By Richard Bienstock
Of the three “Kings” of blues guitar—B.B., Albert, and Freddie—B.B. is likely the most celebrated. But it is Albert who has arguably had the biggest influence on rock’s greatest players. A large man with a massive sound, King played with his fingers, wrenching searing single-note lines from his 1958 Gibson Flying V. His stinging, liquid tone and commanding solo style, characterized by huge, sustained notes and an incredibly powerful bending technique, influenced everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Eric Clapton. Indeed, Clapton’s soloing on Cream’s “Strange Brew” has been noted as something of a “tribute” to King’s playing on his own “Cross Cut Saw.” Below, GA selects four of the finest moments from the man with the “Blues Power.”
“Born Under a Bad Sign”
(Born Under a Bad Sign, 1967)
By 1967 King had been performing and recording for years—including a stint as a drummer in Jimmy Reed’s band—but this song, as well as the subsequent album of the same name, represents the beginning of what would come to be known as his trademark sound. Backed by Booker T. and the MGs, whose Booker T. Jones co-wrote the song, “Born Under a Bad Sign” is a soulful, sleek take on the blues, with King’s deep vocals punctuated by horn blasts, courtesy of the Memphis Horns, and his own stinging lead work. And the main riff is a killer.
(Live Wire/Blues Power, 1968)
This classic slow blues is a showcase for King’s masterful phrasing, incredible tone, and easy way with a vocal. Across 10-plus minutes he holds the audience in rapt attention, schooling them in the blues both with his guitar playing, and also literally: as he announces early on, “This is blues power! Can you dig it?”
(Wednesday Night in San Francisco, 1990)
The original studio take, found on Born Under a Bad Sign, demonstrates King’s unparalleled ability to bend one note seemingly a million different ways. This live version, culled from the same 1968 Fillmore dates that produced Live Wire/Blues Power, finds him pushing his soloing to even greater heights.
“Blues at Sunrise”
(In Session, 1983)
Among King’s most devoted acolytes was Stevie Ray Vaughan, and at this 1983 performance recorded live for CHCH-TV in Canada, the teacher and student met for a jam session. The results offer a window into the fundamentals of both guitarists’ styles, best exemplified on the 15-minute run-through of King’s “Blues at Sunrise.”