Albert King: Big Blues Royalty
Mississippi-bred bluesman Albert King was as masterful a string bender as the blues has yet produced. He exerted an especially powerful influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan, who launched his major-league career in 1983 by blasting textbook Albert King licks through David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Soon after the song became a hit, Vaughan revealed his strategy for the session: "I wanted to see how many places Albert King's stuff would fit. It always does. I love that man." Vaughan's passion for King never diminished -- the licks in his final hit, "Crossfire," likewise paid aural tribute to the man. And on the stunning title track duet from Vaughan?s new posthumous release, Blues at Sunrise, Stevie trades off solos with the man who set him on the path of sonic discovery.
Vaughan was not alone in his admiration of the gruff, 6-foot-four, 250-pound bluesman. Long before Stevie stepped into the spotlight, Eric Clapton was recasting King's solos in Cream (Clapton's "Strange Brew" performance was a nearly direct cop), and Jimi Hendrix was lacing King's licks through "Red House."
Born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1923, King played a one-string diddley bow before fashioning himself a crude guitar made from a cigar box, branch, and broom wires. "Sounded good," he recounted during an early interview. "I had all of the strings tuned different, but I had to use the same grade wire on all six. I kept that guitar for a long time, but it got burned up in a fire." King often claimed to have seen Blind Lemon Jefferson play in Forest City, Arkansas, although this account is questionable, since the great Texas bluesman was dead by 1929. King would also list T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Lonnie Johnson, Elmore James, and Howlin' Wolf as major influences, although little of their styles were discernible in his idiosyncratic playing.
At age 18, Albert acquired his first real guitar, a Guild acoustic, and then graduated to an Epiphone electric. He occasionally sang with a gospel group, the Harmony Kings, but mostly supported himself by driving heavy rigs for construction crews around Arkansas. During the early 1950s he found work as the drummer for bluesman Jimmy Reed. "We were playing them little small joints, and it got to where Jimmy wouldn't stay sober and wouldn't work half the time, so I said, 'Hell, I'm going to make a record myself.'" He auditioned for Parrot Records, and in November 1953 recorded his first single, "(Be on Your) Merry Way" backed with "Bad Luck." "I didn't get any money out of it," he recalled, "but it kind of helped make a name for me, you know." It would be another six years before he recorded again under his own name, for Bobbin Records in St. Louis.
Beginning in the 1960s, King went through a succession of Flying Vs, which he invariably called "Lucy" in response to B.B. King having named his guitars "Lucille." Like his fellow southpaw Otis Rush, King played "backwards," flipping over a standard-strung right-hand guitar, so his thickest strings were nearest his toes. He also adapted an unusual tuning -- CFCFAD, going from low to high -- and favored a wound G string. "I knew I was going to have to create my own style," he explained, "because I couldn't make the changes and the chords the same as a right-handed man could. I play a few chords, but not many. I always concentrated on my singing guitar sound -- more of a sustained note."
King cut records for Chess, Bobbin, King, and Coun-Tree during the early and mid '60s, and then struck pay dirt when he signed with Stax Records. Featuring Booker T. & The MG's and the Memphis Horns, his 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign is a blues classic, featuring such enduring songs as "Crosscut Saw," "The Hunter," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "As the Years Go Passing By," and the title track. Its impact on blues players was immediate and far-ranging, and within a year of its release, King had crossed over to the burgeoning hippie crowd. A 1968 performance in San Francisco, during which he shared billings with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, inspired Jerrold Greenberg to write in Rolling Stone, "The least contrived, certainly the most 'old-fashioned' of the three, Albert King was nonetheless the only consummate artist among them, the only one who could play on the full emotional range of his audience with as much facility as he used to sustain a note on his guitar." At the same time, King was scoring hits on black radio, a feat B.B. King and other black bluesmen were unable to duplicate.
Michael Bloomfield, an avowed King disciple, frequently saw him play. "He was a huge, immense man, and his hands would just dwarf his Flying V guitar," he described to journalist Dan Forte. "He played with his thumb, and he played horizontally -- across the fingerboard, as opposed to vertically. He approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he played exactly like a singer. As a matter of fact, his guitar playing has almost more of a vocal range than his voice does -- which is unusual, because if you look at B.B. or Freddie King or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing. They sing real high falsetto notes, then drop down into the mid-register. Albert just sings in one sort of very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner's vibrato, almost like a lounge singer, but his guitar playing is just as vocal as possible. 'I Love Lucy' is a good example of that. He makes the guitar talk. His attack, the timbre, the tone -- it's always right. He can say more with fewer notes than anybody I've ever known."
Bloomfield was also struck with King's consistency: "I've never seen him once when he wasn't vital, exciting, and not shucking. I've seen every blues singer there is shuck at one time or another, but I've never seen Albert do it once. He's always giving 100 percent of himself -- much more than I would."
This came through loud and clear on 1968's Live Wire/Blues Power, recorded live at the Fillmore Auditorium, as well as on Wednesday Night in San Francisco and Thursday Night in San Francisco, which were recorded at the same time as Live Wire. Other must-haves from King's catalog include the 1972 Stax studio album I'll Play the Blues for You, Blues at Sunrise (recorded at the 1973 Montreux Festival with Donald Kinsey on second guitar), and Rhino's two-disc, career-spanning Albert King: The Ultimate Collection.
King, who was fond of Stevie Ray Vaughan, was aware that the younger guitarist had fired some of his patented licks through the Bowie record. When the two met for a Canadian public television broadcast in December '83, Vaughan explained to Forte, King was ready for him: "He said, 'Yeah, I heard you doin' all my shit on there. I'm gonna go up there and do some of yours.' We were doing this TV show outside of Toronto, and during the lunch break Albert went around to everybody in there looking for an emery board. I didn't think anything of it. We were jamming on the last song, 'Outskirts of Town,' and it comes to the solo, and he goes, 'Get it, Stevie!' I started off, and I look over and he's pulling out this damn emery board, filing his nails, sort of giving me this sidelong glance. I loved it! Lookin' at me like, 'Uh-huh. I got you swinging by your toes!'"
Albert King outlived Stevie Ray Vaughan by two years, passing away on December 21, 1992.
Johnny Copeland: The Texas Twister
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Copeland may have been a generation apart in age and cultural upbringing, but they shared a profound love of Texas blues and, in significant ways, were both the musical descendants of T-Bone Walker. During the recording of "Tin Pan Alley (aka Roughest Place in Town)," released for the first time on Vaughan's Blues At Sunrise, they easily found common ground. Whereas Stevie favored a trio format, melding visceral electric blues with the hyper-charged rock of Jimi Hendrix, Lonnie Mack, Eric Clapton, and others, Copeland framed his hard blues solos with soul and funk rhythms played by a crack eight-piece band with horns. Onstage in his prime, Copeland was hotter than Houston in July. In 1981, Rolling Stone proclaimed that his Copeland Special "may have been the best-received blues album debut in history."
The son of sharecroppers, Copeland was born in Haynesville, Louisiana, on March 27, 1937. He, too, worked the cotton fields, and at age 11 inherited his father's acoustic guitar. Two years later, he moved to Houston, where he supported himself by shining shoes and prizefighting; years later, the toughness that led to his becoming a successful boxer drove his music as well. His first professional gig in music was with Joe Hughes' Duke of Rhythms, where he was encouraged to sing blues cover songs. During the summer of 1955, he replaced Albert Collins in Clarence Samuels' band and soon made his recording debut, using his cranked-up guitar to imitate a chicken in Samuels' raucous Excello single "Chicken Hearted Woman."
Whenever he could, Copeland would watch his favorite performers, T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, engage in battles of the bands. "When Gate and T would come on in, it would be something big," Copeland said in an interview. "That was the heavyweight stuff. T-Bone was my main influence -- he had a beautiful style." Like B.B. King, Copeland learned to rely on his wrist, rather than his fingers, for vibrato. During the late '50s and '60s, Copeland cut singles in Houston for Mercury, All Boy, Paradise, Golden Eagle, Bragg, Suave, Wand, Kent, and other indies. He had regional successes with 1961's "Please Let Me Know" and 1962's "Down on Bending Knees," and toured the chitlin circuit for years, sometimes backing Lowell Fulson, Percy Mayfield, and Freddie King. In 1966, Copeland began working soul revues as well, which caused him to focus on rhythm guitar. "You would mostly just accompany the singer," he recalled. "Other than that, though, most of the music I've played is the same thing I've played since I've been in the business. We just hit the guitar and start singing."
During the mid '70s, Copeland saw his audiences dwindling, so he left Houston for Harlem. "The blues started dying out, because at this time disco was just beginning to boom," he said. "I didn't realize there was no blues scene in New York at the time, so I moved up to Harlem and created one. I worked at Marcel's on 126th and Lennox -- a tough neighborhood, but I'm tough too. I'm from Texas, partner."
In search of a distinctive sound, Copeland swapped his Stratocaster for a Peavey P-90, which he described as "a good guitar. It's got good wood, it's solid and durable, and it's cheap!" (As Copeland became more successful, Peavey presented him with a white T-60 and a Heritage amp.)
Copeland finally struck it big when Rounder Records agreed to release his first album, Copeland Special. With its tight rhythms, popping horns, gritty vocals, and unabashed solos, the album garnered rave reviews and brought Copeland the 1981 Handy Award for Best Blues Album. "I wasn't looking for it to be that much," he confided, "because at the time we were really hurting. When it started to happen, it was beautiful. It started us to working and going around the country." Not to mention Africa, as well, where the U.S. State Department sent Johnny and his band in 1982, the same year his highly touted Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat came out on Rounder. If anything, his solos were even more searing and aggressive on his sophomore release. Other successes followed: Texas Twister in '83, the Grammy-winning Showdown with Robert Cray and Albert Collins on Alligator Records in '85, followed by the Rounder releases Bringin' It All Back Home, Ain't Nothin' but a Party, When the Rain Starts Fallin', and Boom Boom. His early Texas sides were reissued by Ace and Collectables. During the early '90s Copeland signed with PolyGram/Verve/Gitanes, recording Flyin' High, Catch Up with the Blues, and his final studio album, 1996's Jungle Swing.
Copeland, who was vibrant and friendly onstage and off, was unaware that he'd inherited a congenital heart defect from his father's side of the family, became seriously ill during a 1994 tour. He underwent a series of costly surgeries and spent the last months of his life wearing the newly invented L-VAD device, which he showed to audiences on CNN and Good Morning America. Undaunted, he continued to perform with vigor and enthusiasm, even after receiving a heart transplant. When his new heart developed a defective valve, he underwent surgery and died of complications on July 3, 1997. He was 60 years old.
Fourteen years earlier, just as Copeland was beginning to ride high with Rounder after years of struggle, I asked him what it takes to make it as a musician: "If you want to do it," he said, "just go ahead on and do it. Don't change your mind, regardless of what obstacles you run up against. As long as everything you're doing corresponds to what you want to accomplish, you can't go wrong. Anyone who starts out and says, 'I want to play music, but I want to do something else to secure myself' is not a musician. You have to be sure where you're coming from. You have to be willing to eat -- or not eat -- for it. Then you're a musician." I can't help but feel Stevie Ray Vaughan shared that same sentiment.