Sunday, August 06, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 040: Albert King: Live at Montreux

Albert King was larger than life: in his person (6’4”, over 300 pounds), in his singing voice and his laugh (a huge, gravelly bellow), in his former profession (he looked like the bulldozer driver he’d been), in his guitars and tuning (he played a Gibson Flying V upside down and backwards, tuned down to a low C), in his technique (he played with his thumb, a spatulate digit about the size of a ballpeen hammer), in his tone (a huge, grainy, tactile stab), and in his influence (most especially, upon Jimi and upon Stevie Ray). He came up after BB and he borrowed BB’s surname, but there could not have been a greater difference between them. B (still with us, thank God) is one of the great blues shouters, with the strongest possible influence from gospel and a fluid, singing tone derived from T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, and, indirectly, from Django Reinhardt; Albert, in contrast, brought the funk, recording with the Stax/Volt musicians and covering everything from Sleepy John Estes to Herbie Hancock.

I was living in West Texas—the first time—working as a blowout-preventer mechanic for an oil-drilling company, trying to pay off my first round of college debt. I’d been renting a spare room from a very proper Texas lady in her 60s whose husband had left her for a second, trophy wife, but we just didn’t get on, and I moved out, sharing a house with an ex-biker-turned-truckdriver named Bob and his young wife, whose blue-collar family actually thought they could change him (OK, I haven’t always made realistic housing choices). Very weird days: most of the guys I worked with smoked weed and bred fighting dogs (Mexican dirt weed was 10 dollars a lid in W Texas in the late ‘70s, and the drilling-yard workers were mostly either ex-bikers down on their luck or Mexican guys working illegally), but I spent my time reading virtually every interesting book in the town’s small library (the library ladies got to know me very well), and starting to grapple with the idea of being a professional musician. I had only a few records, but I’d finally reached a stage where I knew a good record from a bad one, so it was a good collection: Live at Fillmore East, Born to Run, and Albert’s great Live at Montreux double-LP set. The previous year, at Chicago, I’d figured out on my own how improvisation worked: you had to know the scale the song was in, and then, if you knew the fingerings for the scale, you could play pretty much anything in the scale you could hear. My friend Fred Duca and I spent some 8-hour nights sitting in the stairwells in the Shoreland Hotel working out the implications of that—and 30 years later, I’m still playing modal music. I had an old Ephiphone semi-hollowbody ES-335 knockoff I’d bought at a yard sale (wish I still had that one—it went missing somewhere in the years that followed) and I’d crank Albert up on the stereo and pace the empty house, playing along, while Bob and his wife were out at the honky-tonks trying to “patch up the relationship.”

Albert was great for schooling: gutsy, great phrases, huge tone, fantastic interplay b/w his singing and his guitar soloing, and impeccable choice in tunes: he plays Lemon Jefferson (Matchbox) and Charlie Patton (Killing Floor), T-Bone Walker (Stormy Monday) and Herbie Hancock (Watermelon Man). That latter tune gets as another of his strengths: his receptivity to newer black styles (most notably funk—Albert recorded for years with the Stax/Volt rhythm section) and his willingness to recruit bands who could play it: most notably, on this record, the young rhythm guitarist Donald Kinsey, who went on to play with Bob Marley and his own, funk-tinged Kinsey Report.

To go with his larger-than-life presence, Albert had a larger-than-life sound, as well: when he sings in that big, gravelly voice (less fluid but ten times as macho as BB’s), when he squeezes out major-3rd bends in that low-C tuning (what Albert called “the woman tone”, and when he chuckles between lines at his own double-entendre jokes), he owns the festival, be it the huge roster of bigger sellers than he at Wattstax, or the long list of jazz heavyweights at Montreux Jazz. And, true to that larger-than-life presence, Albert always managed to pull the groupies. He played on a triple bill with Hendrix and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (incubator of a whole series of blues-rock guitar luminaries) to open the Fillmore West in San Fran in February 1968, and people who were there say Albert blew the other two off the stage.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, who—though derivative—was always good about acknowledging his influences, did a series of gigs with Albert, which was a nice gesture—particularly since most of what Stevie didn’t get from Hendrix he got from Albert. Listen to Stevie play any slow blues, and you’ll know what I mean.

I always laughed to hear Cream’s version of Born Under a Bad Sign: they were great players, certainly with lots of chops, and I still think Ginger Baker is one of the great unsung geniuses of the ’60s rock era (and so did Bill Laswell, who coaxed him out of retirement as an Italian olive farmer to record for Axiom), but there’s simply no denying that, for all Clapton’s notes, for all Jack Bruce’s histrionic melodrama, there was simply no way those three white boys could hang with Albert’s original.

There’s a story about Hendrix working with a rock rhythm section (might’ve been Billy and Buddy—see future “100 Greats” post on Band of Gypsies) in rehearsal at the Fillmore East, working on a version of Crosscut Saw, “playing the tune, then shaking his head, going back to the side of the stage, lifting the needle, and playing the record again. It never sounded the same.” When I hear that story—when I realize that even Hendrix, maybe the greatest electric guitarist ever (see “100 Greats” #31), was still going to school on Albert, even after Monterey Pop and taking England and America by storm, then I feel connected to something much, much bigger, and those isolated days, pacing through a deserted, ramshackle little house on the poor side of a windblown West Texas oil town, with Live at Montreux blaring out of the stereo and me playing along, don’t seem so pointless.

Not so pointless at all.

1 comment:

Cornelius said...

My best friend was named Fred Duca... and I've been trying to find him he from NYC? Neil ...