Albert King’s mammoth physical presence —he weighed more than 250 pounds and stood 6-foot-4 —was reflected in his harsh, imposing vocals and biting, influential blues style.
He bought his first guitar for $1.25 sometime around 1931 (he later played a left-handed Gibson Flying V), and his first inspiration was T-Bone Walker.
For a long while he had to work nonmusic jobs to survive (including bulldozer operator and mechanic), but in the late ’40s King settled in Osceola, Arkansas, and worked local gigs with the In the Groove Boys. He then migrated north, where he played drums for Jimmy Reed and also sang and played guitar on his own singles, including “Lonesome in My Bedroom” and “Bad Luck Blues” for the Parrot label in 1953.
King then moved to St. Louis and formed another band, but he didn’t record again until 1959, when he signed to the local Bobbin label. He worked for several small companies in the early ’60s, including King Records, which released his 1961 hit “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me Too Strong” (#14 R&B). But King’s real break came in 1966, when he signed to Stax. Using the label’s famed Memphis sidemen, he cut some of his best-known works, including “Laundromat Blues” (1966) and his album Born Under a Bad Sign, made with Booker T. and the MG’s in 1967. King began to break through to white audiences: He appeared at the first Fillmore East show on March 8, 1968, with Tim Buckley and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and also played at the hall’s closing on June 27, 1971. (A live album, Live Wire/Blues Power, had been recorded at Fillmore West.)
In November 1969 King played with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, forming what was termed “an 87-piece blues band.” Over the years his songs have been covered by Free, John Mayall, the Electric Flag, and others. He toured more than ever in the ’70s, though he left Stax in 1974. King signed to Utopia in 1976 and to Tomato in 1978, charting some minor R&B singles. In 1990 he made a guest appearance on guitarist Gary Moore’s Still Got the Blues, and he continued to perform until his death from a heart attack at age 69. At King’s funeral, Joe Walsh —just one of many six-string disciples —paid tribute with a slide-guitar rendition of “Amazing Grace.”