CD Review – Albert King “Born Under Bad Sign”
He was blues royalty, a string-bending architect whose stinging licks and soulful attack shaped the future of blues and rock guitar. Even if you think you’re channeling Stevie Ray, its Albert King you owe the debt to.
1967’s Born Under a Bad Sign is King at his baddest, backed by Booker T and the MGs. It’s nasty, sweet, soulful and chilling, a perfect blend of blues and soul. What makes it even better is that these songs were captured at their birth in ’66 and ’67, with their proud parents assisting in the delivery. The arrangements here are by Booker and the MGs, with the unique contributions of bassist Duck Dunn, guitarist Steve Cropper, drummer Al Jackson Jr., and Jones on organ, the best soul session men in the biz. They’re aided by the Memphis Horns, Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson, the best soul brass of all times.
King didn’t write many of his biggest hits. “Born Under Bad Sign” was penned by Booker T and William Bell, and Jones was the writer for “The Hunter” as well.”Down Don’t Bother Me is King’s, as is “Personal Manager,” co-written with David Porter, Isaac Hayes collaborator and creator of many of Sam and Dave’s hits. But from the moment King hits the first note, those songs become his.
King’s “Born under a Bad Sign” sounds freshly forged, his flying V like molten steel splashing over the funky soul treatment punctuated by Jackson’s percussive whomp and Dunn’s funky bassline.
Jackson’s syncopated backbeat propels “Crosscut Saw,’ the horns providing a clucking along conversationally around King’s searing lead.
His huge hands and left handed, upside down set up with the E string on the bottom allowed King to bend strings with ease, but that wasn’t the only thing that made his sound distinctive. His fiery string pulling was balanced by his his smooth vocals and laid back pace which emphasized his power and control. On “Personal Manager,” his vocals are as buttery smooth as a young Bobby Blue Bland, which make his scorching leads even more fiery by comparison. He says more in the minute and a half solo he takes in the middle of the tune than most guitarists express in their entire careers.
It’s a bit disconcerting to see that the original versions of the these classic tunes are so short. We’re used to longer versions because established rock gods and wanna be’s in training stretch em out so much. But these were crafted for 45 rpm release, when the average length of a single was around three minutes. King makes his point and gets out with no wasted motion.
In addition to the 11 original tracks, four bonus tracks are included on this release from Stax: alternative takes of “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw,” on which King’s guitar has a bit more bite and is a bit more up front in the mix than the original, “The Hunter,” and “Personal Manager,” as well as an untitled instrumental.
The outside is nearly as good as the inside, with plenty of stuff to peruse while listening just like vinyl album covers used to provide. Included are three sets of liner notes that cover the making of the record and an overview of King’s style and technique.
King’s April 13 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was long overdue. This re-issue is a fitting tribute to one of the most unique and influential guitarists of all times as well as a tutorial on phrasing, attack, tone and creativity, setting the bar high for both listeners and players.