Saturday, June 4, 2011

Music Reviews-Albert King, Ann Peebles, and Bobby Bland

Albert King
There were giants in post-war blues and Albert King was literally one of them. Standing 6-5 and weighing around 260lbs in his salad days, Albert King (1923-1992) was one of the Three Great Kings of the blues (pun definitely intended) along with Freddie King and B.B. King.

He was from the same town as B.B. King.  B.B. King reached prominence first. Albert Nelson changed his last name to "King" and even named his guitar "Lucy". B.B. King had named his guitar "Lucille". From time to time Albert King even hinted or flat out stated that he and B.B. had the same father. This wasn't the case.

Both men were heavily inspired by such musicians as Louis Jordan, Lonnie Johnson and especially T-Bone Walker.
But Albert King and B.B. King created their own distinctive sounds and would go on to influence those who came afterwards in quite different ways.

Albert King was left handed and even for a man his size, possessed massive hands. He did not (by his own admission could not) use a guitar pick. His fingers were just too big for that. Instead he used his thumb as a pick. Eschewing standard guitar tuning, Albert King used a lower dropped C tuning. Being left handed he played upside down and backwards by "normal" standards. King created his signature sounds with transistor amps whereas most guitarists preferred tube amps. His hand strength allowed him to make EXTREMELY wide bends of notes. Albert King very rarely ventured out of the minor pentatonic scale and almost never played chords. Along with people like Ike Turner and Hound Dog Taylor he was one of the first blues guitarists to incorporate a thick distorted sound and use controlled feedback.

All this gave Albert King a very unique and ominous guitar tone, one miles apart from B.B.'s and one that fascinated and inspired several other guitarists, including but not limited to such luminaries as Otis Rush, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix (who was also left-handed), Luther Allison, Duane Allman, Eric Gales, Little Jimmy King, Donald Kinsey, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton (a few of Clapton's early solos are note-for-note lifts from Albert King songs) and of course Stevie Ray Vaughn. Albert King was something of a mentor to "Little Stevie" as he called him.

Some argue that Albert King was a limited guitarist. His genre did not require him to run up and down the fretboard. In fact, he really didn't care for that style. And "limited" or not, King's music required deep feeling and understanding of the notes between the fretted notes as well as rhythmic flexibility that most later imitators lacked. King's dynamics are what made his music interesting. He wasn't YELLING ALL THE TIME as many modern blues or rock guitarists are prone to do.

King first made the "big time" in Memphis and later signed with Stax Records, where most of his best recordings were made. King changed with the times, moving from a more jazz based approach in the early sixties, to the soul of the mid sixties, to the funk and rock of the late sixties and early seventies to the smoother R&B and even disco of the mid seventies. He changed his music styles but he never changed his sound. There are a few musicians who are immediately identifiable after you've heard just a few notes. Albert King was one of those musicians.

Albert King sang in a baritone and considered himself something of a crooner. If you want to know what blues is all about you could start with this man. He's been often imitated but will never be duplicated. He was the definition of bluespower. With a few exceptions men like this don't walk the earth any more.


His best known song may have been  "Born Under a Bad Sign"
But please give a listen to these songs "As The Years Go Passing By"
"Til My Back Ain't Got No Bone"

"Blues at Sunrise"   Feel Like Breaking Up Someone's Home

Ann Peebles
The last song I listed under the Albert King selection was originally a hit for this singer. Ann Peebles (1947- ) is a soul singer originally from St. Louis, who recorded for Memphis' other great soul music label, Hi Records. Hi Records was of course best known for being the recording home of that great Michigan man , Al Green. Hi Records and Stax Records occasionally used some of the same musicians though the label owners officially frowned on this.
Ann Peebles is a strong singer but she didn't often employ the sort of hard belting that say Aretha or Patti could call upon. Rather Peebles usually used a more refined, softer approach although she could turn up the volume when she needed to do so. It's a cliche that the human voice is the most versatile instrument but Ann Peebles is the living embodiement of that cliche. She bends notes vocally in the exact same way Albert King does on his guitar.

She plays piano (although she's no Aretha) and wrote or co-wrote a great many of her hit songs. Her voice could show great vulnerability and great strength, often in the same song. Although, like a great many soul artists, Peebles came out of the gospel tradition (her father was a choir leader at the local Baptist church and both of her parents sang) she was not limited by that tradition and had no issue learning to sing secular music. Most of her best work on Hi Records was overseen by legendary producer Willie Mitchell.

Unfortunately, like many of soul's best singers, Ann Peebles saw her career get derailed by the rise of disco.  If you haven't heard her do yourself a favor and pick up a compilation or two. She's done a comeback. She has a few recent recordings where you can hear that while her voice has roughened some with age, she still has a sweetness that few other singers possess. Massively underrated. This is music for adults.
"I Can't Stand The Rain"      "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home"

"How Strong Is A Woman"      "One Way Street"

 "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down"

Bobby Bland

Bobby "Blue" Bland is an anomaly in the blues genre as he does not play an instrument nor is he a particularly skillful songwriter. However strictly speaking Bobby Bland is not just a blues singer. He is an excellent example of how labels don't do certain people justice. Bobby Bland has sung everything from blues to gospel to showtunes to big band jazz to soul to rock-n-roll to R&B and so on.

He is a former driver and valet to B.B. King. The men became very good friends over the years. As King once put it they've had the same problems with the same women, the same bandmembers and the same IRS. Whereas B.B.'s signature vocal styling was a melismatic falsetto, Bland used a different move entirely-a feral sort of half-cough, half growl that sounded as if he had something unpleasant caught in his throat. While this may or may not be your particular cup of tea, for a certain generation of ladies from the late fifties through the mid seventies, it evidently hit the right spot. Bland always was quite popular with female audiences. He never really truly crossed over to white audiences in the way that Albert King or B.B King did. Where a Muddy Waters was singing (initially at least) to people just out of the cotton field, Bland's sounds (and audience) were more urbane and had a pronounced jazz feel.

Bland's bands always featured the best musicians. These were people who could play just about anything and as a result people like Little Milton, B.B King and James Brown often sought to lure Bland's bandmembers away. For example, the drummer on Turn on Your Lovelight is one Jabo Starks, who later achieved greater stardom playing on James Brown's "Payback" and "Superbad" and then went on to play with B.B King.

For my money Bland's best work was done in the sixties/seventies for Duke/Peacock Records, then owned by the hard nosed black businessman Don Robey. Robey ran a tight ship and wasn't above "buying" or "altering" songwriting credits to his benefit but that's how the business worked back then. By all accounts Robey was not the sort of man to **** with. Whatever his business ethics may have been he got the best out of Bland. This time in Bland's life would never be matched artistically.
"Turn On Your Love Light"   "Rocking in the Same Old Boat" 

"St. James Infirmary"    "The Thrill is Gone" (with BB King)

 "Cry Cry Cry"
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