Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23: Albert King, "Born Under A Bad Sign"

Artist: Albert King
Album: Born Under A Bad Sign
Year: 1967
Label: Stax

Often times, as amazing as a musician may be, until they have the correct backing band, their true potential may not be realized. There are also a number of times throughout music history that one is left to ponder what certain musicians could have been had they found a backing band that could properly support their skills. The former of these two scenarios is perhaps no more obvious then in the case of one of the "Three Kings Of Blues Guitar," Albert King. Along with B.B. King and Freddie King, Albert King helped to shape the sound and style of electric blues, and he remains one of the most unique and sensational players in history. Fusing together soul, funk, and rock into a blues format, Albert King is responsible for some of the most treasured blues songs in history, and it is also largely due to King's influence that the practice of "bending" guitar strings has become such a significant part of rock and blues music. It is almost impossible to name all of the bands that have taken from his style, and whether it was the way in which he approached the guitar, or the brilliant songs he wrote, his musical contributions helped to shape nearly every genre over the following decades. Though a majority of his early career was filled with singles, these songs stand as his finest work, and they were all compiled and re-recorded for his 1967 debut with Stax Records, the magnificent Born Under A Bad Sign.

Though many are not readily familiar with the songs of Albert King, they have been covered and re-worked by many of the biggest acts in music history. Without question, if there was one performer who owes their entire career to Albert King, it would be Eric Clapton. If one inspects the solo that Clapton plays on Cream's "Strange Brew," one will find a striking similarity to Albert King's "Crosscut Saw." Furthermore, on Cream's 1968 record, Wheels Of Fire, the cover "Born Under A Bad Sign" in its entirety. Also, on Derek And The Domino's classic song, "Layla," the core riff is said to have been inspired by the vocal melody that is found on "As The Years Go Passing By." Over the years, the title track remains one of the most oft-covered songs in history, having been performed by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Smashing Pumpkins to The MC5. In 1969, Led Zeppelin released their own debut record, and on the song "How Many More Times," one can clearly hear elements of King's "The Hunter." Showing just how wide and long lasting the influence of Albert King is, in 1988, Glenn Danzig covered King's "The Hunter" on is debut solo album. Though a number of the songs found on Born Under A Bad Sign had been previously recorded by King, when he was brought to Stax, he finally found a group of musicians that could help him fully realize the greatness of each of his compositions.

Truth be told, Albert King had already recorded a number of single sides before this album for different labels, but after their lack of success, he moved to Stax Records, where he teamed up with the backing band that would make him famous: Stax's "house band," Booker T & The MG's. Not only did they present the musicians that King needed, but Booker Jones and Steve Cropper co-wrote some of Born Under A Bad Sign's most memorable songs. The fact that Albert King aims to incorporate so many different genres into his music works so well on Born Under A Bad Sign because Booker T & The MG's are so musically brilliant, that they are able to infuse their funky grooves into any style King wishes to explore. Cropper's guitar presents a fantastic counter-point to that of King, and the way in which the two musically interact with one another is nothing short of stunning. Standing today as one of, if not the greatest rhythm section in history, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. have rarely sounded as muscially perfect as they do here. As they did on every recording, The Memphis horns add a dimension to the music that is absent from nearly every other blues recording before Born Under A Bad Sign, and countless blues players would attempt to incorporate horns after hearing the fullness that their presences brings to the songs. Unlike a majority of the work of Booker T & The MG's, there are actually two pianists that are found on Born Under A Bad Sign. Throughout the mid to late 1960's, Booker Jones was formally studying music at Indiana University, so there were times when he was not available for recording. Though he does play on a number of tracks on Born Under A Bad Sign, there are a few tracks where he was replaced by another piano player who went by the name of Isaac Hayes. Regardless of which person is playing piano, every song is equally as fantastic, and their presence on the album once again proves that there was never another band with the talent level to so perfectly play any style of music as is found within the members of Booker T & The MG's.

While one cannot overlook the phenomenal playing of Booker T & The MG's, every moment of the album reinforces the notion that, at the end of the day, this is Albert King's record. Possessing one of the most classic blue voices in history, King is almost a cross between Bo Diddley's gruff, loose sound and B.B. King's rich and powerful voice. From slow, almost r&b songs like "I Almost Lost My Mind" to the more upbeat, speedy sounds of "Crosscut Saw" to the classic blues-rock of the title track, King sounds absolutely perfect on every song. While his vocal work is fantastic, it is his stunning guitar playing that sets Albert King apart from nearly every other musician in history. Without question, the most interesting aspect of the playing of Albert King is the fact that though he was left handed, he played an upside down right handed guitar, as opposed to a "proper" left handed guitar. This is clearly what gives him his signature sound, and this approach would be imitated by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain among countless others. Playing in unorthodox tunings, as well as truly turning note-bending into an art, King was one of many of the early "less is more" blues guitarists, and this helped to bring more focus to the beautiful riffs and progressions that he created. It is these elements that makes the sound of Albert King immediately recognizable, and it is also why he remains one of the most important and influential guitarists in music history.

From Diddley to Hooker to both of the Kings, the truth of the matter is, without the pioneering work of the electric blues masters, music simply would not exist today in its current form. Without question, Albert King and his style and approach to the genre were one of the key elements in these developments, and the impact of his playing can be heard across the musical spectrum to this day. Directly influencing artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top, and Jimi Hendrix, both the playing style and songwriting of Albert King rank among the most important and significant of all time. Powered by the timeless title track, as well as the brilliant performances from Booker T & The MG's (and Isaac Hayes), Born Under A Bad Sign is an absolute classic of the blues-rock genre, and one cannot overstate the amount of impact that it had on nearly every style of music. Finding this superb musical partnership, Albert King was finally able to fully realize the complete potential behind his songs and playing, and his work with Booker T & The MG's still stands far apart from all of his other recordings. With their supporting sounds, King unleashes some of the most blistering and stunning guitar lines ever recorded, and it is through these songs that King almost instantly cemented his name as a guitar legend. Bringing soul and emotion to guitar playing like that of nobody before him, Albert King is unquestionably one of the most important figures in music history, and the true beauty and genius of his music is on brilliant display throughout his landmark 1967 album, Born Under A Bad Sign.

Standout tracks: "Born Under A Bad Sign," "Crosscut Saw," and "The Hunter."

1 comment:

thestaxman said...

Terrific review! The fact that Albert King is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an absolute crime.

Also, terrific recongnition of the reatest and tightest band of all time, Booker T. & the MGs!