Albert King (1923-1992) will be posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18, 2013. It is a fitting tribute to the blues legend that his Stax Records debut Born Under A Bad Sign has just been reissued - completely remastered, with the addition of five bonus tracks. The extras are nice, but not really necessary, for this is one of the greatest blues albums I have ever heard.
King had been around for a while before he came to Stax, having previously recorded for the Vee-Jay, Parrot, and Bobbin labels. It took his association with Stax to really put him on the map though. Their stable of musicians, producers, and songwriters all played a key role in the success of Born Under A Bad Sign. In the end though, this is Albert King's record, and for this fan at least, it is the finest of his career.
Motown may have called itself "Hitsville, USA," but Stax was "Soulsville, USA." The musical accomplices at King's disposal were impeccable. The "backing group" on this album are basically Booker T. and the MG's. Talk about a crack band! Born Under A Bad Sign features Booker T. Jones (piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald "Duck" Dunn (guitar), Al Jackson Jr. (drums), The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson, Andrew Love, Joe Arnold) plus "Shaft" himself, Isaac Hayes (piano).
The disc opens with the classic title track, written by Booker T. and William Bell. Lines like "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all," are delivered with the self-assurance of a man who has lived the life. King was 43 years old when the sessions began in 1966, and had played just about every juke-joint and dive in the country. As great as his voice is however, it is his guitar that really makes it for me. I have heard it said that he was the "lesser" of the three blues "Kings." The other two are Freddie King, and B.B. King. Well, screw that. This guy is phenomenal.
The "Born Under A Bad Sign" single rose to number 49 on the R&B charts, with "Personal Manager" as the B-side. "Personal Manager" was written by King and David Porter, and is a great track in its own right. On the album, "Crosscut Saw" follows "Born," and is a showcase for some of King's musical roots. The tune dates back to 1941, and was originally recorded by Mississippi guitarist Tommy McClennon. Booker T. and the MG's arrangement and backing helped take the single of "Crosscut Saw" to number 34 on the R&B chart. The first of King's originals to appear on the record is "Down Don't Bother Me." It initially appeared as the flipside of "Crosscut Saw."
Another early highlight on the album is the Leiber-Stoller classic "Kansas City." The song was written in 1952, and has been covered hundreds of times. Everyone from The Beatles to Sammy Davis Jr. have taken a crack at it, and Albert King's version is right up there with the best.
Side two of the LP showcased the softer side of the man. The blues have many facets, and the mellow "I Almost Lost My Mind" is the first of three ballads on the latter half of the disc. The side flows together quite well, with the previously mentioned "Personal Manager" and the wild "Laundromat Blues" following "I Almost Lost My Mind." We are then in for a couple of sweet surprises.
The first of these is "As the Years Go Passing By." The song finds King and his guitar reminiscing, probably late at night, and most likely with a bottle of whisky close at hand. It is a vivid piece of work. Finally, we come to "The Very Thought of You." As Bill Dahl's newly-written liner notes state, "The album's closer was a shocker." Indeed, it is quite a change of pace to hear this master bluesman embrace the standard, which was written back in 1934. It may be a shocker, but it certainly is a gorgeous one.
The five previously unissued tracks feature alternate takes of "Born Under A Bad Sign," "Crosscut Saw," "The Hunter," and "Personal Manager." The fifth is the rollicking "Untitled Instrumental," which shows just how much fun these guys were having in the studio during the sessions.
I imagine that present-day listeners may think that King copped everything he knew from Stevie Ray Vaughan. The sound is very similar. Of course Vaughan was only 13 years old when Born Under A Bad Sign was released, but over the years, his music has received far more airplay than King's ever did. Stevie Ray made no bones about his adoration of Albert King, and he was not the only one. Both Cream and Creedence Clearwater Revival covered "Born Under A Bad Sign," and Jimi Hendrix was known to be a fan as well.
There is not a weak cut on Born Under A Bad Sign, or in the bonus tracks for that matter. The album has been lauded in multiple sources as being one of the greatest blues records ever recorded. Since the Concord Music Group acquired the Stax catalog, they have been reissuing many of the label's classics. Born Under A Bad Sign is one of the jewels in the crown. For blues fans, this record is a must.