Wednesday, May 24, 2006

King Albert!

Albert King - Crosscut Saw

Albert King (born Albert Nelson) has been featured once on the podcast, and discussed briefly in a post from a couple of weeks ago, but today he gets the "King"-size treatment. King is my favorite blues guitarist, and during a very short period at which I tried to pick up guitar I bent the hell out of my strings to get his mercurial sound, to no avail.

Although King had been recording since the early '50s (initially as a drummer on some Jimmy Reed sessions; King was driving a bulldozer as a day job) for several labels and had a hit with "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" in 1961, it wasn't until he hooked up with Stax Records in 1966 that he became a blues phenomenon. Ably backed on his '60s sides by Booker T. & The MG's, King parlayed his unique sound (due in part to his left-handedness, which resulted in his playing his Gibson Flying V, "Lucy," upside-down) into eight or nine years of soul-flavored blues (such as his first Stax record, "Laundromat Blues"), straight-ahead soul (1972's "I'll Play the Blues For You") and funk ("Cold Feet" and "I Love Lucy"). After Stax's demise he recorded for several labels and toured regularly until his death in 1992.

King's influence in the rock world was immense, influencing everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughn and playing at rock venues such as San Francisco's famous Fillmore Auditorium (he was the first blues act to do so). King also had no problem playing a wide range of material, from straight-ahead blues ("Laundromat Blues") to straight-ahead soul ("I'll Play The Blues For You") to funk ("Cold Feet") to standards ("The Very Thought of You"). Although not as strong a vocalist as his namesake B.B., King had a smoky singing voice and a direct approach (one writer said that his singing sounded like "a man having the last word in an argument") that served him well.

Today's selection is a 1973 (or was it '74?) remake of his 1967 hit "Crosscut Saw." The Bar-Kays replaced Booker T. & The MG's rhumba-oriented groove of the original with a nice stomping Memphis funk. The single version of the song keeps the funk throughout, but the album version (featured here) finds King in the mood to reminisce, so about halfway through they switch to the original groove. Although there are places where it appears the band is in a hurry to get back to the funk, King leisurely works his way along to the extent that it appears that the new groove was simply an envelope for the old one. When the band brings back the funk it's almost enough to make you say "school is out," because King has shown his whole bag of tricks. It's a great recording.

As awesome as King's records were, however, he cut a bold figure as a live act. A physically intimidating figure (6'4", 250 pounds), King would work the stage and the band as if he were on a construction crew, puffing away at his pipe and working it out on the guitar. Here is a video of King, doing "Blues Power." It's good stuff.

1 comment:

I. M. Spartacus said...

Readers of this blog who watch this video will see one of the most distinctive aspects of King's technique. Like Elizabeth Cotten, writer of the folk standard "Freight Train", King plays his guitar upside down and backwards! Jimi Hendrix used to like to have the controls close to him, so he used to re-string right handed guitars and play them upside down, until he could have them custom-made. As a young man, Albert King couldn't afford lessons and he only had access to a right-handed guitar, so he played it in the non-traditional way. You can see this in the "Blues Power" video.