He is still unmistakable, visually and aurally, after all these years. A huge man, six foot four and weighing 250 pounds, always photographed with his trademark Flying-V guitar, he sang in a restrained baritone and played some of the most intense electric blues riffs ever put on vinyl. He turned a narrow vocal range and a less than agile guitar technique into sources of strength and made records upon which whole careers were built. “Born Under a Bad Sign”, “Crosscut Saw” and “Cold Feet” alone guarantee immortality. The bluesiest act at soulful Stax and the most soulful bluesman to reach a large rock audience, he made a lasting impression on all who saw or heard him.
His unique left-handed, inverse-strung, “pulled” guitar style is well documented. What he sacrificed in speed he gained in an ability to bend and sustain notes. Even the most tin-eared can identify his sound instantly. His understated vocals seemed to carry a weight of experience and a stoical, world-weariness. In contrast the axe was all emotion and unrestrained passion. It was a winning combination and these recordings, from the mid-to-late ’70s, still exude authority and power.
By then King had left Stax, not because of any decline on his part but because of Stax’s notorious economic and political crises. Unfortunately, the albums he made for Utopia and Tomato, from which this collection is compiled, have been consequently ignored as inferior “indie” product. Nothing could be further from the truth. Produced by the likes of Allen Toussaint and Don Davis, they are a logical continuation of King’s last two triumphant albums for Stax and like them feature fat, brassy horns, a few old favourites and the soul-blues repertoire King had started to develop from the late Sixties. In short, this is vintage King.
What strikes one particularly about this well-chosen selection is how much of a distinct persona King managed to project. A late-comer to recording, already forty by the time of his first hits (1964), King played the role of the mature, put-upon, blue collar worker struggling with the burdens of daily toil. At least half of the songs mention work. “Cadillac Assembly Line” is about the move from sharecropper to Detroit factory-worker, “Rub My Back” is about getting home from a hard day’s manual labour, “Call My Job” is about ringing in sick Monday morning — and so on. Even the beautiful and moving “I’ll Play the Blues for You” has him referring to his stage show as “where I work”. This is no prima donna but a working-class guy who knows what life is really all about for most people. A truly poignant example of this musical social realism is his reading of Homer Banks’ “Angel of Mercy”. It is the despairing but never mawkish cry of a proud man who can no longer feed and clothe his family. Unforgettable and a long way from the teenage suburbia that is the official kingdom of popular music.
The lack of vocal histrionics adds stature to this portrayal — even the usual songs of loss and leaving have as much resignation as pathos in them. Life is hard, both he and his implied audience know it — no need to over-elaborate. Anger is certainly there but as a regrettable necessity (“I Get Evil”). Each outing is a convincing picture of experience and a hard-won wisdom. Too often we ignore the performative and crafted element in African-American music — hardly surprising when it is as perfectly conceived as this.
If the voice represents the prosaic narrative of actual existence then the guitar offers the alternative discourse of desire and emotion. That is where a wealth of thwarted ambitions and desires are expressed. Each ringing note soars with hope or weeps in frustration. All this may seem a little fanciful, but it is precisely that remarkable interplay of voice and guitar that fans have always admired and wondered at. I believe that each comments on the same situation but in a very different register. Together they produce a complex, Everyman figure battling to survive a hostile world. The Bluesman, in fact.
“Born Under a Bad Sign” is the classic statement of this condition and is present here in a fine live version. Two other such tracks are included and overcome the usual reservation about live recordings. Not that the studio efforts are any less direct. The tempo varies and that Stax-learned funkiness peps a tune up when matters start to get too weighty. Some of the arrangements are a little heavy-handed (Toussaint’s more than Davis’) and it is the blues so don’t expect genre defying leaps. In every case sameness is avoided by King’s impeccable choice of material and the exquisite tone of the guitar.
King died in 1992 and his influence is today largely felt through a generation who learned his licks in their rock variants. How many people know that “Layla” is a speeded-up version of his “As the Years Go Passing By”? There are signs of a resurgence though. The new Angie Stone album samples “I’ll play the Blues for You” and most of his catalogue is now available. Go straight for the Stax hits first, by all means, but don’t ignore this strong set. It is full of fine playing, a superbly evoked range of human emotions and plenty of character. And, as King memorably sings here, “That’s what the Blues is all about”.