Look. I’m a shitty guitar player and I know it. I have two guitars: one acoustic and one electric. I suck at both.
You may wonder why I have two instruments that serve to remind me of my incompetence every time I pick them up. I bought an electric guitar so I could make noise. All you need to create soul-satisfying noise with even the shittiest electric guitar is a distortion pedal, a crummy little amp and a knowledge of power chords (find the root, find the fifth and rock the fuck out). I have an acoustic guitar because a.) it’s easier to use a guitar to figure out the chords to rock songs since most are written on guitar and b.) with an acoustic, I don’t have to plug into an amp to identify various chord voicings (which are clearer on an acoustic guitar anyway).
I know exactly why I suck at guitar, and no, it isn’t because I’m a girl and girls simply must have long, manicured fingernails to complete whatever fashion statement they’re trying to make. I’ve never had long fingernails because they interfere with piano playing—when my fingernails are too long, it sounds like I’ve hired a castanets player to provide accompaniment. Long fingernails also screw up my flute playing because they make me think my fingers are longer than they really are and I wind up failing to press the keys with the necessary accuracy and pressure.
No, I suck at guitar for two reasons. First, I think standard guitar tuning is stupid and confusing. Violins, cellos and mandolins are all tuned to fifths so it’s easy to figure out where you are on the neck. Guitars are tuned to fourths with one interval tuned to a major third (the G-B transition). When I’m trying to identify the notes in a simple lead solo, that major third short-circuits my brain every time. Those little dots on top of the neck don’t help at all.
The second reason probably involves a recessive gene thing: I have a terrible time with guitar picks. I have trouble holding on to a pick when I’m trying to pluck individual strings, as in an arpeggio. It’s really a drag on the acoustic guitar because I usually drop a dozen or so down the soundhole in between string changes; I’ve tried all kinds of picks and they all wind up inside the body of my guitar. Playing on a solid-body Strat negates that problem, but even when the picks aren’t tumbling to the floor I can’t play anything beyond a two-note arpeggio on a power chord to save my life. It’s frustrating because I can play beautiful arpeggios on the piano and flute, but on a guitar all those damned strings get in my way. I suck on the downstroke, I suck on the upstroke. For years I believed I was doomed to remain a chords-only strummer, banished permanently from the realm of guitar heroes.
Recently I sought help for my disability. A friend in the States sent me a guest pass to Master Class, an online video training site with loads of courses on everything from self-help to cooking to music. I immediately honed in on two guitar classes, one with Carlos Santana and the other with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame. I should have known that Carlos would take a New Age approach to the topic, so his advice on how to locate my “feel” and get in touch with my inner spirit didn’t scratch my particular itch. Tom was infinitely more helpful in terms of providing useful techniques and I’ve been using his ideas from the module on increasing speed to improve my arpeggio picking. I can now pick the legendary intro to “Supersonic” with an accuracy rate of 50% if I play it at half-speed and don’t breathe.
That’s an improvement over my usual accuracy rate of 20% at no speed peppered with lots of “fuck!s.”
A couple of weeks after my last lesson with Tom, I took another look at my review plan for 2021. Nothing grabbed me, so I started scrolling through my music library and found King of the Blues Guitar. My first reaction was, “Haven’t I already done this one?” but a quick check of my posts told me I’d missed it. “Yay!” I said to no one in particular. “I love that album!” I loved it even more after I began my research and learned more about Albert King’s bizarre approach to the guitar:
- Because he was left-handed, he played right-handed guitars upside-down—but rather than restringing the guitar, he left it as is, with the high E string on top.
- He used a variety of dropped open tunings to allow for more emphatic bends and to get around the limitations of standard tuning: C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#, open E-minor, F major and (when he moved to Stax) a C-B-E-F#-B-E pattern.
- Since he never used the 6th string, I don’t know why he bothered to tune it, but whatever.
- Most importantly, he rarely used a friggin’ pick! Albert King was a thumb-and-fingers kind of guy.
Lights flashing frantically in my little blonde brain, heart beating madly with hope and anticipation while desperately trying to avoid flagellating myself for not having thought of it sooner, I picked up my acoustic guitar, picks-in-the-hole rattling away, and tried to pluck “Supersonic” with my thumb. I nailed it within five minutes. Searching my memory for another arpeggio, I thought of the recently departed Hilton Valentine and his guitar on “House of the Rising Sun,” and within fifteen minutes I had it down pat.
Albert King is my man!
Historical contradictions abound in blues biographies, and Albert King’s is no exception. The man we know as Albert King was born Albert Nelson in 1923, and could have been born in any one of three places in Mississippi: Indianola, Arcola or Aberdeen (most likely the latter). His father may have abandoned the family when Albert was five; Albert likely moved with his mother and two of his sisters to the area surrounding Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight (I have no idea where the other ten siblings wound up). The only thing we know for sure is that Albert spent his youth on plantations picking cotton and manning a bulldozer in an area of the country where white supremacy was a cherished and strongly protected institution (and in many ways still is).
Whether it was his father’s influence (unlikely, given his early departure) or an encounter with some itinerant picker on the plantation, Albert developed a fascination with the guitar, progressing from a self-made diddley bow to a self-made cigar box guitar to a real acoustic guitar that he purchased for $1.25. Eventually he was good enough to join a band, and spent several years traversing the Delta, picking up tips from guitarists like Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk.
Throughout the ’40s and early ’50s he was known as Albert Nelson, but once we get to 1953 things get a little weird. He changed his name to Albert King and told people he was the half-brother of the more famous B.B. King, offering B.B.’s father’s name (Albert) as “evidence.” Though he had identified (and misspelled) Aberdeen as his birthplace on his Social Security application, he now claimed he was born in Indianola, shrewdly relocating his roots from the Alabama border to the Mississippi Delta. He even named his guitar “Lucy” in line with B.B.’s christening of “Lucille.” These little white lies increased his drawing power, and though B.B. was rather miffed about it at first, he let go of his irritation after meeting Albert. “He wasn’t my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in blues.”
To achieve that kind of acknowledgment from B.B. King was remarkable, given that nothing came easy for Albert King. One fundamental difficulty involved his physique: Albert King was a big, strong southpaw, somewhere between 6’4″ and 6’7″ and weighing in at about 250 pounds. With those big hands and fingers, he was unlikely to dazzle an audience with nimble, high-speed picking, so he had no choice but to break the rules and come up with other ways to create an authentic blues sound. All those alternate tunings loosened the strings to enable broader string-bending, but Albert still had to face the challenge of left-handedness in a right-handed universe. He solved that problem by teaching himself to pull the strings from on high instead of the standard bending technique of pushing from below, using his strength to bend multiple strings at the same time. As Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns would later observe, “Albert’s guitar was always out of tune with everything else, but he was such a strong man he would just bend the notes back in!”
For the next decade and a bit longer, Albert toiled in relative obscurity, playing the club circuits in the Midwest and South and making a few records that were largely ignored. His career remained in hit-or-miss mode for a few more years, but during that period an Arkansas disk jockey by the name of Al Bell became quite the fan of Albert’s inimitable style. The magical threads of the universe finally came together when Bell became a promotions man at Stax Records in Memphis and sweet-talked Albert into signing with the label. It certainly didn’t hurt Albert’s prospects that his new backing musicians were Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns, imbuing his music with the signature Stax sound, strengthening his connection to R&B and adding touches of funk and soul to his music. Stax released several singles that eventually formed the bulk of the 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign, and though the album itself did not chart (R&B albums rarely charted during that period), three of the singles did—and Albert King finally started drawing serious attention within the music world at the age of forty-four. Later that year, Albert King found himself playing at Fillmore West; a year later, Cream covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” on Wheels of Fire; a year after that, Albert King was a featured soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The original version of King of the Blues Guitar was released in 1969 and consisted of eleven tracks. The version I chose to review is the 1989 reissue that contains all eleven tracks from Born Under a Bad Sign and six more Stax recordings released on 45’s, including two instrumentals that showcase Albert’s distinctive guitar stylings. The Born Under a Bad Sign tracks are marked with an asterisk because I’m an anal bitch and I like to keep things straight.
“Laundromat Blues”*: This clever little pun-filled number from Stax songwriter and session musician Sandy Jones Jr. tells the tale of a babe so horny that she can’t wait to compile a full load of laundry before heading down to the laundromat to receive a full load from the guy she keeps on the side. Exactly where these two lovebirds consummate their relationship is unclear, but I hope that the laundromat is just the rendezvous point and that she doesn’t get banged with her head in a clothes dryer while pretending to look for that missing sock. Unlike most men who pride themselves on their obliviousness, Albert is “gettin’ madder every day” and issues two warnings: “I don’t want you to get so clean, baby/You just might wash your life away” and “The laundry’s gonna trap you, darlin,'” a line that indicates that Sandy did some field research and knew his way around a lint trap.
The interplay between Albert’s voice and guitar is fascinating. First, he never plays while he’s singing, making a clear distinction between vocal lines and guitar fills, giving both more prominence. I’ll let Mike Bloomfield explain the more complex levels of interaction:
. . . And he approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer. As a matter of fact, his guitar playing has almost more of a vocal range than his voice does—which is unusual, because if you look at B.B. or Freddie King or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing. They sing real high falsetto notes, then drop down into the mid-register. Albert just sings in one sort of very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner’s vibrato, almost like a lounge singer, but his guitar playing is just as vocal as possible . . . He makes the guitar talk.
That “crooner vibrato” melds beautifully with the smooth sound of the Memphis Horns and would serve Albert well as he expanded the range of his song selection to include R&B and soul. Those deep bends on the solo express both his outrage and a firm resolve that his baby’s got to stop this shit right now—a communication much more effective than his linguistic threats.
“Overall Junction”: This is a nice little warm-up number credited to the man himself that opens with Steve Cropper supplying the classic three-chord blues riff in the key of E as the horns provide a countering rhythmic response. Albert’s contribution alternates between a single-string solo and a multi-string bend attack that sounds so sharp and clean that you’d swear he was using a pick if you didn’t know any better. I imagine that all those years of picking cotton and guitar must have resulted in some of the thickest callouses known to medical science, which may help to explain his rare mingling of power and ease.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”*: A.C. “Moohah” Williams was a high school biology teacher who made the leap to promotions director at WDIA Memphis when they switched from country to R&B in 1949. A. C. would stay with WDIA for over thirty years, serving as a disk jockey and program director while writing a few songs on the side, including his most famous number, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” This ode to the unattainable natural beauty who “Says all your cheap paint and powder ain’t gonna help you none” is a perfect foil for Albert’s understated, shy-guy vocal style, suitable for pleading but never coarse enough to cross the line into actionable threats. His guitar solo is appropriately understated, expressing sweet anguish in the bends but refusing to extend the emotional range to a point of no return. When comparing and contrasting Albert’s approach to Mick Taylor’s version on the Bluesbreakers’ Crusade album, I have to give the edge to Albert for managing those boundaries—Mick comes across too strong, just what you’d expect from a younger man with excess testosterone and insufficient life experience.
“Funk Shun”: The second King-penned instrumental is an example of false advertising, as there isn’t anything funky about this straight-up slow blues number. Though the track features Albert’s longest solo, I don’t think it’s one of his best efforts as he seems to lose touch with the sense of economy that marks his best guitar work. The one spot where he recovers that discipline is in the stop-time passage about two-thirds of the way through the song. For the most part, I focus most of my attention on Donald Dunn’s always marvelous bass and the horn section.
“Crosscut Saw”*: OUCH! While I usually appreciate the double-entendre featured in dirty blues songs, I ain’t gonna let no man with a crosscut saw anywhere near my delicate privates! And I’m sorry, but “I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me ‘cross your log,” sounds like two guys attempting penis-to-penis sex, which I didn’t know was even a thing. Here I ignore the gruesome lyrics and just enjoy Booker T. and the MG’s as they nail the Afro-Cuban rhythms and Albert’s sprightly guitar work. I’d like to see a demographic breakdown of this record’s purchasers, as I’d like to prove my hypothesis that the buyers who drove “Crosscut Saw” to #34 on the R&B charts were all men who like their women dry. DOUBLE OUCH!
“Down Don’t Bother Me”*: Albert is on top of his game in yet another of his compositions that revives the classic there-ain’t-nothin’-I-can-do-to-please-this-woman-woe-is-me tale. Singing at the top of his narrow range with feeling that approaches the bursting point, he wisely leaves the bursting to his guitar fills, which follow the lines in unusually short order. The solo is a knockout call-and-response between Albert and the horn section that matches the intensity of the verses and anticipates the gloriously strong finish. It may be the shortest song in the collection, but as I’ve always told the insecure men I’ve bedded over the years, “It doesn’t matter how long it is—what matters is what you do with what you’ve got.”
“Born Under a Bad Sign”*: Listed as a songwriting collaboration between Stax R&B singer William Bell and Booker T. Jones, we must also give credit to Lightin’ Slim, whose “Bad Luck Blues” featured the key line, “Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” as well as the astrological portents Bell referenced as a starting point for “his” creation. The song’s crossover potential involved replacing the standard 12-bar blues structure with 10 bars in an I-V-IV pattern and a sinuous minor blues scale rhythmic line that gives the song a rock/R&B tinge. I don’t know exactly why I feel this way, but this song cries “Memphis” more than any other song from the city that claims to be The Birthplace of Rock & Roll and Home of the Blues. It feels like a warm summer night on Beale Street with its moderately slow tempo, slick and sexy horns and plenty of sweet, soulful bends from Mr. King. His single-string solo is the epitome of simplicity and in an unintentional tribute to Peter Green, Albert lets out a little scream of appreciation in response to one bent note. The man is feeling it!
I’ll end any suspense right here and now and endorse the Jack Bruce-Clapton version as a more than credible cover, and while I’m into mini-appendixes, allow me to remind you that if you are lucky enough to be able to select the time, place and circumstances of your demise, there’s only one way to go:
You know, wine and women is all I crave
A big-legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave
Hopefully you will have pulled out before having your coronary.
“Personal Manager”*: The B-side to “Born Under a Bad Sign” was co-written with David Porter, one of music’s greatest, most-honored and least-known contributors. In addition to his prolific songwriting in multiple genres, Porter was the very young man who convinced a little record company in Memphis to start recording soul music and brought his buddy Booker T. into the fold as a recording artist for what would soon become Stax Records. At this point in his career, Porter was a songwriter for Stax and had just begun to work with another young songwriter named Isaac Hayes.
Albert King may have been born under a bad sign, but at this point in his career, he had arrived at the gates to musical heaven.
“Personal Manager” is a slow blues number that opens with Albert clipping off a few two-note chords before settling into his more comfortable one-note-at-a-time style. While the interplay between Albert and the horns isn’t as crisp as it was on the A-side, his solo validates the phrase in his Stax biography: “master of the single-string solo.” The lyrics are pretty much the old “Let me careth for thee, O sweet and fragile creature,” and though I’m intrigued to learn more about what he means by the offer “to be your milkman every morning/Your ice cream man when the days are through,” he loses me with a deal-sweetener that simply won’t cut it with a girl who has now experienced three lockdowns (with a fourth on the way):
I’ll take care of all of your business
So you can stay at home
No! No! Anything but that! Go ahead—whip out that crosscut saw but please let me out of the house!
“Kansas City”*: What the hell, everyone else has recorded this song, so why not Albert King? His voice is perfectly suited to the toned-down Wilbert Harrison approach and he’s got a first-rate rhythm band behind him, so why not? One could argue that Albert gives the horns too much room during his solo, but shit, they’re Stax horns and they sound good anywhere and everywhere. Donald Dunn is coming through nice and clear on my right . . . so yeah, I’m good with it.
“The Very Thought of You“*: What the hell? Well, this is certainly out of the . . . blue(s)! This song was first recorded in 1934 by the Ray Noble Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly on vocals and proved to be something of a precursor to the British Invasion in that it was one of the few British recordings to become a #1 hit in the USA before all those scruffy guys showed up thirty years later. Ricky Nelson came out with a “rock ‘n’ roll” version (probably due to a suggestion from his cornball father), giving new meaning to the word “dreadful.” Little Willie John made some noise with a doo-wop version that’s probably the best of the lot, but this isn’t much of a lot.
Albert was so obsessed with this song that he re-recorded it in 1978 on an album called (ironically) New Orleans Heat. Even the most powerful microwave oven in the universe couldn’t heat this sucker, so I’m not exactly why Albert found the song so appealing . . . though there may be something in Mike Bloomfield’s specific use of the world “crooner” in describing Albert’s vocal style. I will give Albert credit for a sincere and heartfelt performance—but any thoughts he had about becoming the next Billy Eckstine were seriously misplaced.
“The Hunter”*: Y’all know I have an absolute hatred of real guns, but I’m 100% cool with love guns. Etymologically speaking, I wonder which came first—“shoot” as in “shoot your wad” or “shoot” as in “shoot a gun?” Why do we “shoot” photos and golf and drugs and dice? And why is “shoot!” a polite substitute for “shit!?”
Stand by for my new website: altetymologychick.com.
Albert King never quite attained the levels of testosterone expressed in the work of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, but he’s definitely “up” for this one. After a somewhat tentative opening featuring Albert plucking a single string over a duet of Booker T. on percussive piano and Steve Cropper on guitar (nice neck slides there), a snare hit cues those marvelous horns so we can get down to the serious business of displaying male bravado. Albert seems to particularly savor the descending notes that end the key line, “I’ve got you in the sights of my love gun,” pausing just a bit before he sings the words “love gun.” He delivers those two words as if he’s looking his babe straight in the eye with his big one forming a noticeable bulge in his trousers, and damn, is he proud of his reliable member or what? He abandons all pretense of gentlemanly behavior when he almost-but-not-quite growls the line, “And when I pull the trigger, there will be no misses.” That’s my man! Leave it all in my playing field and don’t spill a drop on my sheets! He cools off a bit during his guitar solo but finishes strong with even more bravado. “I’m the big bad hunter baby,” he cries. “You ARE the MAN!” I reply, cleverly manipulating the male ego to inspire a second go-round. “How can I miss when I’ve got dead aim?” “You can’t, baby—now aim that thing right at my sweet spot.” The music fades, leaving the rest of my fantasy to your wicked imaginations.
“I Almost Lost My Mind”*: This Ivory Joe Hunter number is a perfect vehicle for Albert’s voice, with a melody comfortably within his vocal range and a narrative that demands a singer who knows what it’s like to feel the pain of loss. Everybody who’s anybody has covered this song—Nat King Cole, Eddy Arnold, Eddie Cochran, Bing Crosby, Fats Domino, Jerry Butler, Willie Nelson—and it speaks volumes about American culture that the most popular version came from Pat Boone, the paragon of white bread entertainment who absconded with many a song of black origins and made them palatable to the sexless masses. Of the versions I’ve listened to, the one that most resembles Albert’s is Solomon Burke’s, but Solomon doesn’t come close to matching Albert’s ability to express difficult emotions. I love the arrangement, especially the surprising inclusion of Joe Arnold’s flute, reinforcing the fleeting nature of romantic love.
“As the Years Go Passing By”*: Another perfect fit for Albert’s vocal talents, this Peppermint Harris minor blues was first recorded by Chicago blues guitarist Fenton Robinson back in 1959. The original featured a rather energetic piano counterpoint, replaced here by a more subtle but still remarkably nimble performance by Booker T, who gets a chance to show off both his R&B and classical training in support of Albert’s suitably lonesome vocal. Albert does some of his finest guitar work on this song, especially in the beautifully fluid solo, which contrasts nicely with the texture of the punctuating horns. My only complaint here involves track placement—surely the compilers could have separated the two of the saddest and best songs in the collection to reinforce the diversity of the album.
“Cold Feet”: Hmm. This sounds more like an advertisement for Stax artists than a real song, but it made the R&B Top 20 in ’68 as an A-side single, so what the hell do I know? If Peter, Paul & Mary could name-drop the Mamas and the Papas, Donovan and The Beatles and make the charts, I’m certainly not going to begrudge Albert King a little low-effort success.
“You Sure Drive a Hard Bargain”: The B-side of “Cold Feet” is a much stronger effort and clearly the better song. Written by Stax songwriter Bettey Crutcher and producer Allen Jones, the thrills in this song are found in the obvious confidence and heightened spirit of the post-Born Under a Bad Sign Albert King. His guitar playing is crisp, his voice strong and the interaction with the band is both tight and seemingly effortless.
“I Love Lucy”: This is a one-time-only joke with a weak punchline that only works if you don’t know that Lucy is Albert’s guitar.
On second thought, it doesn’t work either way.
“You’re Gonna Need Me”: Once again, the B-side trounces the A-side, making us forget all about Lucy. This King composition is a straightforward blues with some interesting chord variations and a far more intricate horn arrangement than you hear in any of the songs on Born Under a Bad Sign. Albert’s solo is loaded with bite and bend, and though you don’t notice it at first, the connection between the fills and his solo phrases feels more fluid—the man is now in full command of his faculties.
While I was working on this piece I remembered that this is Black History Month in the United States. I had to remember it because the French have yet to recognize that particular observance due to their belief in the doctrine of universalism, or “color-blindness.” The French would rather avoid the topic of race entirely and pretend that everything’s hunky-dory. It’s difficult to square that head-up-the-ass attitude with reality or with the historically documented Parisian embrace of African-American musicians, writers and artists, but the French are often a mystery to everyone except themselves.
So let’s place Albert King in the proper historical context, and we do that by admitting that our awareness of Albert King qualifies as pretty damned close to miraculous. Any black person born in the United States goes to bat with an 0-2 count while a hostile crowd screams for the strikeout. Though certain legal protections have been introduced in an attempt to mitigate those profound disadvantages, dealing with racism remains a daily reality for African Americans to this day. Albert was also born dirt-poor, bereft of high-powered connections and had little in the way of formal education—traditional or musical. Though his demeanor was anything but threatening, nothing can trigger white fragility as effectively as a big, strapping black dude, so he was unlikely to find much in the way of assistance from the white power structure. Despite those enormous obstacles, once he fixated on the impossible dream of escaping the plantation via a musical career, he refused to let anything get in his way.
The essence of Albert King lies in a rare combination of self-assurance, ingenuity and an almost unfathomable optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you’re going to celebrate anyone during Black History Month, Albert King deserves your serious consideration.