I’ve been teaching guitar for a few years now, and one of the most exciting aspects of the job is the opportunity to introduce kids to the work of the legends and some of the more underrated players, but most importantly, to help them expand their criteria when it comes to different styles of music and different approaches to the instrument. As a blues maniac, I take enormous pleasure in showing them the work of the Delta axemen, the Electric Chicago stars, the Southern soul-blues face-melters, and the early rock & rollers.
But of course, everybody wants to be a skillmaster, especially when you’ve just started playing. Everybody wants the speed of Stevie Ray, the spectacularity of Hendrix, the fluent phrasing of Clapton, so it’s very hard to get into musicians that rely on tone and mood. Young guitarists don’t want to spend much time listening to the “slow” ones, which means they can be quite reluctant to explore the treasure trove that is the catalog of Albert King. It is until they open themselves up to the subtleties of musicianship when it hits them. But man, that blow is massive.
Born Under a Bad Sign is mostly a singles compilation, but it’s King’s most accomplished studio release — He’s one of those figures in Blues that shines the brightest in his live recordings — mostly due to the sharp sequencing and the remarkable tightness of the Stax house band, which is at the absolute peak of their powers, and includes a young Isaac Hayes on piano. King’s devastating melodicism, and his style economy, is wonderfully accompanied by the MG’s generous, groove-driven approach, and the irresistible funkiness of the Memphis Horns arrangements. This allows King to unleash the fury of those mindblowing, heavily-bent single-string leads, providing more emotional power in a single lick than most players — before or since — could muster in an entire album.
As a collection of songs, this record is simply flawless: Along with the William Bell/Booker T. Jones-penned title track, cuts like the Leiber/Stoller classic “Kansas City”, “Crosscut Saw”, Sandy Jones’ “Laundromat Blues” and the Duke Records staple “As The Years Go Passing By” stand on their own right as compositional achievements, but the King/MG’s communion in performance turns these recordings into their own kind of magic.
Perhaps the biggest story about this LP is the extent of its influence in Blues, Soul and Rock histories. It’s part of the Stax canon, and it features some of the most important Soul musicians of all-time; it’s one of the very few fully consistent Blues albums of the 60’s — Magic Sam’s West Side Soul, The Butterfield Blues Band’s debut and the Junior Wells/Buddy Guy collaboration Hoodoo Man Blues are the other ones that come to mind –, but its most famous claim is its impact in British Invasion Rock and British Blues in general. Clapton shamelessly lifted many of King’s licks and melodic runs for the solos in Cream’s breakthrough Disraeli Gears, and their version of “Bad Sign” on the Wheels on Fire record remains one of the best. Led Zeppelin jacked the entirety of “The Hunger” for Led Zep I stand-out “How Many More Years”. And of course, what would be of guitar players like Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green without the direct influence of Albert King’s profound expressionism?
Born Under a Bad Sign is one of those records everybody should listen, but it resonates deeper with aspiring musicians. It can be the gateway to the real wonders of the Blues, especially in the most heartfelt regions of the genre. It can be a genuine lesson of humility, since its nuances are the source of its strength. It’s an enjoyable record all-around, an important musical document, and although its most significant qualities can be heard right away, the heart behind the creation takes a deeper plunge to fully grasp. King will always strike a chord with guitarists striving to access those hidden places, those who look for soul over technique, that truly want to move people; that’s why everyone who listens to this album eventually becomes a believer.