ALBERT KING: BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN (1967)
1) Born Under A Bad Sign; 2) Crosscut Saw; 3) Kansas City; 4) Oh, Pretty Woman; 5) Down Don't Bother Me; 6) The Hunter; 7) I Almost Lost My Mind; 8) Personal Manager; 9) Laundromat Blues; 10) As The Years Go Passing By; 11) The Very Thought Of You.
The only serious difference between this classic album and King's previous recordings is that Born Under A Bad Sign — technically, just a singles' collection from his early years on Stax — has Booker T. and the MGs on all or most of the tracks. But what a difference. For instance, Donald «Duck» Dunn is one of those few session players who have, early on, realized that if a bass guitar can sound menacing and dangerous, then it should sound menacing and dangerous. There's also The Memphis Horns, one of the tightest ever brass sections, to add extra sharpness to the proceedings. And King himself must have understood that he had to rise to the challenge, if he was not to get lost against such a monstruously professional background.
So the title track is, arguably, one of the most famous blues tunes ever recorded — a brilliant combination of a simple, but devastatingly memorable riff that just exemplifies the word «threatening», and a lyrical twist that deserves to be carved in stone on the tombs of miriads of losers around the world: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all". A year later, Cream did the song justice, but they never beat it — not least because they just could not identify so well with the feeling as the performer. At least they had the good taste of omitting the verse about how "I can't read, I don't know how to write, my whole life has been one big fight".
These fat, blistering, arrogant tunes that, for a short time at least, breathed new life into generic blues, recapturing the old fire and brimstone of Muddy and Wolf but setting it within an entirely modern (for 1967) context, just keep coming: 'Crosscut Saw' (whose guitar licks Clapton shamelessly, but skillfully, appropriated for 'Strange Brew'), 'Oh Pretty Woman' (where the bass borders on early metal), 'The Hunter', 'Personal Manager' — forget about the countless imitators who have not a single excuse for putting their product on the market, this is the real thing.
In between, Albert sandwiches a few tender blues ballads that are also inventive — the tender flute on 'I Almost Lost My Mind', the brass-piano interplay on the longing, complaintive 'As The Years Go Passing By', the light jazz tinge of 'The Very Thought Of You' (which, for personal reasons, reminds me of all those lounge-style Keith Richards' album closers on late period Stones' albums), it all makes up for a diverse experience. Nothing better confirms King's profound inspiration at the time than the fact that each of these songs has its own personal identity — quite unlike The Big Blues, where half of the songs at least sounded like carbon copies of each other. (Of course, a large percentage of the thanks goes to the Stax army.)
Arguably, Born Under A Bad Sign is the last great — and I mean great, in terms of both defining its epoch and influencing the epochs to come — blues album recorded by a pre-rock'n'roll era artist, and at the same time beautiful proof that Fifties' artists, with a little extra wit and a little outside help, had every chance of not only surviving in the changing times, but even ruling them. It belongs in every music lover's collection, and if you are that particular music lover who idolizes and fetishizes hate for «generic blues», my advice is to simply forget that generic blues exists and just treasure this one record.
To commemorate this event, heart and brain shake hands (do brains have hands?) in this debate, and both hurry to the podium at the same rate to provide a mighty thumbs up. Even despite the rather useless inclusion of 'Kansas City', a tune better left to Little Richard.