Born Albert Nelson on 25 April 1923 in Indianola, Mississippi, Albert King was an influential blues singer and guitarist. In 1931 he moved with his mother, Mary Blevins; stepfather, Will Nelson; and twelve siblings to Osceola, Arkansas, where they worked as sharecroppers. His early musical influences included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James, and Lonnie Johnson as well as his stepfather, who played guitar. King taught himself to play first a homemade cigar box guitar and then a real guitar, which he purchased for $1.25 when he was nineteen years old. He developed a unique style in which he played the guitar left-handed but held the instrument upside-down and strung for a right-hander.
Supporting himself primarily by driving a bulldozer, King first performed with the In the Groove Boys. By the late 1940s he traveled to St. Louis and Chicago to become a professional musician. His first recordings were cut on the Parrot label, with “Bad Luck Blues” and “Be on Your Merry Way” enjoying reasonable popularity. After recording on the Bobbin, King, and Coun-Tree labels, King moved to Memphis in 1966 and began recording on Stax, a new soul label. Various singles were compiled into a 1967 album, Born under a Bad Sign, which included a number of hits, including the title track, “As the Years Go By,” and “The Hunter.” The album catapulted King into international fame among both black and white audiences. A top-selling live album, Live Wire/Blues Power, followed, further securing his importance in the music world.
King continued to perform and record throughout the 1970s. A large man (6ʹ4ʺ and 250 pounds) who played a Flying V–model Gibson guitar he called Lucy, King resembled another famous blues artist, B. B. King. Both men were from Indianola, and Albert occasionally claimed to be B. B.’s half-brother. Albert King’s varied and innovative musical efforts included a performance with the St. Louis Symphony; a show at the all-white Jackson First Baptist Church; Lovejoy, an album recorded with a group of white southern rock singers; an Elvis Presley tribute album, Blues for Elvis: Albert King Does the King’s Things; and a comedy album with Albert Brooks. King retired from recording in the 1980s but continued to perform, influencing and encouraging younger blues players such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1983.
King died of a heart attack on 21 December 1992, two days after a concert in Los Angeles. His funeral procession was held on Memphis’s Beale Street, and he was buried in Edmondson, Arkansas.
- Sheldon Harris, Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (1994)
- Gérard Herzhaft, Encyclopedia of the Blues (1997)
- Greg Johnson, Blues Notes: A Monthly Publication of the Cascade Blues Association (September 1999)
- Robert Santelli, The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia (2001)