Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan: In Session
US DVD: 17 Nov 2010
The title ‘King Of The Blues’ is one that has been bandied about with little discretion of late. While many are quick to champion the late (and indisputably great) Stevie Ray Vaughan and his grave robbing coattail rider John Mayer, blues fans with a broader frame of reference normally champion one of the ‘Three Kings’: those being B.B., Freddie, and most importantly for the proceedings here, Albert King.
Born in Mississippi in the early-‘20s, Albert spent his early life picking cotton and singing gospel music. Puberty transformed him into six feet, five inches and almost 300 pounds of journeyman musician in search of more worldly pursuits. Initially taking up with an Arkansas group known as the In The Groove Boys, King soon settled in Chicago, where he manned the drum stool for local legend Jimmy Reed. Later, Little Milton scored him a deal singing and playing guitar for the Windy City label Parrot. Albert King soon became known as The Velvet Bulldozer and by the early-‘60s had signed to (then) Memphis label Stax and managed a string of hits, including the oft-covered ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’.
The Cream cover of the Booker T. Jones track on their 1968 release Wheels Of Fire brought Albert King on the radar of a broader (read: more Caucasian) audience. Guitarists like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan tried to cop his wild licks, but were all but stymied by Albert’s penchant for the unconventional. Tuning well below standard tuning and using ultra-light strings beneath his catcher’s mitt sized hands, King became renowned for his vicious string bending and nasty vibrato. Those hoping to make sense of the Southpaw’s style by watching him live were quickly stymied by his preference for playing a right-handed instrument upside down and strung backwards. Vaughan had the benefit of a stateside presence and took full advantage of the older musicians tutelage. He and King were known to share a stage during Texas shows, giving the up and comer a rare insight into King’s style and hastening the transformation of the young Stevie Ray Vaughan into a string-bending blues monster.
Fast-forward to August of 1983. Vaughan had just returned to his band Double Trouble after a brief stint with David Bowie and was poised to release his debut for Epic. Entitled Texas Flood, the record and song therein owed much to Albert King’s big bends and stinging guitar lines. King was due to record a live set for Canadian Public TV with Vaughan, but almost cancelled, not realizing that Stevie Ray Vaughan was the ‘little Stevie’ who had been known to sit in on his Texas sets. King was known for being obstreperous and mercurial on the best of days, and was infamous for motivating his backing band and underpaying club owners at gunpoint. Entertaining guests during his sets was not a norm, but Vaughan had impressed King previously (although not enough to remember his name, evidently) for the recording to take place. Stax didn’t release the widely bootlegged In Session formally until 1999, but the recordings were held in high regard by blues aficionados. Another decade has passed, and Stax has finally released the video portion as part of a new CD/DVD set.
While blues fans will rejoice at the prospect of being owning legitimate CD quality versions of the In Session tracks, actually laying eyes on the two masters as they trade licks is an even more compelling proposition. Backed by Albert’s band, the two work through the tunes that comprised the average ‘80s Albert King set. “Born Under A Bad Sign” opens the DVD proceedings (the CD omits the track, adds a few more and shuffles the running order), and dips into the BB King and Blind Lemon Jefferson catalog follow, appearing alongside a handful of King chestnuts. The younger Vaughan handles most of the solo work, to the obvious delight of the older bluesman.
“Pride and Joy” is the sole Vaughan-penned track is to appear, itself a virtual master class in Albert King licks. In fact, despite the tuning and stylistic differences, listeners (and watchers) will marvel at how Vaughan channels King so masterfully over the 11 tracks. The added conversation material between tracks shows the warmth of the relationship, with King displaying an avuncular demeanor not often associated with The Velvet Bulldozer. Owning In Session in audio form is a good idea, but for anyone even vaguely interested in Blues, Albert King or Stevie Ray Vaughan, the CD/DVD set is a must-own offering.
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