We all stand on the shoulder of giants
Interviewing Albert King, one of the most influential - and intimidating - electric guitarists ever. Plus: an Albert Playlist. How he influenced Stevie Ray Vaughan so much and more.
“I play the singing guitar. That’s what I’ve always called it.“
-Albert King, to me, 1991
I’m writing this on April 25, which would have been blues great Albert King’s 98th birthday, making it a great day to honor my favorite guitarist.
Albert King was the number one influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Stevie was just about the only young acolyte that Albert allowed into his inner circle and regularly invited to sit in. we detailed this relationship in details in Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Not doing so would have been a complete abdication. Here’s a Texas Flood excerpt about the first time they played together, followed by a personal remembrance.
My personally curated Albert King playlist for you:
Excerpted from Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan:
In 1976, Albert King played Antone’s for the first time, on three consecutive nights, April 29 to May 1. Unlike some of the other blues greats, King had never given up his band or stopped touring regularly. He had his own tour bus, which he drove himself, and he arrived in Austin with his customary flair.
King was an intimidating man who stood 6-foot-5 with broad shoulders and usually had a pipe clenched between his teeth, which sparkled with gold. Onstage, his Gibson Flying V looked like a ukulele in his massive hands. His tough tone and aggressive playing style, marked by huge, multiple-string bends, were equally macho. The lefty held his right-handed guitar upside down and tuned in an enigmatic fashion that is still debated, the combination of which gave him a highly distinct style that’s been oft-copied but rarely duplicated. Stevie Ray Vaughan was an exception; Albert King’s style was at the very heart of his playing. He was not going to miss an opportunity to see his idol perform and hopefully to interact with him. Clifford Antone, who died in 2006, said that Stevie begged him to ask Albert to let him sit in.
JIMMIE VAUGHAN: We could argue about who’s the greatest, but Albert King is in that conversation. He was absolutely amazing. And he came to Antone’s with his great band and all his hit records. We’re all there. It’s a packed weekend night and Clifford says, “I’m gonna ask Albert to let Stevie sit in.” Well, nobody asked Albert King to sit in. That really was the rule, but Clifford tells him, “There’s this kid we call Little Stevie and you gotta hear him.” Albert tells him to do you-know-what to himself.
ANGELA STREHLI: Albert was a gruff person and wouldn’t take any nonsense, so for Clifford to even ask him to do this was quite incredible.
JIMMIE VAUGHAN: Clifford didn’t give up easily, so he does it again the next night: “That kid’s here…” Albert can’t believe he’s being asked again, so he says, “Now I’m curious. This better be good.” It was so far out: nobody would ask Albert King to sit in unless you were dumb or something. I don’t even know if Jimi Hendrix would do it.
GUS THORNTON, Albert King bassist: I played with Albert for years and only remember a few people sitting in. It’s not something he usually did.
JOE SUBLETT I was sitting right next to Stevie when Clifford came over and said, “Albert said you can come up.” None of us could believe it but if Clifford wanted you to do something, you were going to do it - apparently even Albert King!
STREHLI: Of course Stevie just burned, like he always did. There was little Stevie up there with big Albert killing it and it really tickled Albert--and all of us! He started playing Albert King licks and doing it really good, and Albert looks down and shakes his head.
JIMMIE VAUGHAN: It was bad ass. We all stood there with our mouths open as Stevie played really good Albert King licks.
SUBLETT: Stevie was shredding and Albert turned away his fretboard as if to say, “This young punk is ripping me off. I’m not going to let him see what I‘m doing.” He was paying big respect to Stevie because he couldn’t believe the skinny little white kid was pulling it off. Stevie was never intimidated on stage with his guitar, no matter the setting.
DEREK O’BRIEN: Stevie shocked Albert, who put on a show: when Stevie was soloing, Albert was taking his guitar and bunching the curtains around it, pretending to be scared. Stevie was winning Albert over. Albert knew Stevie was something different, and he let Stevie know that. It really felt like a milestone for Stevie.
THORNTON: Albert loved Stevie and his playing. A lot of people play Albert’s music but Stevie was about the only one who could get the touch and feel right.
JIMMIE VAUGHAN: Albert didn’t like anyone, but he liked Stevie! He put his arm around him, and from then on it was big Albert and little Stevie. Everybody went, “Whew, that was scary.” I would never have tried that, but you’ve got to admire the audacity.
Excerpted from Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, copyright 2019 Alan Paul & Andy Aledort. All right reserved.
I think Stevie did some of the finest, most focused playing of his career in this 1983 IN session performance with Albert.
Just days after I became the Guitar World Managing Editor in February, 1991, I sat at my desk listening two of my colleagues (“bosses” would have been the word I used) discussing an upcoming interview with Albert King, scheduled for the following week in Cleveland. It seemed they couldn’t think of anyone up to the task of interviewing the great and ornery bluesman. I shifted my weight, cleared my throat and waited for them to ask if I was interested. When the offer didn’t come, I piped up that King was my favorite guitarist and I would be honored to take the assignment. After a bit of back and forth, the job was mine.
As the day grew near, I became increasingly nervous. I desperately wanted to do a great job and he had a reputation as a tough, mean old man. I once saw him fire a sax player on the bandstand¾surely he’d cancel an interview without a second thought. I called his manager just before I left for the airport to verify our arrangements. “I told Albert about it,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll remember - and feel like doing it.”
My fears were in now ay unreasonable. Years later, I’d learn that my friend and Texas Flood co-author Andy Aledort approached Albert at a New York hotel room around the same time, introduced himself and said he’d like to interview him. Albert told him to fuck off. Despite having pre-arranged my meeting, there’s no doubt this could have happened.
I spent the day at my cousin Stephen’s house in Cleveland, preparing for the interview and growing increasingly edgy. Some time in the evening it started to snow. Then it started to really snow, and I drove to the theater through a driving blizzard. Albert was opening for Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King on a spinning theater in the round, and I fidgeted throughout his set. Following his performance, I arrived backstage at my appointed hour, praying that I would be granted an audience with the King.
I was brought to a small dressing room, crowded with band members and their lady friends. King shook my hand and pointed to a seat next to him. As we began to talk, he turned to the others and shouted, “Shut up! I’m doing an interview.” Silence fell over the room and all eyes and ears turned to me. I have never felt younger, whiter, shorter, or more insignificant in my life. Albert leaned forward and extended his long arm directly over my shoulder to get at some popcorn. Leaning close, he smiled, flashing two gold front teeth, and told me to commence my questioning.
For 45 minutes, Albert answered everything I threw at him, though when he considered something foolish or misguided, he shot me a look that could have frozen a volcano. He was patient, professional¾and every bit as intimidating as I could have imagined, which somehow made me happy. His personality fit his music to a tee¾no one has ever played the guitar with more authority or focused intent.
King, who died of a heart attack at age 69 on December 21, 1992, was a vastly influential guitarist for many reasons: He played with a raw ferocity that appealed equally to fellow bluesman and younger rockers. He was one of the first black electric bluesmen to cross over to white audiences, and one of the first to adapt his playing to Sixties funk and soul backings, on classics like “Born Under a Bad Sign.” But perhaps King’s ultimate legacy is that he embodied two of guitardom’s most sacred tenets¾what you don’t play counts as much as what you do, and speed can be learned, but feeling must come from within. The left-handed guitarist played “Lucy,” his upside-down flying V, with absolute conviction and economy. He could slice through a listener’s soul with a single screaming note, and play a gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring 10-minute solo without venturing above the 12th fret.
I last saw King perform about eight months before his death, at Tramp’s, a mid-sized Manhattan club. Arriving after midnight, I imagined his final set would be brief, even perfunctory, and was dismayed when he came onstage and sat down; his towering, 6’-5” hulk was always such a large part of his stage presence. Was he feeling infirm? I was further shaken up when he began noodling leads around the band’s funky vamp in the wrong key. I began to wonder if my hero had lost it, but even before the thought could fully form, he found his footing, caught the groove and began to soar.
King delivered a stirring, two-and-half hour performance, seeming to gain strength as the night wore on, closing the show at 3:00 AM with a coolly passionate version of “The Sky Is Crying” that will remain forever etched in my mind. I left the club with a renewed conviction that music is not about showing off, or impressing fellow musicians, or anything else other than creating sounds that forge a mystical bond with listeners. It’s something that Albert King did with unsurpassed skill.
Dig into Abert’s music in my personally curated playlist:
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.