491: Albert King — Born Under A Bad Sign (Stax, 1967)

Overall rating: 4.5

Level of prior familiarity: 4

How I Listened: Via Spotify, at work

I discovered Albert King through Jimi Hendrix. When I was in high school, after having picked up the guitar in a fit of “bass players never get any love” self-loathing (which I’ve since kicked), I became mildly obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. Fun fact: I built a Jimi Hendrix fan website circa 1998, long before the Hendrix estate would buy jimihendrix.com and build an official website. This website eventually got me my first legit job in the music industry. True story.

But anyways, in the 90s the Hendrix vaults were raided and this amazing album called Blues was released on MCA. It’s a compilation of blues recordings from throughout Hendrix’s career, including a number of covers such as “Born Under A Bad Sign.” It remains one of my all-time favorite Hendrix albums, and perfectly encapsulates his blues influences while simultaneously showing the effect he would have on the blues. It’s perfect from front to back, despite it’s disjointed sequencing.

His cover of “Born Under A Bad Sign” gets cut short by a distasteful fade-out on the album. I can only imagine the Experience jamming for hours afterward, but we only have seven and a half minutes of this purely blissful recording. For the record: nobody has ever used a wah pedal better than Hendrix, and probably nobody ever will.

So yeah, thanks to Hendrix I discovered Albert King. I first dug into this record in my college years, during an elongated deep dive into the blues that I can only describe as auto-musicological in nature. I was playing a lot of jazz at the time, some rock and roll, and I remember listening to some blues tracks one night and thinking to myself how on earth can these guys play the same 12-bar pattern every song, every set, every show, every single night of their life. And worse yet, the poor bass player never even gets a solo.

But the blues, like jazz after it, and like many other genres, is meditative in nature. This concept dug deep in my college brain. I had discovered minimalism in high school, got way into Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and spent way too much time studying phase music and drone music and free improvisation. Music as meditation was a calling in some ways, and I spent the better part of one cold Boston winter meditatively listening to the blues, holed up in my room, alone, listening to countless pirated blues records (thank you, Internet). I discovered Alligator Records and Telarc and Fat Possum, and learned the differences between Chicago blues and Delta blues and the Texas sound. I spent way too much time trying to figure out how the electric guitar could have such a profound effect on music.

And Albert King hit me like a ton of bricks.

The Stax record label wasn’t really a blues label, per se. They were a soul and R&B label. Which is exactly what makes Born Under A Bad Sign one of the most groundbreaking records in the blues: it’s Albert King’s blues, filtered through one of the funkiest bands of all time, Booker T and the MGs. Steve Cropper! Duck Dunn! Al Jackson’s rock steady drums! Hell, even Isaac Hayes plays some keys on this album. And man, does this album groove.

Maybe that’s why this album hit me so hard. The groove. The blues can be devilishly dry sometimes. It’s one of the dangers of playing those same 12 bars every night. But this album breaks from convention — there’s only a handful of 12 bar tunes on this album — opting for that plodding, swampy 4/4 funk the MGs are so famous for. It’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s dark and it’s got swagger for days.

If you’re searching for the crossroads of the blues and rock and roll, look no further. This is it.

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