With his album Born Under a Bad Sign Albert King did something unusual amongst bluesmen: he made some pretty good money. Also the subject of glowing reviews, Born Under a Bad Sign is an album of hooks and whimsical lyrics in tidy packages that ultimately sounds too commercial. Not so with an album he did with Stevie Ray Vaughan. There we feel like we’re eavesdropping on something that would have happened regardless of recording equipment. It’s two guitar masters – or gitfiddlers – playing not for the audience, but for each other. It’s fun to hear the talk between tracks as King takes on the role of the old blues prophet ceding his mantle to the up-and-comer. He makes Stevie Ray promise not to get complacent, saying “you’re already [half-pause] pretty good.”
Yup, he was pretty good. Does Stevie Ray play the guitar, or does the guitar play him? It’s hard to tell sometimes. I have this fanciful theory about how the ancient Greeks would occasionally see someone whose talents so exceeded other mortals that they were inspired to make up gods, super-skilled beings who otherwise retained the foibles and weaknesses of men. Well, if Stevie Ray was born in ancient Greece there would be a guitar god, who, as a bluesman, would probably be in a few stories with Aphrodite, always ending with another reason to write a blues song.
One of Albert King’s stories is about a never-confirmed impromptu recording session. He and another guitarist who happened to be in the same club at the same time decided to get together to play some blues, but not without “The Queen,” Janis Joplin. “Janis had a little glass. She always had [half-pause] a little glass, God rest her soul.” The other guitar player for that session was Jimi Hendrix. Now, a lot of us associate Jimi Hendrix with feedback & flash, as well as a tendency toward undisciplined indulgence. That’s not the Jimi Hendrix you see here:
At first Hendrix didn’t know what to do when handed the 1960 Zemaitis, strung left-handed especially for him. He began picking only when the producer told him to play a “short, quiet” blues, in contrast to his image as a stormy rocker.
After less than a minute Hendrix stopped playing the Zemaitis, admitted he was “scared to death,” and asked for another try. For the next four minutes, even after the film ran out, he performed an inspired version of “Hear My Train A Comin’.”
Hendrix ends the clip asking “You didn’t think I’d do that?” Bet you didn’t.