Thursday, May 03, 2012

Al King Was a Blues Master

It has been three decades since Al King briefly flirted with chart success with his evocative Think Twice Before You Speak. Frustrations with the record industry led the Louisiana native to foreswear recording, although he has obviously had a change of heart. The Rochester, New York Forevermore label has just issued his first new recordings in near thirty years, It‘s Rough Out There, which follows up the label‘s 1996 compilation of many of King‘s classic recordings, Al King Blues Master, The Complete Sahara and Shirley Recordings.

As related in the notes to Blues Master, King (who was born Al K. Smith) grew up on the big bands and Jimmy Rushing was a particular favorite. After finishing his stint in the Service, King moved to San Francisco in 1947, eventually moving to LA where he first recorded for John Dolphin‘s Recorded in Hollywood label in 1951. In 1953 he recorded as a member of the Savoys for the Combo label. Around this time he hooked with Johnny Otis and performed for Otis’ review for a few years before recording two of his compositions, My Last Letter and On My Way
for the Oakland based Music City label with the studio band led by a 17 year old Johnny Heartsmen.

Eventually moving to San Francisco, he recorded for Bob Gedddins‘ Irma label at the same time falling under the musical spell of Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin. He in fact became friends with McCracklin, touring and recording with him. It is his voice that is the second voice on McCracklin‘s hit, I Just Got to Know, and he recorded with a female singer as Al and Nettie an answer song, Now You Know. “While the recording did not establish his name, it enabled him to meet Ron Badger, owner of the Shirley label.

With Shirley, King made perhaps his best known recording, a terrific rendition of Lowell Fulson‘s Reconsider Baby that has been anthologized in part because of the presence of Johnny Heartsmen‘s guitar. This was the flip side of On my Way,“ a reworked version of his earlier recording that opens Blues Master, which features King‘s bittersweet vocal against a lively, brassy backing that is propelled by charged rhythmic playing from Hearstman. His other single for Shirley is a terrific Lingerin‘ Love with some splendid lyrics backed by a dance number Shimmy & Shake.

Then King started his own label, Flag for which he recorded the stunning Think Twice Before You Speak, a moody slow blues with menacing lyrics about the graveyard being full of people who talk too much and while he‘s not a dentist, he‘d be happy to remove one‘s teeth for free. It was coupled with Heartsman‘s uptempo The Winner,“ and it was successful enough that it was picked up by the Buffalo based Sahara label for which King waxed another four singles including the marvelous My Money Ain‘t Long Enough, about his woman who spends all his money and gambles just like a man so that even though he‘s working a full time and part-timeime job, it just ain‘t enough for her. With a morose delivery akin to McCracklin and Fulson, he hammers the lyrics home as Hearstman‘s guitar lines run in and around his vocal. While Fulson has recorded Think Twice Before You Speak, and Phillip Walker‘s most recent album, it is surprising that this song has not be similarly revived. The rest of this album is of a similar quality, other songs reflecting his similar morose view of human relationships, along with a terrific cover of Lloyd Glenn‘s Blues Shadows. The album concludes from a 1968 recording, Get Lost, “where he cleverly incorporates the lyrics of his songs. There are plenty of great blues in a vein that anyone that loves the McCracklin and Fulson blues of this period will want.

While he may have sworn off recording, King has remained active performing, and obviously continuing to write new material. Three decades later he has returned to the studio producing It‘s Rough Over Here, backed by a young group the Sugarbees who may not provide him with the subtlety and suppleness of Heartsman‘s playing and arranging skills, but generally acquit themselves quite well. Of the ten songs here, only Peoples in the Graveyard“ was a familiar song, originally recorded as My Name is Misery. Here King recounts just how many ways he is bad off before the tagline, “My Name is Misery, peoples in the graveyard are better off than me.”

The title track has him recounting the ills of modern urban life and how he wished he could move away from the corner drug sellers and the drive by shootings. He is a bit more assertive on Ain‘t Giving Up Nothing, telling his woman that there relationship has to be a give or take relationship. Sweet Jimmy‘s Place represents a change of pace, while the cynicism of You Can‘t Trust Nobody should be obvious from the title. Its amazing how much like Fulson he sounds like today, and shares with Fulson a deliberate, laconic singing attack with the same appealing sound. It‘s Rough Over Here is a release that will be welcomed by those who have wondered to him. It will also make him among the obvious choices for blues comeback artist of the year, and one might expect several of these songs to become new blues classics.

I wrote this review back in 1998 when these releases were issued. I believe it originally appeared in the DC Blues Calendar. Since I originally wrote this, I heard the original of Ain‘t Giving Up Nothing, so it was another song Al King had recorded previously. I believe I received a review copy from the label. These show up as still being available. 

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