Exactly why it was so advantageous to be named King in the early days of the electric blues revolution, I don’t know. Maybe it was something to do with King Biscuit Time, a US radio show that started in 1941, named after its sponsors, a brand of flour, and specialising in African-American music. This was the station that caught the ear of the coincidentally-named Riley B. King, born in 1925, who went on to be known as BB King, a towering pioneer of the electric blues format for literally 70 years.
Albert Nelson, a couple of years older but a little later on the scene, was born and raised not far from BB King, inspiring him to change his name to Albert King, in order to be associated in the public eye with that same brand of electric blues guitar. Texan Freddie King, a decade younger than the other two, relocated to Chicago and broke into that same blues market in the early ‘60s. Then there was King Records in Ohio, a label that Albert King recorded for before moving to Stax.
These three rocking blues brothers, completely unrelated by blood, were not the only guitarists to take up the banner of the blues, but by virtue of their names, are often linked together as ‘The Three Kings’. Without doubt, they are three of the towering exponents of the African-American music that inspired the British blues boom of the ‘60s, and the likes of Clapton, Page and Beck. The Retroworld label has now collected vintage live performances of the Three Kings into a double CD collection named The Three Kings Live In The 70s. It may well be asked, if any label is sitting on classic live performances from three such bankable stars, why has it taken 50 years to bring them out of the cupboard? It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to find the performances to be sub-par and the recordings to be poor. As it happens though, the performances are stellar, and it’s easy to understand how the three became such big names in their field.
But yes, it’s also true to say that some of the recordings are not great. The BB King and Freddie King material is a little muffled and distorted, although the balance and mix are pretty decent all the way through. But the material from Albert King is tremendous, well up to the standard of the best live albums, close to studio quality. The liner notes do not explicitly state where the Albert and Freddie gigs were recorded, although we are told that BB’s set was recorded at the Showcase in Oakland, California – the consistency within each of the artists leads me to believe that the other two were also recorded in one hit. What we have here is effectively three live albums, chopped and stirred together into one pot. If the Albert King numbers were taken out and played separately, they would be a tremendous 45-minute live album on their own.
Wisely then, the album kicks off with Albert, and his mid-tempo, funky 12-bar Crosscut Saw. This is followed by BB’s absolutely manically fast jazz rocker, Every Day I Have The Blues, which is over in less than two minutes. Freddie follows with the up-tempo pub blues of Goin’ Down, his gruffer, rockier voice and use of feedback sustain giving a nice contrast to the other two.
Subtle horns back all of the numbers, and the music is punctuated by a fair amount of audience interaction, especially with BB, who just seems to be having a great time. One aspect of these classic artists, for which I had never really given them enough credit, is just how hard they rock; the pub blues boom of the ‘70s is represented here in full force.
The classic pub staples are all there: Albert King’s cover of T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday, his own Oh! Pretty Woman, perhaps better known from Spooky Tooth’s cover from 1969, and of course Born Under A Bad Sign, with the coolest line in the history of blues: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Freddie covers Key To The Highway, and even Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, as well as pulling out an absolutely stunning performance of his own Hide Away, famously covered by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton on guitar. BB brings Every Day I Have The Blues out of his extensive armoury, and of course The Thrill Is Gone.
Also, a big shout-out to BB’s excellent band, with the brilliant Ron Levy on piano and Wilbert Freeman on bass. It’s all good, and although the sound quality is not up to standard at all times, it’s worth the money just to hear Albert’s set, which is impeccable.