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History Minute: Albert King

January 25, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

Few people today outside fans of Rhythm and Blues may remember Albert King, but no one can listen for long to the great music acts since the 1950s without hearing his influence. The Arkansas blues legend was a pioneer for modern music.

Albert King was born Albert King Nelson in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1923 to a family of migrant farm workers. He was one of thirteen children. When he was still very young, the family moved near Forrest City, Arkansas, where he would grow up and develop his musical talents.

Like many other southern musicians, he got his greatest musical education at church. Growing up in the 1930s, his family would perform as part of a gospel group at their local church and some neighboring ones. His father enjoyed playing the guitar, and the future blues artist soon taught himself how to play the instrument. According to one story, he bought his first guitar for $1.25. As he was left-handed, he learned to play the right-handed instrument upside-down, eventually becoming one of his trademarks.

In the 1940s, he began playing in Osceola and soon joined a band called In the Groove Boys. As his career developed, he would soon go by "Albert King" as a stage name. In the early 1950s, he was playing in small clubs and with brands in the Chicago area, occasionally recording. He returned to St. Louis in the latter part of the 1950s, recording "I'm A Lonely Man" in 1959, and his most popular hit, "Don't Throw Your Love on Me Too Strong," which hit #14 on the R&B charts in 1961. The Big Blues, one of his best-selling albums, was released in 1962.

When he came to Memphis in 1966, he signed with Staxx Records, which gave him an even wider audience. In 1967, Born Under a Bad Sign was released, and Bill Graham, owner and promoter of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, invited him to perform. King would routinely outplay some of the most famous musicians of the day appearing on the stage at the same time, including Jimi Hendrix.

In 1969, he performed with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the first time blues and classical music had been mixed together in an event King called an "87-piece Blues band." In 1970, he played with The Doors at a performance in Vancouver, British Columbia. This concert would be released as an album in 2010 as The Doors Live in Vancouver 1970. Along with B.B. King and Freddie King, he began to be known as one of the Three Kings of Blues Guitar and the "Velvet Bulldozer."

King was revered by fellow musicians. Eric Clapton was quick to point to his influence with his own album, Disraeli Gears (1967). Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh long himself as an admirer. Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan cited King as his lifelong inspiration. Many artists him for being a part of the development of soul music by the early 1970s.

Albert King would die just a few months shy of his seventieth birthday in late 1992, just two days after his last concert. He would be inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in Pine Bluff in 2010 and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2013.

Print Headline: History Minute: Albert King

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