Albert King (1923-92) was one of the three kings of modern blues along with B.B. and Freddie. He began his recording career in 1952 but it was not until he signed with Memphis-based Stax Records that he achieved his greatest commercial success. His 1967 release Born Under A Bad Sign was an album that flused his electric blues with some rock and funk rhythms. It all added up to one of the more influential albums of the late 1960s. That album has now been reissued as a part of Concord Music Group’s Stax Remaster series.
He was backed by keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson Jr., all of whom who would go on to be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Booker T. & The MG’s. Also on hand were the Memphis Horns consisting of Walter Jackson, Andrew Love, and Joe Arnold.
Albert King was a finesse type of guitar player. He had a distinctive style where every note had clarity and he would string them together as he built the foundation for his sound. His runs were incisive lightning strikes that would take the listener by surprise. His style had been honed by over 15 years on the road and by the time he recorded his signature album, he was one of the best practitioners of his time. His interplay with Steve Cropper was an added bonus.
Many people connect the title song to Eric Clapton and Cream, but King’s is the original. The sound is built upon the bass, with Jones’ piano and the horn section filling in the gaps as the guitars and vocal complete a very full sound.
“Crosscut Saw” remains one of King’s best-known songs. It was originally recorded by Mississippi guitarist Tommy McClennan during 1941 as a sparse blues piece. The MG’s and the horn section present a far different version as the sound just continues to build. “Oh Pretty Woman” is a fine example of Steve Cropper laying down the guitar rhythm, which enables King to just take off.
There are two surprise inclusions. “Kansas City” is a Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller composition that became a huge hit for Wilbert Harrison during 1959. It has been recorded by over 300 different artists but King’s was very different from most. He twists the structure by ramping up the bass and providing a very hard guitar sound. “The Very Thought of You” was a 1930s song created by band leader Ray Noble, for whom it was a big hit. Ricky Nelson had a hit pop version about three decades later. King gives a laid back vocal, with a smoky sax sound serving as the counter point.
The booklet is excellent as it gives a history of not only King but of the material as well. Four of the bonus tracks, an expanded “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw” with an extra chorus, “The Hunter,” and “Personal Manager” with different rhythms, are all alternative takes. While they may not match those finally selected for the album, they do present different nuances and are interesting. “Untitled Instrumental” may be short, but King’s guitar runs are exciting and intriguing and makes one wonder why the song was abandoned.
Born Under A Bad Sign made Albert King a star. It was just about a perfect album and it influenced the course of American blues. This remastered version is a must.
Article first published as Music Review: Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign [Remastered & Expanded] on Blogcritics.