First, I admit to one possible heresy. If I were asked to rank the three Kings of the blues, I’d put Albert first, Freddie second, and B.B. number three. I’ve felt this way since 1968 when his Live Wire/Blues Power album came out. But I also admit that when Albert released I’ll Play the Blues for You in 1972, he and B.B. were pretty much preaching from the same Memphis pulpit. That being said, this new 40th anniversary edition is a reminder of why this King tops my list, and should please every fan of the late and legendary blues man.
Forty years ago, Albert was 49 and well into his relaxed stride as a performer and recording artist for Stax Records. He’d made his 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar named “Lucy” an international trademark. He had influenced every rock guitarist of the era when he collaborated with Booker T. and the MG’s on Born Under A Bad Sign in 1967.
Expanding on that concept, for I’ll Play the Blues for You, seemingly every player Stax had in their stable was called in for the sessions. These included the new lineup of the Bar-Kays, the incarnation that formed after the plane crash that killed Otis Redding and most of the original band in 1967. Members of the Bar-Kays also played for the Movement, Isaac Hayes’ backing band, another ensemble that helped the King project. Throw in the Memphis Horns, which features Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Andrew Love on tenor saxophone, and you’ve got a very deluxe soul kitchen indeed.
Back then, the album didn’t start any major fires, but it earned respectable enough sales. It gave King his second hit, the seven-minute opener, “I’ll Play The Blues for You, Pts. 1-2.” This is the one featuring King’s warm, signature spoken-word verses and linear guitar lines. Throughout the entire set that follows, it’s clear there might be some of the best in the business backing him, but this is an Albert King show. He’s front and center, firmly in control of songs like “Little Brother (Make a Way)” and “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” both pure Stax soul R&B.
The live, or at least simulated, audience adds to the party flavor of “I’ll Be Doggone” in which King declares James Brown ain’t the only one who can heat up the room. Another standout, King’s own “Answer to the Laundromat Blues,” also shows that, hell yeah, the blues has a sense of humor. In this case, it’s King’s male perspective responding to Sandy Jones’ “Laundromat Blues” which King had first released as a single in 1966.
“High Cost of Loving” is more blues than soul, as is “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge (‘Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across).” It’s nailed down by a note-perfect walking bass. Then, the blues meets the funky wah-wah pedal in “Angel of Mercy,” the original album’s closer.
Now, for the first time, we get four bonus tracks as part of this new edition. These include an alternate version of “I’ll Play the Blues For You” where “Born Under a Bad Sign”—a song that originated with Albert—meets B.B.’s “The Thrill is Gone.” In this version, the spoken verses are missing but we hear a bit more saucy sax and a very different guitar jam. Even better is a different take on “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge” which burns quite brightly in its own way without the horn section. It deserves some air time—radio jockeys, take note.
The previously unreleased “I Need a Love” also deserves some long overdue appreciation. One guesses there simply wasn’t space on the LP to include this cut the first time around. Or, perhaps no one knew about it when the 1990 CD came out. Finally, ”Albert’s Stomp,” which is heavily influenced by funk, is a simple instrumental jam that sounds like a work in progress which nicely rounds out this package.
In his later years, King toured in his customized Greyhound bus with “I’ll Play the Blues For You” painted on the sides. It’s been 20 years since his death in 1992, and he’s still doing it somewhere.
We need to thank Concord Music for making this classic release possible by enhancing it with 24-bit remastering, courtesy of Joe Tarantino. For example, the re-mastered title cut allows the supporting organ, horns, and tom-tom runs to pop a bit more than on the old vinyl. For this 40th anniversary collection, we also get a nice booklet with liner notes from historian Bill Dahl.
This is a package old fans should crave. For everyone else, if you love this, try His Majesty on a live recording. It never really mattered who backed him. Albert King had it all.