A River(Movie) of Blues

by Alberto D. Prieto

20 miles along Highway 82 in the heart of Mississippi separate the cradles of the two kings of cotton, freed slaves of blues, black men on whose hindquarters an electric guitar always seemed a mere toy. And on this mere toy, they spun everything they had stacked up on those six strings, converting them into something true and raising their admirers beyond reality, surrendering themselves to serfdom at the hands of the fiefs of riff.  

20 miles, 29 minutes by car along Highway 82 that crosses the desolate cotton fields of their ancestors from west to east. And 29 months. 
From Indianola, on the 25th April 1923, to Itta Bena, on the 16th September 1925 amongst plantations, more or less abandoned huts by more or less freed slaves and a meandering river that names these moors, the intricate spirals that dampened his Lucy and his Lucille, his Flying V and his Gibson ES-335 without acoustic f holes, condensing these riffs and strokes that seemed to lead nowhere, twisting and writhing  just for the mere pleasure of feeling that same unease through the guitar strings.  

Although for many followers, the Blues Boy Riley was, and continues to be, the king, truly, before B. B. King was a firstborn there: 20 miles, 29 minutes, 29 months, just beyond the sunset, the legitimate was and always will be Albert King, born Albert Nelson, guitarist, singer and larger than life. With a velvety voice and a freight train body, heir to the musical throne that his father Will cultivated in the gospel choir of his local church.

After World War II, a black man had never starred in a road movie, let alone given a role of continuity aboard a cargo steamer on the Mississippi. And Albert King wrote the screenplay of his life about scribbled pentagrams next to bottles of beer and old boxes of cigarettes along the banks of that American river artery. What better role of continuity to be the most virtuous and curious amongst the performers of the music that washed along the black shores of America. At the time, neither he nor any other grandson of freed slaves had more promising work than the work that came from stumbling around playing a musical instrument, so the young Albert began his pilgrimage, leaving behind rows of cotton plants and his 12 siblings, and envisioned vinyl grooves on the horizon.  

From Indianola (Mississippi) the family had moved to Forest City (Arkansas), and he began his path raising the triangular body of a Gibson Flying V, bulldozing his way to Gary (Indiana), and visiting the smoky blues bars in Chicago (Illinois), ending up in Saint Louis (Missouri). Then, once again alongside the Mississippi, 400 miles north of his birthplace, so the river of his life could transport its sediments and feelings along with him, winding and winding, ebbing and flowing, to the delta of blues, in Louisiana. Where, from Baton Rouge until New Orleans, King Albert fertilised his teachings, plucked on an upside down guitar, where black music always reigns and is an official religion, the prestidigitation across the strings of those who always aspire to a throne, a guitar and a few faithful disciples.

The left-handed Albert King always rolled along the river from which he drank all his inspiration. He established himself in Memphis and signed with the Stax label with which he reached, during the 60’s and up to the mid 70’s, the golden age of a reign that, although it may not have seemed like it at the time, later revealed itself as not being that good; consistent with the suffering of the interpreter of the music, heir to the suffering and the hopelessness, cementing his myth. His first works distilled that purity of the blues, King dialogued with his Flying V without interrupting it, turning vapours upwind to downwind, as the scriptures command. His debut LP gathered all of his first 11 single hits and it was crowned at Fillmore in Chicago in 1968, where the crowd confirmed that certainly the enormous man of the bridge never touched the sixth string and that unusual ability carried his vinyl so that it became part of the select collection of all his heirs: 'Live Wire Blues Power' (1968) entered into the history books. Just as, a year later, 'Years Go by' (1969), the pure penultimate work of blues of his career did as well. A rich foretaste of how the plot would develop.

Thus would come the alliance with white artists of various musical stylings; covers and cameos with the Stones, tributes to Elvis and visits to funk to try not to drop off the top of the charts. He participated in 'Live in Vancouver 1970' with the Doors and brought together a new band with which he locked himself in the studio to pass on the definitive 'I'll Play the Blues For You' (1972). This album constituted a masterpiece in which King walled all the magic of his ability at the controls of Lucy alongside the power of a band that included a wind section halfway between big band and jazz along with a rhythmic baseline armed by a bass (played by James Alexander) that commented on the melody, much closer to soul and funky. Seventies music with whispered verses and calm waters that was bringing an era inextricably to an end and was entering the rapids that had become the norm for the business and which were threatening to capsize his musical throne.

It often happens that at any given moment, life surprises you with a moment that acts as a turning point... And, cinematographically, everything turns around without the lead character ever even being able to decipher from where the slaps came from. Albert King stopped selling vinyl when Stax, his record label, went bankrupt and he decided to sign with a small independent label, Utopia... When things started to go wrong, nobody worked out whether it was firstly the hen of the derived sound or the egg of a bad choice of travel companions, but in the mid 70’s, the old Albert, who had already made stops in blues, jazz, big band, funk and, above all, had contributed more than anyone else to beautify soul, grabbed tightly onto the stage during his unsurpassed performance to wade through the commercial wreck of his career.  

His records were confused, aimless, mixing structures, becoming less powerful and more pop, with few pearls coming from his glorious hands on Lucy. The new public interest, the age, the over-meandering, limited distribution and promotion...who knows the origin of the problems? The truth is that Albert King began to become more of a myth than a reality. Hard to play that part because he was the protagonist of his own road movie. However, the viewer appears to warn him that that’s how plots evolve, and everything finally fits into what is expected of a story with its beginning, middle and end. And which does justice to the character.  

No other new studio work got him back anywhere near to the top of the charts but however—his "brother in blues", of course, as the other King, B.B., used to call himClapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dereck Trucks, Joe Walsh... have all confessed at one time or another to how they wanted to enrol in any sailing crew out on the waters he sailed. Albert King never lost his magic playing live. He continued to give brilliance to many blues festivals where they wanted him to show off his prestige, playing his Flying V upside down during the 80’s and he even released, in a last attempt to lower the vinyl groove down, his mastery at the helm of a concert hall, 'I'm in a Phone booth Baby' (1984), a great work, heir to his best and most untainted albums of pure tap in dialogue with verse structures in A-A-B... but alas, it didn’t find a market.

Albert King
has gone down in history as the man who reigned on the deck of blues, a classification that nobody questions, because it is understood that tastes are like clubs in the deck of cards and that the kings are kings by divine right. The fade to black of his history was shot in a cemetery in Edmonson (Arkansas), not very far from his birth place. And 20 miles, 29 minutes by car from Memphis (Tennessee). Crossing the bridge, on the other bank of the Mississippi.