One of the "Three Kings of the Blues Guitar" (along with B.B. King and Freddie King), he stood at least 6' 4", weighed in at least 260 lbs (118 kg) and was known as "The Velvet Bulldozer". He was born Albert Nelson on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. During his childhood he would sing at a family gospel group at a church. He began his professional work as a musician with a group called In The Groove Boys, in Osceola, Arkansas. He also briefly played drums for Jimmy Reed's band and on several early Reed recordings. Influenced by Blues musicians Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, but also interestingly Hawaiian music, the electric guitar became his signature instrument, his preference being the Gibson Flying V, which he named "Lucy".
King was a left-handed "upside-down/backwards" guitarist. He was left-handed, but usually played right-handed guitars flipped over upside-down so the low E string was on the bottom. In later years he played a custom-made guitar that was basically left-handed, but had the strings reversed (as he was used to playing). He also used very unorthodox tunings (i.e., tuning as low as C to allow him to make sweeping string bends). A "less is more" type blues player, he was known for his expressive "bending" of notes, a technique characteristic of blues guitarists.
His first minor hit came in 1958 with "I'm A Lonely Man" written by Bobbin Records A&R man and fellow guitar hero Little Milton, responsible for King's signing with the label. However, it was not until his 1961 release "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" that he had a major hit, reaching number fourteen on the R&B charts. In 1966 he signed with the famous Stax record label. Produced by powerhouse drummer Al Jackson, Jr., King with Booker T. & the MGs recorded dozens of hugely influential sides, such as "Crosscut Saw" and "As the Years Go Passing By", and in 1967 Stax released the legendary album, Born Under A Bad Sign. The title track of that album (written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell) became King's most well known song and has been covered by many artists (from Cream to Homer Simpson)
Another landmark album followed in Live Wire/Blues Power from one of many seminal dates King played at promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore venues.
In the 1970s, King was teamed with members of The Bar-Kays and The Movement (Isaac Hayes's backing group), including bassist James Alexander and drummer Willie Hall adding strong Funk elements to his music. Adding strings and multiple rhythm guitarists, producers Allen Jones and Henry Bush created a wall of sound that contrasted the sparse, punchy records King made with Booker T. & the MGs. Among these was another signature tune for King with "I'll Play the Blues For You" in 1972.
King influenced many later blues guitarists including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Taylor, Warren Haynes, Mike Bloomfield, Gary Moore, and especially Stevie Ray Vaughan, who also covered many of King's songs. He also had a profound impact on contemporaries Albert Collins and Otis Rush. Clapton has said that his work on the 1967 Cream hit "Strange Brew" and throughout the album Disraeli Gears was inspired by King.
King died on December 21, 1992 from a heart attack in Memphis, Tennessee.