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Live in Sweden
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Live in Sweden

This concert film presents Albert King in top form, and tearing through signature songs such as “The Sky Is Crying” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The program also features an in-depth interview with the legendary guitarist.

The Soul-Blues Master

9 Min Read

Though it’s probably safe to assume that Albert King never sought to codify an entirely new blues-related genre so late in his career, he became a soul-blues pioneer almost by default after he signed with Stax in 1966 when he was in his 40s (a rarity in itself for a label concerned primarily with appealing to the youth market).  

His life up to that point had been a pretty characteristic modern blues man’s story. Born Albert Nelson in 1923 on a plantation near Indianola, Miss., he taught himself drums and guitar early (being left-handed, he created his own versions of standard chords and tunings). In Gary, Ind., in the early ‘50, he worked as Jimmy Reed’s percussionist; he also recorded for the Chicago-based Parrot label. He eventually relocated to St. Louis, where he signed with Bobbin and finally hit the charts in 1961 with “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong.”

After he joined Stax, all it took was funkified comping from Booker T. & the MGs — along with some brawny horn arrangements — and the fully realized Albert King blues-and-soul crossover sound was complete. His voice, gruff and aggressive but underlain with tenderness, conveyed both machismo and vulnerability; his trademark reverse-action string-bends and descending note clusters became among the most imitated guitar techniques in blues. 

After landing 11 R&B chart hits between 1966 and 1974 — including such iconic sides as “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Angel of Mercy,” “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and his version of the Ann Peebles hit “Breaking up Somebody’s Home” — he moved to the Utopia label, and later to Tomato, in the process adding seven more hits to his resume (“Cadillac Assembly Line,” “Call My Job,” et al.).

But unlike some who attained mainstream recognition late in their careers, King never abandoned the venues or the listeners with whom he’d gotten his start. He was one of the few straight-ahead blues artists to remain popular, both on record and in performance, among Black and white audiences. It was not unusual for him to return home from a European tour and do shows at a club like East of the Ryan on Chicago’s South Side or Club Paradise in Memphis.

The man who vowed in ‘Cadillac Assembly Line’ to find a job where he ‘won’t have to keep sayin’ ‘Yassah, Boss’’ lived both his life and his music according to that credo.

King’s music didn’t change much, either, nor did his onstage persona. He might have softened his voice a bit for a string-sweetened blues like “Sensation, Communication Together” (1976) and he could ride the bucking cadences of a hard-funk outing like “Chump Change” (1978) with the street aplomb of a soul man 30 years his junior, but his guitar sound remained uncompromising: Sharp-toned, straightforward and unerringly focused, it was devoid of even a hint of the kind of neo-Hendrix histrionics that other rediscovered blues guitarists sometimes found themselves accused of indulging. He refused to pander. The man who vowed in “Cadillac Assembly Line” to find a job where he “won’t have to keep sayin’ ‘Yassah, Boss’” lived both his life and his music according to that credo.

As he sang in “Born Under a Bad Sign,” his literacy skills were limited at best, yet he was nonetheless a savvy professional. It’s unclear exactly when he altered his professional surname to “King,” but it was sometime in the ‘50s during B.B. King’s early heyday; for a time he even encouraged the rumor that he was B.B.’s half-brother, and he named his own guitar “Lucy” in obvious homage to the better known “Lucille.”

In performance, the mood he created always conveyed an echo of the throbbing, underlying threat of danger that had permeated early juke-joint culture and remained a significant facet of blues expression and performance throughout the days of the Chitlin’ Circuit and beyond.  The character he embodied was that of the case-hardened “Cadillac Assembly Line” worker out for a well-earned good time on a Saturday night, lusty and ready for fun, but just as ready to defend his manhood against any and all comers.    

The seven-song set on “Live in Sweden” from 1980 finds King backed by a full-bodied band, complete with a crisp horn section, obviously meant to replicate his classic-era Stax sound. The collective kicks things off with a deep-soul vamp set to blues changes, immediately establishing the soul-blues feel that had by then become King’s trademark.

King makes his entrance in vintage style, a combination of swagger and defiance, tossing his hat onto an amp, barely acknowledging either his band or his audience. With his ever-present pipe still clenched between his teeth, he straps on his Flying V and launches into a veritable Albert King fretboard workshop: string bends that seem to relax into the keynotes rather than reach for them; leads — economical, even sparse, yet emotionally explosive — fired off in a velvet-sheathed-in-steel tone.  

Cocky, confident, a little intimidating, he establishes his primacy immediately; it’s a stance he’ll maintain throughout the set. He may acknowledge applause with a brief smile or a nod or occasionally gesture toward the band, but in general he won’t deign to entertain or put on a show in the usual sense — there’s no need. After all, we came to see him.

If, as Duke Ellington told us, ‘a drum is a woman,’ for a bluesman like King, so is his guitar.

With Lucy, though, it’s a different story. King attacks the guitar with an almost atavistic fury, punctuating his leads with grunts and gasps, sometimes caressing but more often prying the notes out from under his fingers. Musically, it’s a dialogue between the coarse masculinity of his singing voice and Lucy’s feminine-toned responses. If, as Duke Ellington told us, “a drum is a woman,” for a bluesman like King, so is his guitar. Not the phallic symbol of rock ‘n’ roll macho fantasy, it’s a sweet-voiced companion demanding her due and her satisfaction.

Especially with a stylist like King, whose technique is so precise that a listener can discern the actual syntax of his musical statements as if they were spoken words, we feel as if we’re privy to an intimate conversation between a man and his woman, each vying for dominance yet dangling submission like bait. 

True to form, though, King remains determined to emerge the victor, even if it means losing a skirmish or two along the way. His protagonist in song stands up to the vicissitudes of life as a working-class Black man, struggling against overwork and humiliation (“Call my job, tell my boss I won’t be in”) as resolutely as he demands his due as a lover. 

In his hands, even a hard-times lament like “Born Under a Bad Sign” comes off as a survivor’s boast more than self-pity — if, as King suggests toward the end, “a big-leg woman gonna carry me to my grave,” well, there are far worse ways to die.  

Even when he softens the edges a bit, as on a surprisingly tender reading of Elmore James’  “The Sky Is Crying,” that voice-guitar call-and-response dialogue remains the song’s driving impetus, as he confesses his heartbreak to Lucy and she responds alternately with coos, caresses and sharp-tongued admonitions. His own solo, meanwhile, bristles with ferocity — whether it’s anger at the wayward woman of the lyrics or an expression of determination not to be cowed by her infidelity is difficult to tell, but it’s safe to say that beneath any sorrow or hurt lurks a roiling undercurrent of aggression. 

When that kind of defiance is directed toward life itself (and, by implication, the “boss” of “Call My Job” or “Cadillac Assembly Line”), it can be inspiring and empowering; when aimed at a lover (as in “Laundromat Blues,” a thinly veiled death threat not included in this set), it can be something considerably more ominous.

The complexity of King’s persona is probably most evident in his ballads. “The Very Thought of You,” his last chart hit (from 1979), at the time seemed intended to recast him as a Billy Eckstine-style crooner. In performance, without the leavening effect of a string backing, it’s revealed as an almost cinematically vivid portrayal of the fighter as a lover. King’s dusky croon is shot through with a tenderness that sounds all the more treasured for being hard-earned, as if he’s finally unsheathing his heart and hoisting it like a victor’s cup.  

Another ballad, “As the Years Go Passing By,” dates back to a 1969 Atlantic release; it never charted, but over the years it became closely associated with King (it was first recorded by Fenton Robinson in 1959). In this performance, he kicks it off with a rare concession to showmanship (“Do we have any lovers in here?”). The wounded, tough-tender persona he hints at in “The Sky Is Crying” and lays bare in “The Very Thought of You” is again at the fore, though somewhat ameliorated by the song’s blues structure and hard-bitten message. (“My love will follow you as the years go passing by” could almost be taken as a threat of ghostly stalking.)  

Unfortunately, an interview segment cuts into what sounds like the development of a thrilling guitar break, but the overall spirit of the song still comes through, and King’s church-like moans toward the end, as well as his final guitar solo — pristine, clear and liquid, the aural equivalent of tears falling — are worth the wait.

The band, Nirvana, takes over for an uptempo, soul-jazz version of “Summertime.” At one point, at the beginning of “As the Years Go Passing By,” King fixes the group with one of his infamous laser-glares and shouts out an imprecation or two, then perhaps aware he’s on camera lets up and relaxes back into the song.

Watching this film four decades later, one appreciates more than ever the depths of King’s gifts. It’s not just his facility as a guitarist, which was certainly among the most notable of his time; nor is it just the quality of his material, which can be attributed to the ace songwriters on whose work he emblazoned his identity, as well as his own obvious affection for, and mastery of conveying, a good story well told. More than anything else, it’s his gift of conveying deep meaning — musical, emotional — with no overkill, no emoting or pyrotechnics, no succumbing to the temptation to take the easy way out and rely on bathos instead of pathos. 

Improving on Dizzy Gillespie’s adage — “It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play” — King learned that lesson early on, becoming a master at allowing each note, and every subtly realized vocal nuance, to tell its own story. Even more importantly, he never forgot that the silence between those notes could tell their own stories as eloquently as the notes themselves. By allowing his music and his art the space to breathe, King ensured that it would stay alive, forever. 

David Whiteis is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He is a past winner of the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. He is the author of “Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories”; “Southern Soul-Blues”; and “Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago,” and the co-author of “Always the Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story.” His articles have appeared in numerous blues and jazz magazines, both in the U.S. and overseas.

David Whiteis is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He is a past winner of the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. He is the author of “Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories”; “Southern Soul-Blues”; and “Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago,” and the co-author of “Always the Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story.” His articles have appeared in numerous blues and jazz magazines, both in the U.S. and overseas.

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