When Albert King and the trio that accompanies him in live performance take the stage they invariably start things off with an instrumental. Usually it's a slow shuffle, nice and relaxed in tempo, and Albert keeps things simple on the guitar. In the middle of the number he steps forward and introduces himself and his group and then he smiles at his audience and says, ". . . we're gonna let it roll all night long."
There is no loud pickup after he says it. The band just continues to swing easily letting the power of Albert's guitar continue to gradually elevate the level of tension. And by the time they get to swinging through the last two or three choruses you can hear yourself saying out loud: "Let it roll all night long."
Albert King is a huge man in his forties. He is Mississippi born, uneducated, and in many ways, an old fashioned bluesman. In live performance he plays a wide range of blues and some pop tunes which emphasize his guitar and voice about equally. His traveling band includes only organ, bass and drums.
I asked Albert about the lack of horns in his live band while he was in Boston for a weekend engagement at the Boston Tea Party, the last weekend of August. The fact is that the absence of horns lessens King's potential impact on several of his best numbers, including "Born Under A Bad Sign." Albert would like to have horns and is earning enough money so that he could probably afford them. The problem, as he puts it, is "Horn players fall in love." He went on to explain that while it is obviously the case that everybody falls in love, horn players fall in love more easily than other people.
"You laugh," he went on. "It's the truth. A guitar player goes on road and he misses his girl friend for a while but he manages to get along. A horn player gets, out on the road, plays two or three towns and then he'll get lonely and next thing you know he's packed up and left. It's better not to hire him in the first place."
When King has traveled with horns in the past he has been very demanding of them. He has upon occasion paid arrangers as much as $150 per song to arrange horn sections for his band's book. Naturally enough, he expects his men to play the arrangements exactly as written. One could surmise that therein lies another source of potential friction between King and his hornmen.
King does most of his cross country traveling in his own car, a Cadillac. Being on the road so much seems to depress him a good deal. On Saturday night he was scheduled to leave Boston immediately after the last set. The first set that evening didn't go that well. When I went back stage to talk some more with him he was extremely tense and when I mentioned that the audience had enjoyed what had obviously not been a first rate effort he got angry and said it burns him up when things weren't right with his music. He continued to talk and it rapidly became apparent that what was really upsetting him was the impending trip, this time to Los Angeles. Albert and his sidemen drive non-stop, each taking a turn at the wheel while the others get as much rest as they can. As soon as Albert started talking about dreaded cross-country drive he started thinking out loud about his eventual retirement.
King has been on the road for ten years. It has taken a lot out of him and he sometimes seems a bit bored. While he would like to slow down the pace of things a bit, he obviously isn't going to quit now. He's been kicking around a long time and it is only recently he has acquired an audience that takes more than routine interest in his music. He is earning a decent cut at the boxoffice and has no intention of stopping. "Maybe in three or four years," he says.
While speaking of his growing audience I asked King how he felt about the interest other musicians had been taking in his music. The subject came up when someone happened to mention Jack Bruce. King didn't remember who Bruce was so I reminded him that he was the bass player from Cream. "Oh, those guys. They sure work hard. Play mighty good." I asked what he thought of the obvious influence he has had on Eric Clapton and he replied, "Last time I worked a show with them I teased them about it. They're real nice." He was excited about having worked with them.
King's own favorite guitarist is B. B. King. But he says that lately B. B. has been shucking and you have to go way back in the alley and dig his old stuff to hear him at his best. King's interests run far beyond blues and other names that are likely to come up in a discussion of music with him include Joe Turner, Count Basie, and Arthur Prysock. King particularly enjoys band vocalists like Prysock who have silky smooth voices.
When King starts rapping he shows himself to be a marvelous raconteur. One of his stories in particular sheds some light on the kind of milieu his particular brand of blues has developed out of. A while back Little Milton and B.B. King did a concert together in Chicago. Milton came out of the concert claiming he was the new "King of the Blues" and that he had dethroned B. B. Soul magazine went so far as to report on Milton's "coronation." Albert was touring in the south at the time and got a phone call from Little Milton.
"Albert, I beat B. B. I whupped him."
"What did you beat him at? Marbles?"
"I whupped him playing the blues and now I'm gonna whup you."
Milton was obviously interested in promoting his rather lackluster carreer and wanted a "Battle of the Blues" to be held at Chicago's Regal theatre. The stars were to be B. B. King, Junior Parker, Bobby Bland, Albert King and Count Basie, as well as Milton. Albert agreed to appear on the condition that Milton appear between him and Bobby Bland.
When Albert finished his set he says. . . "I left that stage smoking. You could see the smoke rising. We played mighty good." Thereafter he and Bobby Bland went upstairs to the Regal's balcony to watch Milton do his set. When Milton came on the only people applauding were the Little Milton Girls in their Little Milton sweaters. Milton then proceded to run through his half-baked imitations of the other blues greats (Milton is known for his highly derivative styles) to an increasing amount of razzing from Bland. Pretty soon he started futzing around on the stage and before he was halfway through the set he blew the whole thing. Albert reports that Milton was so mad he thinks that he and before he was halfway through the set he blew the whole was so mad he thinks that he and Bland ". . . had some words about it. Strong words."
Who won the contest? Count Basie, hands down.
King himself is often highly derivative in his approach and prides himself on the fact that he can do Ray Charles' numbers exactly as Ray does them. Likewise Arthur Prysock. Two songs on Born Under A Bad Sign reflect King's closeness to the Prysock tradition: "As the Years Go Passing By" and "The Very Thought of You." The two cuts are King's best vocal efforts on the album and are reason enough for concluding that King vocally is more at home with the richly melodic type of song common to that style than he is with straight blues or soul. This opinion was confirmed by the fact that "As the Years Go Passing By" was by far the single most moving performance I saw Albert do in the course of six different sets.
King is very happy at Stax. It is not widely known that he tried to get something going at Stax in the early days, back around 1962, when Jim Stewart was running the show single handedly. Nothing came of it but Albert found his way back to Stax about two and a half years ago. Almost all of the material on Born Under A Bad Sign originally appeared as singles, none of which ever really made it. While Al Jackson is the man who works most intimately with Albert, and is credited with being his producer, Albert is supported by everyone at Stax. Steve Cropper does a lot of technical work for King and plays rhythm guitar on many of his recordings. Booker T. does all of the horn arrangements.
King particularly enjoys working with the men at Stax. "Cold Feet," one of King's delightful singles, is an instrumental with King's voice almost mumbling brief comments about how he and the band are just trying to come up with a hit. It seems the song was recorded after a day in the studio during which king was unable to come up with anything of commercial value. Everyone was frustrated and they decided to lay down a simple instrumental. Albert soon got to swearing at his bad luck. Most of what he said had to be taken off the record because it was unfit for AM (or FM) radio. Jim Stewart more or less ran that particular session.
There are two things one realizes after seeing King perform on a good night. The first is that his guitar playing is more limited than his vocal work. The second is that within his limits, Albert King is one of the great contemporary bluesmen.
King's guitar style is like no other. I asked him who he had learned how to to play from and he answered, "Nobody. Everything I do is wrong." Indeed, it would seem so. King plays with his thumb, uses a low and unorthodox tuning, and plays a Vshaped Gibson (first brought to the public's attention by the wham of that "Memphis man," Lonnie Mack). None of this is normal.
Within the context of the bluesmen who have gotten to be well known with white audiences, Albert's frequent reliance on a shuffle tempo is also an anomaly. One of his numbers sounds very close to Arthur Smith's "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" of ten years ago. Albert likes the shuffle ("with a back-beat," if you please) because it breaks up the set. Albert needs to do that because he likes to linger over the numerous slow blues in his repetoire, the best of which is "Stormy Monday."
Albert's approach to this sort of material is very close to B. B.'s. They both rely on the slow buildup in tension with a mounting crescendo from the accompanists. However, Albert has to suffer by comparison, if for no other reason than his organist plays a Farfisa (compared to King's Hammond) and he lacks the horns which are so important in that that kind of build up. Nonetheless, when King puts everything into it and lets it roll on for a couple of choruses, it achieves the desired results and you can see the people standing up and calling out to him, applauding in the middle of the breaks and clapping in time. He does get to the audience.
In live performance it is "Lucy" and "Born Under A Bad Sign," two of Albert's best recordings, that suffer most from the lack of instrumental depth. On the other hand, "As the Years Go Passing By" is somehow simpler and sweeter without the encumbrance of horns and the live version surpasses even the beauty of the studio version. "Kansas City" is also great live. On the record it has one King's greatest horn arrangements. During the singing the horns lay out of the way but when they get to the instrumental segment they play against the guitar and change the whole direction of the beat. Live, the song is turned into a guitar tour de force and the tricky horn arrangement is forgotten. The result is a wholly different arrangement, but still great. (Although neither Albert nor anyone else has ever really come up to Wilbur Harrison's "Kansas City." Little Richard's version was a whole different song and that's quite a number too.)
King is not a big one for encores. But if he comes back and plays anything, most likely it will be a shuffle. The same kind of thing that he opened the set with only a bit faster. And if it's long and it builds just right it's enough to push the audience over the top. At his best Albert King leaves you wishing he meant it when he said at the beginning, "We're gonna roll all night long."
This story is from the October 26th, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.