real name Albert Nelson, was born on April 25, 1923, under a bad sign on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. His family moved to Forrest City, Arkansas, when he was eight, where he and his 12 siblings would grow up picking cotton on plantations. Musically inclined at a young age, Albert sang with a family gospel group at a church with his father playing guitar.
Albert King's biography has been a source of contention for years due to contradictory statements, lost documents, and rumors. When I say he was born in Indianola, that's where he claims to have been born. He also claims to be the half-brother of B.B. King, an Indianola native, who cited his and B.B.'s father as Albert King. This was contested when he applied for a Social Security card in '42. On the documents, he gave his birthplace as "Aboden" (which is believed to have been Aberdeen, Mississippi) and signed his name as Albert Nelson, listing his father as Will Nelson. During the '40s and early '50s, he also went by Albert Nelson.
King began using the name Albert King in '53 in a shrewd attempt to be associated with B.B. King. This led to him being billed as "B.B. King's brother" and was further fueled by Albert's use of B.B.'s nickname "Blues Boy" and naming his guitar "Lucy" while B.B's was named "Lucille." B.B. King recalled, "He called his guitar 'Lucy' and for a while he went around saying he was my brother. That bothered me until I got to know him and realized he was right; he wasn't my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in the blues." (Milword, 82)
"... he wasn't my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in the blues"
King says his father left when he was five, and when King was eight he moved in with his mom and two sisters near Forrest City, Arkansas, and at some point they moved out to Arcola, Mississippi. His first guitar wasn't much — he built it out of a cigar box, a piece of a bush, and a strand of broom wire before eventually buying a real one for $1.25. King was a southpaw and learned guitar on his own by turning his instrument upside down. When he grew to be a man, he came in around 6'5 and weighed 250 lb. He worked jobs like picking cotton, working in construction, driving a bulldozer, and various others until he was able to support himself as a musician. His size and old bulldozing job combined with his singing voice earned him the nickname "The Velvet Bulldozer."
The Velvet Bulldozer Sings
King began his professional music career with a group called the Groove Boys in Osceola, Arkansas. During this time, he was exposed to the legendary Delta blues with artists like Robert Nighthawk and Elmore James. In 1953, he relocated to Gary, Indiana, where he would play drums in Jimmy Reed's band and be featured on several early Reed recordings. It would also be here that Albert would release his first single, Bad Luck Blues backed by Be on Your Merry Way for Parrot Records. It sold little and no follow-ups were made, leading King to return to Osceola in 1954 where he would rejoin the Groove Boys.
Two years later, in 1956, King would once again say farewell to the Groove Boys by moving to Brooklyn, Illinois, a quaint village located across the river from St. Louis. Here he would sit in with several local bands, but by the time fall came around, he was headlining several clubs in the area. King would hone his style during this time and began playing his now legendary Gibson Flying V "Lucy." By 1959, he would be signed to Little Milton's Bobbin Label where he would release several singles, like I Walked All Night Long backed by I've Made Nights By Myself, but none of these charted. However, these singles did catch the attention of King Records who would release his single Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong in November 1961. This famous recording featured Ike Turner on piano and would become King's first hit, reaching number 14 on the Billboard R&B chart. It would be featured on his first album,The Big Blues, one year later, in 1962. King would leave Bobbin in late '62, and record one more session for King Records in the spring of 1963.
... he would play drums in Jimmy Reed's band and be featured on several early Reed recordings
This session was notable for being more pop-oriented than his previous work, but still the singles from this session failed to sell. He would go on to release four songs from Leo Gooden's label Coun-Tree. While these singles didn't circulate beyond St. Louis, Chicago, and Kansas City, they were very popular in St. Louis — so much so that Gooden resented King's success and gave him the boot from the label. With his recording career stalled, he relocated to Memphis and began touring the blues club circuit in the South and Midwest.
During this time, he would sign with Stax records and record with Booker T. & the MG's to create dozens of rippling singles. In 1967, Stax records released the album Born Under a Bad Sign, a compilation of singles King recorded during his time at Stax. The album's title track would prove to be his most famous song. What differed between these recordings at Stax and other labels was the production. On these tracks, the sound offered was cut and clean with a traditional blues sound echoing throughout the recording. This helped to maintain a razor sharp edge that made them more accessible to mainstream audiences outside of the more down-tempo traditional blues sound that many were accustomed to, leading to increased radio play.
The success of Bad Sign marked a turning point in King's career and for many other musicians as well. In 1968, King began playing not just to traditional blues audiences but to crowds of young impressionable musicians, some of whom would become famous themselves, like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. While King was performing at Ike Turner's Manhattan Club in East St. Louis, promoter Bill Graham offered him $1,600 to headline three nights at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. These performances would lead to three live albums: Live Wire/Blues Power, Wednesday Night in San Francisco, and Thursday Night In San Francisco. One year later, he would perform live with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Later on that year, King would release Years Gone By. In 1970, he paid tribute to Elvis Presley with Albert King Does the King's Things to mixed critical reception. Later, on June 6th, 1970, he would join the Doors on stage at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, Canada.
Return to roots and career revival
The '70s would mark a new sound for King, starting with his fourth studio album, Lovejoy in '71. Notable for its cover of Honky Tonk Women, King would begin to embrace the emerging funk sound of this period. He would follow up Lovejoy with his fifth studio album in '72, I'll Play the Blues for You. This album would feature the Bar-Kays, the Memphis Horns, and the Movement (the legendary Isaac Hayes backing group) and lean further into a Funk sound. Two years later in '74, King would work with the Bar-Kays again on his 6th studio album, I Wanna Get Funky. But by '75, trouble was on the horizon.
With his recording career stalled, he relocated to Memphis and began touring the blues club circuit
Stax Records filed for bankruptcy, leading King to move to a small label named Utopia. His next two albums, Albert and Truckload of Lovin' in '76. By this point, King's sound had lost its blues roots almost entirely and devolved into a generic pop sound. A third album released under Utopia in '77, King Albert, would bring that classic blues sound back a little but King's guitar work took the backseat, leading to disappointment from critics and fans alike. King would begin working with Clara McDaniel around this time, meeting up at Ned's Love's Club. Together the duo would tour the Deep South throughout the '70s.
We'd get another live album in '77 as well, Live Blues, that featured his concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Notable for being his last album with Utopia and for the track As the Years Go Passing By that featured a duet with Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher. In '78, King would move to Tomato Records and release New Orleans Heat. This album would have him working with R&B producer Allen Toussaint who, while experienced with R&B production, wasn't experienced with blues production. Following the abysmal sales of his '70s discography, King would take a four-year break from recording, spending this time touring and exploring who he wanted to be as an artist, leading him to re-embrace his blues roots.
In his efforts to return to those roots, King wouldn't have any arrangements except a straight 12-bar guitar, bass, drums, and piano backing him. In '83, King would release his first album in years for Fantasy Records, San Francisco '83. It was a return to form and earned him a Grammy Award, the first in his career. That same year, he would record a TV studio session for CHCH Television in Canada with Stevie Ray Vaughan, which would later also get an album release as In Session.
Following the abysmal sales of his '70s discography, King would take a four-year break from recording
In 1984, we would see King's first studio album in years with "I'm in a Phone Booth, Baby," which was also nominated for a Grammy Award. This album featured a re-dux of Truck Load of Lovin' and two covers of one of King's biggest inspirations, Elmore James' Dust My Broom and The Sky is Crying. King's career was brighter than ever, but the '80s would also see King experience many health problems that had him considering retirement. Against better judgment, King would continue regular tours and appearances, showing up in his famous Greyhound tour bus with "I'll Play the Blues For You" painted boldly on the side. In '91, King would release his final album, Red House, named after the famous Jimi Hendrix Song showing the influence he had on a young Hendrix coming full circle.
One year later in '92 on December 21st, King died of a heart attack in his Memphis home. King's legacy would live on in the thousands of young artists he influenced with his signature sound. In '83, King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and '93 would see him receive a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. In 2011, King was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail and 2013 would see him inducted into both the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
King's career was brighter than ever but the '80s would also see King experience many health problems
Blues and Tobacco
King was a well-documented pipe smoker, often pictured with a pipe hanging from his mouth while he played his legendary solos. Not a lot is known about what King's preferred tobacco was or what pipes he necessarily smoked. He's been photographed with Billiards and Eggs, but no specific brand has ever been associated with the famous Blues man. King was a titan in the music industry, well outside the world of blues, and his influence can be felt to this day in the work of hundreds of guitarists. Next time you go to light your pipe, turn on one of the Velvet Bulldozer's albums and let the King play the blues for you.
- "Albert King; Influential Blues Guitarist" (1992, December 23) by Burt A. Folkart, Los Angeles Times
- "Interview with John Mayer" (2013, April 12), Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
- "Albert King: The Velvet Bulldozer" by Tim Sampson, Memphis Music Hall of Fame
- "The Best Blues Guitarists of All Time" (2023, July 17) by Will Arnold-Forster, "Guitar Legends," Jazzfuel.com
- Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (2012) by Peter Guralnick, Back Bay Books
- Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock 'n' Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues) (2013) by John Milward, Northeastern University Press