Blues ‘n’ groove keyboard MVP and producer Ron Levy has spent more than 40 years on the road and in the studio, leading his own bands — including his exploratory, long-running outfit Wild Kingdom — and working with a cavalcade of influential artists. That extraordinarily long list includes B.B. King, the band Roomful of Blues, Muddy Waters and Magic Sam disciple Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, and funk-jazz saxist Karl Denson among others. All of that and more is chronicled in Levy’s first book, Tales Of A Road Dog, now available in both web-book and e-book formats.
The volume is a treat for blues guitar fans, who get a close-up look at Levy’s legendary employers in its pages. The closest vantage is on Albert King, who was just inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame under the “Influences” category and whose birthday, April 25, just passed.
Although King died in 1992 his powerful playing was a major part of the foundation of the styles of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan and remains a touchstone for any roots informed electric string-bender. And King’s association with the Gibson Flying V he named “Lucy” has played a considerable role in immortalizing the model.
Levy’s first road gig, when he was just 17, was with King, who hired Levy as his keyboardist one night at a Massachusetts club just after firing the band he’d arrived at the gig with. No wonder Levy’s time with King remains indelible even after working on more than 200 albums and garnering nine Grammy nominations.
In the following interview, Levy provides a deep look at King as a man and as an artist. Levy’s earliest musical experiences with King prove a good starting point for his recollections.
Q: You’d heard Albert’s recordings before the initial time you played with him, but what surprised you about actually being on stage with him in performance the first few times?
A: Well, the very first time my band was hired to back him up was after he'd abruptly fired his band — or they quit, I never asked — so I didn't have much time to think or absorb what happened at age 17. It was what I'd call a “rush job” and quite overwhelming.
One thing that confounded me was Albert played mostly in the keys of Ab, Db, Gb and Eb. Previously backing up artists like John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, “Big Mama” Thornton and playing mostly Chicago style blues, I was mostly familiar with the relatively “easy” folk keys of E, A, D, G and C. That threw me for a loop. B.B. was the same. Today, however, I count those flat keys among my favorites. Although once you reach a certain point in mastering your instrument, a little bit of all of them is utilized simultaneously.
The main thing that surprised me was the beauty of Albert's voice. He was really a great communicator and had a soothingly rich baritone voice. When he sang, we always had to drop way down in volume, but still maintain a solid groove. I always loved his Southern almost “Brooklynese” accent and the clarity of his impeccably delivered lyrics. He usually let "Lucy" command the more powerful parts of his songs, although she could whisper sweetly as well. Albert was a total master of effective dynamics and phrasing. Playing next to him was a jaw opening experience. He was the best blues guitar player I ever heard before or since.
Q: Since, as you recount in your book, Albert actually produced a machine gun to set things straight at one gig, did you ever feel any danger and, if so, did it color your perspective on the roots and perhaps emotional origins of blues?
A: One gig? There were never any false pretenses about our playing, living or traveling anywhere we did, or playing for ballerinas or la-la sing-a-longs... hootenanny type folk music. His audience was not expecting any of that at all, especially at the “chitlin' circuit” gigs we did. Even the “hippie joints” were in the sketchiest parts of town. We played and stayed at some pretty rough places and got “hit” by people stealing our equipment. They tried more times than we ever knew about, I'm sure.
Albert was an honorary deputy sheriff in Lovejoy, Illinois, which explained his permit to be armed so heavily. He always had his own private armory easily within reach. I had full confidence in his ability to know when, where and how to show force. He never showed off his weapons in public or even around us. He always kept them close to his vest, literally. I never saw or heard him fire a shot. With his demeanor and presence, he never really had to. He was a force not to be trifled with, with or without weapons. Albert used to refer to the blues as the "reals." Each minute of everyday was real and viscerally immediate.
Q: How loud did Albert play on stage? And how did that affect the overall mix and performances of the band?
A: He was always way out front in the mix. That Gibson Flying V guitar gave me goose bumps and shivers on a regular basis mostly because of his intensity and clarity. I often referred to it as sounding like crystal glass. What amazed me even more was whenever he picked up Miss Lucy on the bus or backstage to warm up or tune, he sounded exactly the same except it wasn’t as loud. He could sustain a note as long as he wanted to, even without an amplifier! He was always perfectly in tune — and rhythm/time as well — no matter how much he bent those strings, unlike most others. He could hit a note that would let everyone know where the “one” was, all night long.
Q: Albert and his band jammed with a lot of the day’s guitar stars: Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Michael Bloomfield. Were any of those experiences particularly memorable?
A: Mostly, I’m trying to forget them! In Tales of a Road Dog I talk about this and how much we — the band — hated these jams, although we realized these “stars” were trying to further Albert's career. Musically, it just wasn’t fair. No matter how loud or how much they played, they always sounded little and out of tune when trying to play like Albert. Stevie Ray, much later, was the only one that ever came close. Albert loved him. We'd always smile at these guitarists trying to sound like Albert, but laugh about them later. Albert just whupped them country style so bad, it was funny, or wasn't even.
Albert was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame posthumously and way too late. I've often quipped that if they ever disqualified all the guitarists that have become rich — or not — copying Albert, there would be only a handful left. I'd be willing to bet there are many kids today that are learning to play the guitar who believe they're learning Stevie Ray, Clapton or Hendrix licks, when in fact, they're learning second or third generation copies of the one and only ever, original Albert King.
Q: Albert set his guitar in unconventional turnings. Did he ever explain how he came to use any of them?
A: A few times Albert gave me his guitar to hold for him briefly while he needed to do something else. One time, I tried to play a simple E chord and it sounded all wrong. I panicked that I had somehow de-tuned it. When I confessed this to Albert, he just laughed and “tole” me, “Rown, I got my own special way to tune Lucy. She's my special 'goil' and no one else knows how to play with her 'cept me! Can you dig it?" I believed him.
Q: What were the main musical lessons you learned from Albert?
A: He taught me exactly how he wanted me to play chords behind him. While setting up my B-3 at the Burning Spear club in Chicago, Brother Jack McDuff showed me some awesome, sophisticated jazzy chords. I began to use them so I wouldn't forget them and Albert went berserk! That's when he came over and showed me his preferred chords. This taught me to always play in context, or else! I wrote the full story about this in my book, which is pretty hilarious now, but wasn't so much at the time. Although my bandmates humorously teased me about it back then, like siblings do when their father yells at one of them.
Albert had a very exacting discipline and was always incredibly effective in everything he played. Although his patience waned from time to time, he told me to be patient when learning something new and not to, "be effin’ fooling around" guessing what I was going to play. "Don't play a G-damned MF'n thing until you know what you're doing son. Nobody wants to 'heyah' nothin' until you get it together and play that shit right. If it don't mean a MF'n thing, don't do nothin'!" Trust me, this is the sugar coated short version.
Q: And what did he teach you or show you about survival on the road?
A: When Albert first asked me and my drummer Richie Ponte — rest in peace — to tour with him, I felt like I was escaping from a harsh and strict parental prison and I'd be free to do whatever I wanted to, while away from home on my own. I was only 17 at the time and still in school. My parents made Albert sign some legal guardian papers before they let me run away with the circus. He took his stewardship of me very seriously and by conservative estimates was at least 1,000 times stricter than my once “evil” parents back home ever were. Around him, I learned to be even more careful and discreet regarding any of my forays into the lands of forbidden fun.
He made sure I always saved my money and sent some of it to my mother. We all did. He'd bring us to the Western Union office himself every week. He never advanced us any money at all. I can't remember anyone ever being brave enough to even ask. We always had to live strictly within our means. Besides that and cussing, we all had to keep our noses clean and “behave”… or else!
Q: How long were you with Albert on the road altogether?
A: While I was still in high school we mostly played out doing long weekends. I flew back and forth from Boston to St. Louis each week —$78 round-trip with a student pass. Once I graduated we were pretty much on the road here or overseas. Altogether, it was around a year or so. I joined B.B. King's band soon after I left Albert. Albert was pretty sore about that for a good while. When we later did shows together, I avoided Albert and his anticipated wrath as much as possible. Much later he told me that bothered him more than me joining up with B.B. He understood it was a career move, but was actually hurt by my avoidance of him personally. Now, I understand, but at the time I was more afraid of him and unaware of his feelings.
We became very good friends later on, when I was producing records for Bullseye Blues. He introduced and had me sign up [singer-guitarist] Little Jimmy King. We also hung out and ate together frequently. Before Albert passed, we went to his doctor together, which I arranged at his request. He was living in Memphis and I was working there frequently. We made up for lost time and always enjoyed each other’s company, had many laughs and some great talks. He was a very smart, sensitive and kind man beneath that tough intimidating exterior. Albert also had really great sense of humor. He was a huge practical joker! Sometimes we'd cry, we laughed so hard. Anytime you see a photo of Albert with B.B., Bobby Bland, Little Milton or the many rock guitar heroes that surrounded him, you'll notice they're always laughing. Albert had such a colorful and unique way of expressing his “life's observations” that were so direct and honest, you couldn't help but laugh with him whenever he shared them.
Q: What songs were particular favorites for you to play with him and why?
We had a solid, tight little band consisting of organ, tenor sax, bass and drums. B.B.'s and Bobby “Blue” Bland's bands always took notice of us whenever we did shows together. That's how I got Sonny Freeman's — B.B.'s bandleader and drummer — attention. Being younger than those bands, we played a more contemporary style, which included our own arrangements of Herbie Hancock, Sly Stone, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder type tunes. As long as we were smokin', Albert would let us play whatever we wanted to. That made us work all the harder for him, again… or else! We'd then bring him on with “Cold Sweat” and when Lucy hit that first super sonic Albert note, we all went into another stratosphere. Everyone else there did, too.
As long as we played Albert's songs perfectly, they were all great. But, if the — weekly or weakly — drummer sped up or slowed down, confused dynamics or made any other faux pas, they were all torture. Even now, I'd much prefer being water-boarded than being around a frustrated Albert. I always enjoyed playing our orchestration of "You're Gonna Need Me." When he got to cranking and feeling good however, it didn't matter what song we did. When things went perfectly, he'd smile at you and say, "Whoo!" then hit some serious ceiling plaster crackers, then a barrage of them. Sometimes, it'd be just one note, but he'd bend it until you thought his guitar neck would snap, and not just the strings. By that time, everyone was saying, "Whoooooooo" too! He was truly un-godly sometimes. Our bass player O'Neal Setzler's eyes would open wide and he'd begin to cackle, laughing out loud, just like little kids do when watching a real scary part in a horror movie.
Q: What was Albert’s attitude regarding B.B. King — friend, competitor, both?
A: Both actually, although Albert was undoubtedly jealous of B.B.'s much greater financial success and prestige. However, B.B. did a lot to help Albert whenever he could. He always invited Albert up on stage for a guitar battle whenever they were booked together. Now, those were some serious guitar jams! It was like a heavyweight bout between a finesse boxer and knockout puncher. B.B. was always the slyer of the two. Whenever Albert got cooking and going real good, B.B. would signal for us all to drop way down in volume. B.B. would then smirk a big Cheshire cat grin at Albert, then sing in his highest falsetto voice, "Someday Bay-ay-ay-by" completely changing the conversation.
Albert had his tricks too though. Once in Houston with Albert Collins, Mr. King put somebody's ball-cap on sideways, while Collins was digging in real hard on a solo. He lit his famous pipe, leaned on his amp and acted completely bored like he was waiting for a bus that'd never come. He even checked his watch a few times, wiped his brow, turned away from Collins and started talking to folks standing side-stage, laughing without a care in the world. Albert would then give Collins a "Is you through?" look and proceed to blast him off the stage. That play was hysterical, and pure Albert King.
One of my closest friends and teachers Duke Jethro, a fellow B.B. King alumni, told me that when Albert first came on the scene, at a show in St. Louis, B.B. privately confided in Duke saying, "That man bears watching." That said, while with Stax, Albert put out much better records in my opinion. One last thing, neither B.B. nor Albert, and especially B.B.'s father, ever liked the false rumor that they were brothers, half-brothers or whatever.
Q: Albert was known for being tough and cranky. What made him happy?
A: Really? Albert cranky? Whatever do you mean? Oh, I just checked that word in Webster's. Look, there's Albert's picture! I wrote about many examples of Albert's two moods in my book, spanning some 30-plus years. Well, besides avant-garde or Victorian romantic poetry readings at the library, collecting butterflies or mushroom hunting in the forest, Albert loved shooting craps and when he won big he was very happy. We shared many fine meals together and he enjoyed cakes and pies — even and especially when he was forbidden to by his doctor — at Helen's in Memphis. He'd guiltily take a few bites then have me finish the rest of it. Red velvet cake and sweet potato pie were among his favorites. Ice cream, too. Vanilla.
When he passed, at least half a dozen women besides the real Mrs. King claimed to be Albert's wife and the mother of their children. It gave new meaning for me whenever he had told me he was "busy," upon reflection. I assume he was happy being so industrious! Albert could be very charming with the ladies and had many “fans.”
He loved music, including spirituals and hitting a groove. He loved playing guitar and singing. Albert was a killer singer, very underrated by most. He was very proud of Little Jimmy King and of my career in music production and the recording industry. He was never shy about stopping by my mixing sessions, nor correcting them when needed and was happy when I took his direction. He was always right, what else could I do? We became close friends towards the end and that made us both happy. He was a really nice human being and good friend, besides being a total monster in both really good and sometimes hard ways.
Q: What do you think he saw in you as a kid that made him want to take you on the road?
A: I honestly don't know about back then, but much later, Albert knew he could always trust me and I'd always try to do the right thing by him or in the business with Little Jimmy. He was always proud of me. We had a very special relationship and we still do! His best pipe was given to me by Mrs. King after the funeral. I had it specially framed along with a photo of him. It's hung up on my workspace wall, looking over my shoulder everyday. Many times I've looked to him during times of difficulty and distress. I'd even get a little misty as I'd hear his voice saying, "You know Rown, life can be so hard sometimes, but you just need to keep keepin' 'own' and do the best you can. You'll be all right. I'm always heyah for ya son. I have faith in you." Sorry if that sounds like BS, but it's true. It's happening right now as I'm writing this, while he's watching over me.
Q: Did Albert ever mention why he preferred Flying V guitars? And if so, what did he say?
A: Not specifically, other than revering it like a precious jewel. I know when we got hit by banditos in San Francisco, (also in the book) he wasn't happy about losing his 1958 Korina. He did his best work on that guitar and it was his trademark. It was perfectly suited for him and his unique style. He had easier access to all those really high notes better than with any other guitar design, I'd guess. I wasn't there, but I'm positive whenever he first saw Lucy, it was love at “foist” sight. I know the kid in Albert must've loved its modern rocket shape too! Various famous luthiers made custom guitars specially for him and he was proud of those. They always retained that rocket shaped design, but none of them sounded as good to me as those original “Lucy's.” I hope now that Albert is finally in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Gibson will make a special “Lucy” in his honor. They are the only ones that'll really get Albert's 100-percent approval!