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Take it from one born on a 13th (albeit not a Friday) ...
on 25 August 2003
... and under a half moon on the decline: This is one amazing blues album, doubtlessly one of the greatest ever recorded, and one of the most influential records in all of music history. Because in 1966-67, when Albert King got together on a total of no more than five days with the legendary Booker T. Jones and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and a recording team of the likewise legendary Stax records to produce this album, the blues was quietly on its way out; in danger of being sidelined by psychedelia and the rock music revolution started by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. That this did not happen is due, not least, to Albert King and "Born Under a Bad Sign."
Already seasoned musician when the album was recorded, Mississippi-born and Arkansas-raised Albert (Nelson) King was a man who perfectly understood to employ minimal construction to maximum effect; to fully exploit even the most basic elements of a blues tune and use his exquisite sense of timing, and subtleness on the one hand and emphasis on the other, rather than dazzling the listener by a frenzied race all over the fretboard. ("He can take four notes and write a volume," renowned guitarist Mike Bloomfield once said about him.) This album is a perfect example of that style, and it promptly proved so influential that King's style would be taken up, in short order, by a whole new generation of guitar players, most notably Peter Green, Eric Clapton (listen to Cream's "Disraeli Gears," in particular its title track "Strange Brew," which unabashedly emulates, note-for-note, the guitar solo of "Personal Manager") and Jimi Hendrix, who like Albert King was a "leftie" and in the habit of turning his guitar upside down, with the bass strings at the bottom - and whose respect for King caused him to forever be reluctant to share a stage with his idol, although a lucky audience at San Francisco's Filmore West did see them appear together on the club's opening night.
But this album did not only prove to be one of the most influential ones in electric blues in general; it also constitutes the cornerstone of Albert King's own musical legacy, with its Booker T. Jones/Al Bell-written title track, which has since been recorded by everyone from Paul Butterfield to its inclusion of the CD based on TV's "Simpsons;" and such songs as "Crosscut Saw," "Oh Pretty Woman," "The Hunter," "Personal Manager," and of course King's first Stax single, "Laundromat Blues." Partly R&B record, not least due to the participation of the Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson, Andrew Love and Joe Arnold), who provide a frame and additional layers of sound to King's guitar, to the studio band (Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr.), the album is a product of its time only in the length of the songs, which are generally tied to the 3 1/2-minute limit set by the then-prevailing mandates of radio airplay. Yet, at heart, this is purely blues, from the title track's first powerful riff to the quiet mood of the closing "The Very Thought of You;" and from the feeling of being down and out (summed up, deadpan, in the title track's chorus: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all") and the tale of a no-good woman who "kept on foolin' around till I got stuck on [her]" ("Oh Pretty Woman") to the grating guitar and verbal punches of the "Laundromat Blues" ("You better hear my warning ...I don't want you to get so clean, baby, you just might wash your life away"). Albert King's early gospel training shines through in every soulful note of songs such as "I Almost Lost My Mind" and "As the Years Go Passing By," and last but not least the album also includes King's own "Down Don't Bother Me" and the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller classic "Kansas City."
Obviously feeling the need to convince an uncertain audience to give the record a try, Deanie Parker's 1967 liner notes summed up the prevalent blues cliches by recommending the album to anybody who had ever been hurt by a lover, deceived by their best friend or broke and "ready to call it quits" and promising: "Albert King has the solution if you have the time to listen ... he'll get through to you." Well, "solution" may be a bit over-optimistic - but there sure is plenty of feeling on this album, and some of the finest guitar solos ever recorded. And that in and of itself, as well as the name Albert King, should be more than enough of a recommendation to give the album a try.