A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Blues Hall of Famer, since Albert King began playing music when he was a young boy living in rural Mississippi, he’s defied convention and paved his own way. Living in various music hubs throughout the ’50s-70s, such as Illinois and Tennessee, his exposure to all different kinds of music meant he’d create a new style all his own.
Instead of sticking to a traditional blues path so many before him had taken, he signed up with Stax Records in Memphis and combined delta blues, Chicago blues, and soul to create R&B mastery, a genre still in its infancy and needing a pioneer to guide it into modern times. King would be that guy.
With over 40 years in the business, King racked up tons of accolades, including Grammy nominations and a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. For an experience that gets to the heart of American contemporary music, dive into the best Albert King songs below.
10. Kansas City
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two of the most sought-after songwriters of the ’50s and ’60s. And whenever they teamed up, they produced a hit. Aside from writing popular numbers like Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ (originally released by blues guitar pioneer Big Mama Thornton), the pair also penned ‘Kansas City,’ a fun blues tune that features a protagonist heading to the music hub to take in a little nightlife. The setting of the song is important, with Kansas City being the place jazz legends Charlie Parker and Count Basie recorded. Leiber and Stoller wanted to pay tribute to the musicians. The single was first released by Wilbert Harrison in 1959, and he took it all the way to the top spot on the charts. Tons of covers followed due to its popularity, and our southpawed blues dynamo made sure to put his signature, velvety sound to it when he recorded it in 1967.
9. Travelin’ Man
Get funky with this ’70s blues number by King that finds him grooving and singing about all the places he’s been to, from Texas to Arkansas. With a lot of miles under his belt, he was a seasoned veteran by the time he released ‘Travelin’ Man’ in 1974. The trends of the time are apparent on the track, which fuses funky rhythms and sounds together with that classic blues song structure. Due to his real-life traveling ways, King had a unique connection to blues music across the country. Growing up in Mississippi meant he was exposed to gospel and delta blues early on. He spent time in Illinois playing Chicago blues before settling in Memphis to record some of his best work. His time spent playing so many different styles of music meant he fostered a well-rounded approach of his own and created a smooth blues style that remains both bold and timeless.
8. I Wanna Get Funky
For his eighth studio album, Albert King brought in some of the best musicians Memphis had to offer for his electrified blues recordings. The Memphis influence on his sound is front and center on the title track for the album ‘I Wanna Get Funky.’ Dark undertones lay a solid foundation for commanding horn work, King’s smooth vocals, and a powerful blues song structure with plenty of genre tradition still woven through the track. Making appearances throughout the album are The Bar-Kays and The Memphis Horns, one of Memphis’ hottest funk groups, and a horn section put together by Stax Records for their house recordings. These two elements really make the tune shine. And King’s genre-bending songwriting and guitar work make I Wanna Get Funky one of the ’70s most unique albums.
7. The Sky Is Crying
An Elmore James original, the Chicago blues musician wrote ‘The Sky is Crying’ in a few short minutes while experiencing a sudden downpour in the Windy City while recording one day. Though James entered the studio with a few pre-planned songs to record, he left with an out-of-the-blue, long-lasting standard many would consider to be indispensable blues writing. James released the original version in ’59. When King released his own, he revved it up and gave it that funky soul vibe he’s so well-known for. Listeners of King’s version find themselves saying, “this is how the blues was intended to sound.” A brilliant interpretation of a fine contemporary blues standard, ‘The Sky is Crying’ is a must-listen track for fans of King, and of the blues.
6. Call It Stormy Monday (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)
King teams up with Texas blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan for a spirited performance of the T-Bone Walker blues standard, ‘Stormy Monday.’ The tune features a 7-day breakdown of the protagonist’s week, who’s in constant agony because his woman left him, and he’s desperately waiting for her return. The two blues giants make magic on stage together, both humble musicians despite endless amounts of near-superhuman talent. Towards the beginning of the live recording, King calls for a key change, and the band is off, following both he and Stevie as they trade off smooth, buttery riffs and licks. While the first minute and a half features radiant guitar work, King’s vocals eventually take over, and listeners discover what it really means to “sing the blues.”
Recommended: Our countdown of the best Stevie Ray Vaughan songs.
5. As The Years Go Passing By
Songwriter and guitarist Fenton Robinson first released ‘As The Years Go Passing By’ in ’59. In ’67, King recorded the moody, bluesy ballad, and soon it became a staple in his live sets. The dark and stormy tune left plenty of room for Albert to roam free while playing it. This live recording, in particular, features him reminiscing about the song’s beginnings before delicately introducing the audience to his finessed guitar chops. Live versions could clock in at almost ten minutes sometimes. While he spent plenty of time masterfully laying down guitar work, he also shows great control over his vocals. The temperamental tune calls for both power and understated control for instrumental and vocal parts, and King renders them flawlessly in a live setting, a feat no average player could pull off.
4. Oh, Pretty Woman
Appearing on his highly praised album Born Under a Bad Sign, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ is one big groove that immediately pulls you in. With tons of moxy and effortless swagger, this is one of those tunes that is classic Albert King. His signature sound is in every note played, howled, and hummed. While his live tracks can go on for several minutes, this single-oriented song clocks in under 3 minutes, so it leaves you wanting more. Another song born out of the blues music scene of Memphis, King was the first to release the A.C. Williams track. But once he did, fellow blues artists clamored for it because he made it so darn good. Since King’s version, everyone from John Mayall to R.L. Burnside has recorded the funky blues number.
3. I’ll Play The Blues For You
A polished blues heavyweight from the Stax Records vault, ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’ wasn’t one of King’s most well-known tracks during his time playing, but as his legacy lives on and music lovers continue to discover his vast body of work, it has set itself apart as a standout recording. Another stormy track with a compelling performance, it was written by Stax house musicians Booker T. Jones and William Bell. When you listen to Albert’s interpretation, you come to understand why his beloved nickname given to him by his closest friends and colleagues was the “velvet bulldozer.” The tall, towering bluesman had the ability to break your heart with each feverish note played, yet despite his powerful artistic grip, he showed great control and gentleness in every performance. This telling recording offers great insight into this seductive duality.
2. Crosscut Saw
Not only was Albert a bonafide bluesman, but he was a virtuoso when it came to soul as well. Because of his love and skillset with these two genres, he escorted audiences into a new era. A new type of music that had all the roaring blues of the ’60s, grooving funk of the ’70s, and rejoicing soul of both decades combined. Being on the Stax Records roster helped. The studio nurtured the progression of soul like almost no other creative space did in Memphis, let alone the rest of the country. The song became a big hit for King, with listeners helping it climb the R&B charts. Surprisingly, earlier versions of the blues standard didn’t fare well because critics couldn’t fit the genre-defying single into their conventional music boxes. King proved them all wrong with his high-energy rendition, and it remains a beloved R&B classic today.
1. Born Under A Bad Sign
Unapologetically in your face and swagger-fueled, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ is the title track from King’s infamous first album with Stax. Not only is the single considered to be one of the greatest blues songs of all time, but the album itself is filled with some of King’s most legendary work. It is quite an accomplishment for Albert, his first album he recorded with his new label in 1967 would cement him as one of the blues’ most important contributors. The song title itself beckons you to listen, and that’s exactly what people did. An R&B chart riser, King proved to be the only artist on the roster with enough intensity to pull this heavy number off without it being overbearing. The writers who penned the track, Jones and Bell, chose King as the man for the job. A tribute to the early blues of the 1900s, the catchy single soon became Albert’s signature hit. To this day, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ reigns supreme as a durable King masterpiece.