The “Muhammad Ali of blues guitar” delivers a knockout punch on second album
When Albert King signed to Stax Records in 1966, he was already considered to be something of a blues giant, both figuratively and literally (the man was over 6 ft 4 in tall and weighed at least 110 kg). Though despite his size, King’s singing style was soulful and melodious, while his actual guitar technique was unique in that he played the instrument upside down, pulling the notes backwards rather than forwards, thus creating what was to become his trademark sound.
Recorded in Memphis with Stax’s veteran house band Booker T. & the MG’s, along with Isaac Hayes on piano, Born Under A Bad Sign, issued in 1967, would become not only one of King’s most defining statements, but also go on to become one of the most influential blues albums of the ‘60s, acclaimed by everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, to later guitar heroes Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. Hendrix himself was especially in awe since King was another left hander, something which a young Jimi would have identified with immediately.
The title track, which opens the album, contains one of the most recognisable blues riffs ever written, thanks to a plethora of cover versions, the most well known of which was released by Cream on their third LP Wheels Of Fire. On “Crosscut Saw” King displays his inimitable playing style, like B.B. King, only with a more ferocious undertone. Leiber and Stoller’s “Kansas City” get a funky reworking, while during “Oh, Pretty Woman” one can distinctly hear the Clapton would steal, literally note for note for Cream’s 1967 psychedelic “Strange Brew.”
“Down Don’t Bother Me” and “The Hunter” are classic slices of Memphis soul where all the instruments effortlessly blend together to create a rich tapestry of sound. King’s mellow voice comes to the fore on the mournful “I Almost Lost My Mind,” before firing up the fretboard with “Personal Manager,” a song that perhaps more than any other would inform a teenage Stevie Ray Vaughan, and “Laundromat Blues,” another intense number, full of King’s trademark riffing.
Issac Hayes contributes piano to “As The Years Go Passing By,” a song King would continue to perform throughout the rest of his career (a superb version can be heard on 1977’s Live Blues, recorded at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival with Rory Gallagher), before finishing the set with ballad “The Very Thought Of You,” proving that King wasn’t merely a fine guitarist, but an exemplary singer a well.
Nearly fifty years after its release, the impact this album made is no doubt difficult for those who were not around at the time, and yet Born Under A Bad Sign’s lasting endurance as a modern classic of electric blues is undeniable. That he was responsible for inspiring a host of guitarists far more famous than himself isn’t surprising, despite the likes of Vaughan, Clapton et al often name dropping him in interviews and citing him as a talent who deserved far more recognition than he ever truly received in his lifetime.
Nevertheless, Albert King’s status as one the greatest exemplars of post-war electric blues is irrefutable. Even if one remains unfamiliar with the name, many will have heard his unmistakable sound all the same.