B.B. King, Albert King and Freddie King, not related but all of them legends, and their styles are much copied by the best of the later blues guitarists. Signature licks that permeate the genre almost played note for note, only separated by the inflections and soul of the players, and there are many of them, myself included.
Riley B. King, better known as BB King, was born on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, September 16, 1925. Close to Indianola, Mississippi he began his storied life playing for dimes on street corners, sometimes in as many as 4 towns in a single night; In 1947 he moved to Memphis Tennessee and moved in with his cousin, Bukka White, a famous bluesman in his own right, who taught BB a lot about playing and singing the blues. BB’s first big break came in 1948 when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM from West Memphis. That got him steady work at the 16th Ave. Grill, and later a 10-minute radio slot on WDIA. The show was known as “Kings Spot” and it became so popular it evolved into an expanded version called the “Sepia Swing Club”. This all led to how BB got his name. He started out as Beale Street Blues Boy, and then shortened it to Blues Boy King, and eventually BB King. Lucille, BB’s guitar, got her name when BB was playing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas. Two men got into a fight and kicked over a kerosene stove, setting the hall ablaze. BB fled the room with the other patrons but then realized he had left his guitar inside and rushed back in to save it, barely making it back to safety. When BB found out the fight was over a woman named Lucille, he named his guitar, and every guitar from then on, Lucille. It was a reminder never to do a crazy thing like fight over a woman. In his own words, “when I sing, I play in my mind, the minute I stop singing orally I start to sing by playing Lucille” … BB died on May 14th, 2015 … BTW BB King live at the Regal (1964) is one of the best live albums ever!!!
Albert King Nelson, known as Albert King was born April 25, 1923 in Indianola, Mississippi, on a cotton plantation. He sang in a gospel group at a church where his father played the guitar. One of 13 children, he worked picking cotton near Forrest City, Arkansas, where he finally moved with his family when he was eight years old. And here we have another confusing background, as he claimed to be BB’s half-brother because he was born in Indianola, and because BB’s fathers name was Albert, but when he applied for a social security card, he said his birthplace was Aberdeen, Mississippi, and signed his name as Albert Nelson, listing Will Nelson as his father. Either way, as BB would say, “Albert wasn’t my brother in blood, but he was my brother in blues.” He made his first guitar out of a cigar box, a piece of a bush and a strand of broom wire, later when he could afford it he bought a guitar for $1.25. Once he’d made it though he played a Gibson flying V. He was left handed and self-taught, so he played it with the strings set and tuning as if it were a right handed guitar, thus he would pull down to bend notes as opposed to bending up as most guitarists do. He had to pick cotton, drive a bulldozer and worked construction until he could become a professional musician.
He started with a band in Osceola, Arkansas, with a band called the Groove Boys. Later he moved to Gary, Indiana, and later St. Louis, Missouri, where he briefly played drums for Jimmy Reed. But the guitar was his main instrument, influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. Finally landing in Chicago in 1953 where he cut his first single for Parrot Records, but it was only a minor regional success, so it was back to St. Louis to form a new band. In 1959 he recorded his first hit, “I’m a Lonely Man” written by Little Milton, a guitar hero of his and an A&R man from Bobbin Records. In 1966 he moved to Memphis, where he signed with the Stax Record Label. It was there that he recorded dozens of influential songs like “Crosscut Saw” and “As The Years Go Passing By” with Booker T. and the MG’s. These songs were produced by Al Jackson Jr. whose own career speaks volumes. In 1947 he recorded “Born Under A Bad Sign” that has been covered by numerous artists, most notably, Cream. His style influenced many great guitarists, but Stevie Ray Vaughan credits his as having been his greatest influence. Albert died from a heart attack December 21,1992, in Memphis, only 2 days after his last live performance in Los Angeles.
Freddie King, the Texas Cannonball was born in Gilmer, Texas, September 3, 1934. Story has it that his father’s mother told him that her grandfather, a full blooded Choctaw Indian prophesied that she would have a child that will “stir the souls of millions and inspire and influence generations”, and that he surely did. His mother and her brother played guitar and once they had noticed Freddie’s interest in music, started teaching him at the age of six. His early heroes were Sam Lightning Hopkins, who he attributes his thumb finger picking style, and, of all people, Louis Jordan, the bebop sax player, whose style on the sax was an inspiration for his phrasing. He would practice playing along with Louis Jordan records until he could match note for note Mr. Jordan’s sax runs on his guitar. His first guitar was a Silvertone acoustic that he ordered at the general store. The owner of the store asked Freddie if his mother knew he was buying a guitar on her account, and he said no, so he had to ask for permission. Ella Mae said no way; if you want a guitar you’re going to have to work for it. So he picked cotton long enough to earn the money to pay for his Roy Roger Silvertone guitar. Freddie’s mother moved to Chicago to be with her brothers Felix, Leonard and Willie King, but Freddie’s father J.T. wanted Freddie to stay and finish high school, which he did. In 1952 Freddie married a Texas girl, Jessie Burnett, who was a solid influence on him.
He would work in the steel mills during the days and did gigs at night, occasionally doing sideman gigs and recording sessions. Chicago in those days had two Blues locals; the south side had the big blues sound with horns and piano and the occasional harp (harmonica) player. The westside had smaller venues, like bars and taverns where the younger players could gig as trios, and that’s where Freddie formed his first band, The Every Hour Blues Boys. Finally, in 1956 he got to record for a local label, El-Bee Records, where, he was starting to get noticed with a little help from Robert Lockwood Jr. He finally got an audition with Chess Records where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter were signed. He was rejected because the powers that be at Chess thought he sounded too much like BB King. Freddie took this as a blessing because it made him find his own style and voice. Songs like “The Stumble” and “Hide Away” are classics, and to this day Eric Clapton’s version of Hide Way on the Blues Breakers record stand the test of time.
Long live the King, all the Kings of the Blues
One of the underlying connections in the story of the blues is how many of the players all came from Mississippi. Must be something in the water down there or perhaps the fact that being raised on a plantation, in the Deep South, as a farm hand, picking cotton was enough to give anyone the blues. But who are we kidding. In the memoir of Alan Lomax, noted folklorist, ethnomusicologist, archivist, wrote” The Land Where the Blues Began“ He links the blues to segregation, forced labor and debt peonage in the deep south. Debt peonage is a form of modern day slavery, but through this music some would find the freedom they were looking for and so richly deserved.
Thus ends my blogs on my early influences. I’ve always loved the blues, it’s honesty, and straight on truthfulness will always be a part of my music in some fashion. I hope you’ve enjoyed these little history lessons, and I really hope you all check out these players. I think you’ll find that they can articulate a real emotion with a few notes, and heartfelt vocal styling’s.
I’ll be taking a vacation from bloggin’ but would love to hear from you all as to what you would like to hear from me in my next go ‘round of Bloggin’ Floggin’ … there is certainly more I could write about the blues and influences, but perhaps something new would be in order – let me know!