Black Pioneers: Albert King

Albert King, one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time, was one of the three “Kings of the Blues,” which included B.B. King, Freddie King and himself. King was booked as the opening act for the premiere presentation at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on this date in 1968. He was followed by Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall, but King stole the show and became a regular attraction at the Fillmore West, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

King was born Albert Nelson on April 25, 1923, on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Miss. His father Will Nelson was an amateur guitarist who had a major impact on his music. King was inspired by Blind Lemon Jefferson, although he was mainly self-taught.

King first played professionally in and around Osceola, Ark. where he moved with his family in 1931. He started recording in 1953 for the Parrot label, but received little compensation so he moved to St. Louis. His most successful single was Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong, which peaked at No. 14 on the rhythm and blues charts.

In 1966, he signed with Stax Records in Memphis where he was accompanied by house band Booker T & the MG’s. Here King created some of his most memorable recordings including Born Under a Bad Sign, Crosscut Saw, I’ll Play the Blues for You and As the Years Go Passing By. In 1969, he recorded with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, becoming one of the first blues performers to unite blues and classical music.

He toured regularly and often indiscriminately for the rest of his life. A unique aspect of his style was being left-handed and playing his guitar upside-down and backward (flipping over the instrument). 

King died on Dec. 21, 1992 in Memphis after a heart attack. He was honored with a jazz-style “blues funeral” procession down Beale Street with the Memphis Horns playing When the Saints Go Marching In. He was buried in Paradise Gardens Cemetery in Edmonson, Ark. near his childhood home. He was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.