Albert King - The Velvet Bulldozer Albert King - The Velvet Bulldozer

Albert King, Chicago, 1974

Photos Courtesy Jim O'Neal & Amy Van Singel

When bluesman Albert King signed with Stax Records in 1966, he was a big deal — both literally and figuratively.

Standing at an estimated 6 feet, 4 inches and weighing over 250 pounds, he struck a hard-to-forget figure. He also struck a chord – or series of many chords, as it were – at the label that had primarily recorded only soul and R&B music. With King’s signing at Stax, all of that would change for the label, and the label would forever change the career of the man who had been forced to supplement his musician’s income for years by driving a bulldozer and working as a mechanic by day while laying down some of the most memorable blues guitar licks in the music world by night.

Photo Courtesy Jim O'Neal

Delta Beginnings

Delta Beginnings

Born Albert King Nelson on April 25, 1923 in Indianola, Mississippi (also the hometown of BB King), King grew up, like many musicians of his time, performing in his family’s gospel group at church. At age eight, King and his family moved to Forrest City, Arkansas, where he picked cotton and switched his focus from gospel to the blues around him. He also started learning how to play the guitar, influenced by the likes of T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He first played a diddley bow, then a cigar box guitar he made himself until finally buying his first guitar for a whopping price of $1.25.

King signed onto his first professional music gig in the late 1940s, when he joined a band named In the Groove Boys in Osceola, Arkansas, performing at night at the T-99 Club, which was a regular stop for famed bluesmen of the time. From Osceola, King moved around during the 1950s with stops in Gary, Indiana, St. Louis and Chicago, at times working as a drummer on stage and recording for Jimmy Reed. In St. Louis in 1959, King formed a new band and had his first minor hit, “I’m a Lonely Man,” written by future Stax labelmate Little Milton Campbell for the Bobbin Records label.

Upside Down and Backwards

Upside Down and Backwards

During this time, King began developing his unique sound; he was left-handed but played right-handed guitar upside down and backwards, preferring to play with his fingers and thumb instead of a pick.

He bought his first electric guitar at a pawnshop in Little Rock, Arkansas and soon after, purchased the instrument which would become his famous trademark: a Gibson Flying V. He had other moderate successes on the Parrot and King Records labels, with one 1961 hit, “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me Too Strong,” reaching Number 14 on the R&B chart.

Years Gone By ablum art
Lonely Man
Albert King
Years Gone By

Albert King, South Bend, Indiana 1975

Photos Courtesy Jim O'Neal

Albert King The Velvet Bulldozer The Velvet Bulldozer

It was in 1966, however, that the man who’d become known as the “Velvet Bulldozer” got his first big break. Al Bell, an Arkansas-born disc jockey who had been mesmerized by King from the first time he heard him and who joined Stax Records in 1965 as its first promotions man, lured King to Stax. The chemistry was undeniable.

According to Bell, “When I finally got Albert King to Stax, there were two people there who made sure he had exactly the right songs: [Stax Records owners] Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. They loved him. They were blown away by his singing and, of course, his guitar playing. But they were also just blown away by him. There was something about Albert King. He was a standup guy with a temper but a great sense of humor. He had come up in East St. Louis, from that hard living environment. And that toughness and passion for survival was in every breath he sang and every note he squeezed out of that guitar.”

Albert King, Chicago, 1974

Photos Courtesy Jim O'Neal & Amy Van Singel

Born Under a Bad Sign

Along with Stewart and Axton, King hit it off with singer and songwriter William Bell, and backing band Booker T. & the MGs. They began recording singles that would forever alter the blues genre.

They began recording singles that would forever alter the blues genre.

Starting with “Laundromat Blues,” and moving onto “Crosscut Saw,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” and other hits, Stax released King’s first LP in 1967, "Born Under a Bad Sign". It was a collection of those and other singles and it became one of the most influential blues albums in history. Not only did it resonate with traditional blues fans, but it also caught the attention of the burgeoning white rock audience. King became an almost instant influence on rockers such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and, later and most notably, Stevie Ray Vaughn. King’s newfound success at Stax led San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham to begin booking him at his famed Fillmore East and Fillmore West clubs. These and other more mainstream performances further solidified King’s crossover success and legendary status.

A Foray into Funk

Ever evolving and pushing the musical envelope, King began a foray into funk when he teamed up with Stax stalwarts the Bar-Kays, the Memphis Horns, and Isaac Hayes’ back up vocal group The Movement for the 1972 I’ll Play the Blues for You LP and 1974’s I Wanna Get Funky. Unfortunately, Stax Records was quickly succumbing to the economy, racism, legal troubles, and other factors that would force it into involuntary bankruptcy. King left the label in 1975 when it folded.

Albert King, South Bend, Indiana 1975

Photos Courtesy Jim O'Neal

King moved on to record on other labels but never with the mass success he enjoyed at Stax, although his 1983 album, San Francisco ’83, earned a Grammy nomination and much critical acclaim.

Throughout most of the rest of his career, King toured globally to adoring fans and remained one of the few blues artists who could attract large audiences of both black and white fans. During the 1980s he continued to be a powerful influence on a whole new generation of young rock and blues artists and performed regularly until his death on December 21, 1992 in Memphis. King was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2013.

The End The End

What Others are Saying

  1. suuuuuper great page, great pics, this is a good tribute to the one and only KING OF THE BLUES

    DREECE KING
  2. I played six shows with Albert in NYC in 1979 @ the Lone Star Café. A thrill I’ll always cherish.

    Gary Mitchell Gray
  3. May JAH continue to bless all of those associated with Stax Records… But I ain’t done yet without having to say may God grant Albert King’s eternal repose… Thanks to ever-lasting track: ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’ More importantly, may Memphians try bestowing temporal blessings indiscriminately international I pray….

    Godwins Okay-Jay Okeh

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