the root cellar: the three kings

From the very first track, B.B. comes out smoking all the way around, and you soon realize why he was and is so influential…”


by john pinamonti


Three big men. Three Gibson guitars. Three incomparable players, three soulful vocalists, three masters of the blues. Albert, B.B. and Freddie King.

Albert King (1914-1992) is one of my all-time personal favorites, if only because he smoked a pipe and played his Gibson Flying V guitar upside down (and he didn’t re-string it for a left-handed set-up, like Jimi Hendrix and other leftie players). Because he played this way, he could pull the high strings downward (with a conventional set-up, you have to push them up), and thus bend them impossibly far. If you play a little geetar, put on some Albert and try matching his bends – you’d better have some spare strings handy, ’cause you’ll end up breaking quite a few! The classic Albert tracks I’m recommending were recorded with the crack Stax Records crew – Booker T. and the MGs (Booker Washington, Al Jackson, Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper) and the Memphis Horns. The CD is called King of the Blues Guitar (Atlantic) and it contains all of the original material on the Born Under a Bad Sign album, plus some single-only releases. This is the crème de la crème of Albert’s stuff – absolutely essential music. My particular favorite moments are when you can here Albert responding to what he and the band are playing. The horn section weaving in and around his vocals and guitar breaks coupled with the rock steady rhythm section spur him on and on, and the results are superlative. Albert is perhaps better known for his playing than for his vocal abilities, but you can definitely tell that guys like Hendrix, Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn took a lot from his overall approach. That is, it is obvious that he influenced them guitar-wise, but he is also an inspiration for guitar players who “have” to sing. Even though he doesn’t have quite the vocal prowess of the other two Kings, he still gets a song across in his own way, and in a way, this makes him even more his own man. (Nothing is worse than a singer with average ability trying to belt it out like B.B.!).

Freddie King (1934-1976) helped set the standard for the blues instrumental by waxing such classics as “Hide Away” and “San-Ho-Zay.” Hearing these tracks you will instantly recognize his influence on just about every blues-based guitarist. Jimmie Vaughn says that he never heard anyone who played louder or harder – and you will get a full dose of his playing from the The Best of Freddie King (Rhino). I also suggest you check out Freddie King is a Blues Master (Atlantic) if you want to hear more of his great vocalizing. He’s the kind of guy who you think is going to blow you away with his playing (and he does), but then he’ll suddenly slay you with a vocal phrase while you’re waiting for the guitar fireworks. When Jimmie V. said he played loud and hard, he was I think referring to Freddie’s whole approach. For Freddie, “playing” and “singing” weren’t separate things (and the same is true for Albert and B.B.). He simply had the Blues and it poured out of him ’til he dropped.

These days, B.B. King (b. 1925) may be as well known for his Burger King commercials and his collaborations with the likes of U2 and a host of other stars as he is a premier bluesman, but anybody who does some looking and listening will know that back in the ’50s he was helping to lay the groundwork for modern electric guitar playing. Notice I said “guitar playing”, not “blues guitar playing”. I make this distinction because B.B. is a major link between the electric innovations of guys like Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker and guitar playing today. One of the best samples of this is Singing the Blues/The Blues (Flair), a two-for-one disc that contains two original albums back to back. From the very first track, B.B. comes out smoking all the way around, and you soon realize why he was and is so influential. He’s still around and still playing some great guitar on occasion (when he’s not doing commercials or tending to his chain of nightclubs), but I think the greatest stuff he ever did is on these formative ’50s sides. By the way, these albums were cut before any of the members of U2 were even born!

So who’s the real king? In this case, a triumvirate must rule, for all three of these men deserve the crown. And all three are what “The Blues” are about – celebration, lamentation, acceptance, proclamation. In these troubled times, their music becomes all the more clarified and important. They took their hope, pain, joy and sorrow and turned it into salvation. It’s all there for you to hear… suffice it to say, I’m a far better man from having listened to the Three Kings.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Two
October 2002


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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