If you have read my review of B.B. King’s Live In Cook County Jail, then the background info for Albert King will sound familiar, and for that reason the two are commonly confused with each other.
Albert was born in 1923 on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. I know what you may be thinking, the answer is ‘no,’ despite being born in the same place 2 years apart and using the same last name, the two are not related, as Albert was born Albert King Nelson. Nelson’s large family (he had 12 brothers and sisters) performed gospel music together in church, and he learned to play the guitar when he was 8 years old.
Albert became a professional musician in the late 40’s playing drums on some recordings with Jimmy Reed. Influenced by T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Albert wanted to play the blues. In 1953, he signed with Parrot Records out of Chicago, and recorded a few singles. By this time, he had dropped his last name and was now just Albert King.
King had very little success on the Parrot label and left Chicago for St. Louis. For several years King and his band played the local blues clubs before attracting the attention of another bluesman, Little Milton. Milton was working in the front office for a small St. Louis Record label, Bobbin Records, and he signed King to a deal.
Around this time, King began playing a 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar.
King was left-handed, but much like Jimi Hendrix would do a few years later, he played a right-handed guitar upside-down. Albert named all his guitars “Lucy,” further confusing him with B.B. and his “Lucille.”
Bobbin loaned King out to the (somewhat ironically named) King label out of Cincinnati. It was there that King had his first major hit with “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” in 1961. The song reached the top 20 on the R&B charts.
In 1962, King (the label) released Albert King’s first LP, The Big Blues.
It was technically a compilation, as all of the songs on the album were songs that had been released as singles on both Bobbin and King over the past few years.
Actually the title The Big Blues couldn’t be more apropos, as King was a huge man. He stood 6 foot 4 and weighed over 250 lbs. That was larger than most NFL linemen in 1960’s.
After a few more singles, Albert left Bobbin and King and signed with Coun-Tree Records, which was mostly a Jazz label, after a couple of unsuccessful singles, King went looking for a new label to sign with.
One of the premier R&B/Soul music labels was Stax, located in Memphis, Tennessee. The label had only been around for a handful of years, but was gaining popularity with the music buying public with huge stars like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs.
There were not any other traditional blues artists signed with Stax at the time, and they were looking to expand into that market. In 1966, King signed with Stax. He was excited about the prospect of working with the young musicians that Stax employed, most notably Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs.
In his previous 13 years of being an artist, King had garnered only one solitary chart hit, but in just his first 3 years at Stax he recorded 5 R&B chart hits and had his first breakthrough on the Hot 100.
As Stax did with most of their artists at the time, they then compiled all of King’s singles recorded in 1966-67 along with the B-sides, and put them on one LP.
The Album Cover:
Some have called this one of the best album covers of all time. It’s a pretty funny cover with all of the “bad luck” signs of a black cat, ace of spades, dice rolling ‘snake eyes’, the skull and crossbones, and Friday the 13th on the calendar.
The cover was designed Loring Euterney, who actually worked for Atlantic as their cover designer. At the time, Atlantic was partnered with Stax to release their albums at the national level. That seemingly insignificant detail of who designed the cover may actually mean that it was Atlantic and not Stax that put together this compilation, or else the artwork would have probably been done in-house at Stax. In fact, the album was released both through Atlantic and Stax.
The back cover has what was the standard Stax design at the time, as all of their LPs essentially had the same style back cover, the artist and title in bold at the top, the track listing on left and a short essay on the artist on the right side.
My favorite line of the essay “If you’ve ever been hurt by your main squeeze, deceived by your best friend, or down to your last dime and ready to call it quits, Albert King has the solution if you have the time to listen.” Do I get a money back guarantee with that?
I have the Sundazed reissue of Born Under a Bad Sign and it has a second essay on the back by Bill Dahl written in 1998, giving more contextual information on the album, along with a picture of King playing guitar.
I am reviewing the 1998 Sundazed reissue LP of Born Under A Bad Sign. As someone who lives in Memphis, TN, it is very hard to come by original Stax albums at non-astronomical prices, so I do not own an original copy of the album. However, Sundazed is one of the best reissue labels when it comes to sounding just like the original as they put a lot of care into pressing their vinyl.
(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs. As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience. If you can get your hands on an original Stax S723 that is in good condition, then pick it up. If not, the Sundazed vinyl reissue is fine.)
The album starts off with the title track, “Born Under A Bad Sign.” The streak of awesome opening tracks continues! The first thing that popped in my head when the song started is how much it is a perfect blending of the “Stax sound” and King’s blues. It may be the quintessential blues recording. Of course, it would even more famously be recorded by Albert King’s acolyte Eric Clapton with Cream a year later.
Ya know, when you listen to the lyrics it is actually a really depressing song. He can’t read, write, has been living on his own since he was 10 years old. Damn, that’s a rough life. But I’m not sure that has anything to do with bad luck.
Next up is “Crosscut Saw.” Which has very quiet vocals in comparison to the music, though that could just be a problem with the mix. Again, it is interesting to hear the Memphis styled sound backing up King on what was a song he had recorded many years earlier. The lyrics always have kinda confused me as the sexual innuendo on “Crosscut Saw” is odd. “Just drag me across your log/ I cut your wood so easy for you.” I think this chick might have a dick.
Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City” has a much more laid back sound compared to the other versions of the song I’ve heard. There are great sounding horns on this track. Overall, though, it really isn’t one of King’s best vocals and not one of the album’s best tracks.
“Oh, Pretty Woman” is a hard-driving blues song. And, no, it is not the same as the Roy Orbison classic. The bass really drives this song, though it kinda sounds like it may be Booker T. playing the bass notes on the organ rather than Duck Dunn on the bass. I’m not sure about that, though. Really an early funk-blues piece, with a great guitar solo. Really, it’s a pretty badass song.
“Down Don’t Bother Me” is the first song penned by Albert King on the album. A decent, yet semi-generic blues song, although the Memphis Horns keep it from being totally generic.
“The Hunter” is a song written by all members of Booker T. & the MGs. It sounds so much like an MGs song, only with lyrics and blues guitar. Quite cool.
Hearing “The Hunter” and noticing how much is sounds like Booker T. & the MGs makes just want to add this here: shame on the Rolling Stone voters for only voting this one album from Stax on the list. There is so much that needs to be said about Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Staple Singers, and loads of others. There are three Otis Redding albums on the list, and while they are Stax albums, they bear the Volt logo. There is not one album on the list with the best record label logo of all time, the famous “snapping fingers” logo, which didn’t appear until the year after Born Under a Bad Sign.
But at least I can acknowledge some of those artists’ contributions on this album, which, unfortunately, is not a traditional Stax album. Although, I’m glad that it does have a touch of the Stax soul flavor mixed in with Albert King’s blues.
Oh yeah, Led Zeppelin took parts of “The Hunter,” sped it up, and made it into “How Many More Times” off their debut album.
Actually this is where the original LP’s side one ends, but the Sundazed reissue includes a bonus track at the end of each side. “Funk Shun” is an instrumental blues track that is pretty good and it is a nice ending to side one.
“I Almost Lost My Mind” opens up side two. I always like when someone can take a song that has been covered a million times and make it sound fresh, and King does that here. I love the flute and horns, I honestly can’t remember ever hearing a flute on a blues song ever before.
Isaac Hayes plays piano on this track. Everything works here, especially King’s vocal. I wasn’t expecting to say this, but this might be my favorite track on the album so far.
“Personal Manager” is another Albert King penned track as he wrote it with Stax’s resident songwriter David Porter. It has that traditional blues sound, and here is the first time where he reminds me of B.B. It does have an awesome guitar solo on it, bending the strings all over the place. A lot of the time I don’t usually love the traditional blues style, but in this case it works really well.
“Laundromat Blues” is just King, Isaac Hayes, and Duck Dunn playing a stripped down blues song for the most part, that is until the horns come in midway through the song. The song is about his woman two-timing him with a man she is meeting at the laundromat. I love the lyrics “I don’t want ya to get so clean, baby/ You just might wash your life away.” Only in the blues can you say something like that with a straight face and it still makes you feel the man’s despair and anger.
“As the Years Go Passing By” opens with a great sax blast. This is a great track. This song just has a feeling to it, it’s soft and cool, I imagine that they are playing in the studio with the lights turned out for some reason. Kinda like how the Ohio Players used to do it.
Officially the original album ends on “The Very Thought Of You” which sounds more like a Brook Benton song than an Albert King song as it has a more R&B than Blues feel to it. This may be his best vocal on the album. Also, it has a great sax solo by Andrew Love of The Memphis Horns. It is a lovely track to close out the original album.
Much like side one, side two of the Sundazed LP closes on an instrumental bonus track, “Overall Junction.” Kind of a fun, bluesy guitar-driven song. It’s good, but “The Very Thought of You” was such a great ending track, that I kind of wish they wouldn’t have put this here. It is great to have more tracks, but it kinda screws with the flow.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not the biggest fan of traditional blues. I know it is something that requires an appreciation and time put in to “get” it. That’s not to say I don’t like the blues, because I can appreciate it to a point, but much like classical and jazz music it takes time and effort to understand what keeps most songs from sounding just alike. However, adding in the “Stax sound” into the mix does make the songs more palatable to my ears, and makes it an enjoyable album.
The album (or at least the tracks from this compilation) immediately inspired many rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, who both acknowledged its influence and covered the title track. Later people like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Walsh, and even John Mayer cited these King recordings as influences on their own guitar playing.
King’s follow-up to Born Under A Bad Sign was a live album recorded at the Fillmore West in San Francisco titled Live Wire/Blues Power.
The album was his first to chart on the R&B and Pop Charts.
His next studio album Years Gone By was his most successful on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, reaching #133. Once again, Booker T. & the MGs backed King on that album.
King remained with Stax through 1974. The label filed bankruptcy in 1975 and King signed with Utopia Records.
He continued to tour despite growing health problems throughout the 1980’s. His final recordings came in 1992, after which he passed away of a heart attack at his home in Memphis in December of that year.
Coincidentally, I am posting this on April 18, 2013, and Albert King will be posthumously inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame later this evening. Actually, considering his influence on so many people who are already in there, I’m surprised that it has taken this long for him to be inducted.
My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:
RS: “King’s first album for the Stax label combines his hard, unflashy guitar playing with the sleek sound of the label’s house band, Booker T. and the MG’s. Hits such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Laundromat Blues” earned King a new rock & roll audience.”
There’s nothing bad at all on this album, but traditional blues is not exactly my cup o’ tea. There is a touch of funk and a lot of what I like best about the album is the contribution by the Stax crew. I don’t mean to knock Albert King in any way, because what he does is very good, too. I personally just enjoy the Stax sound more than the blues sound. Still, all of that makes up the album as a whole and despite being basically a compilation album it has a good flow to it. I will definitely recommend Born Under A Bad Sign to anyone.
4.25 Stars out of 5, recommended.
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters
4. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up
5. Outkast- Aquemini
6. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign
7. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs
8. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!
9. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail
10. Eurythmics- Touch