When one has the Blues, sometimes it’s important to write about the Blues. By the same token, when one doesn’t have the Blues, there’s a chance that it’s still important that one should write about the Blues. Well, it’s hard to write about the Blues for too long before mentioning one of the most “influential” albums of the genre, Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign:
Good ol’ Albert King. He’s known as one of the “Three Kings” of the Blues, mainly because he has the same last name as B.B. and Freddie. He’s also considered the “Godfather Of The Blues”, probably more for his suits and imposing appearance than for his actual Godfatherly functions (roughly 1.5x the size of a typical Blues player). Still, he had a pleasant voice, that good ol’ attitude that a lot of what the Blues was all about, and a wicked smooth guitar sound.
I really should get into the guitar sound a little before exploring the actual album. Albert King was unique amongst his contemporaries, not only for his playing style (which is subtly different from most other players until you realize that he was the one who influenced them), but because he championed a unique guitar: The Gibson Flying V.
The Flying V, one of the most recognizable guitars since it does kind of look like a “V”, though I’d say, with the headstock, a more accurate letter would be “Y”. Either way, it started life as a more-or-less “futuristic” version of what Gibson already had, along with a few other models (including the Explorer, which has been used U2′s The Edge for a long time). The guitars did not sell very well until Albert King and Lonnie Mack started using them, the former making it his main axe, and by the time Jimi Hendrix jumped on board with these guitars, they did pretty well after that. It’s one of my favorite guitars and I’d always wanted one, so I thought I’d mention it quickly. In fact, the “Lucy” model that Albert plays doesn’t even have the later models’ signature arrow-head headstock, instead it has a classic Gibson headstock, which is so rare, I am not sure a second one exists.
Anyway, not only did he have a unique guitar at the time, Albert knew exactly how to use it. While his legendary opening title track to this album has a cooler tone, the tone on the second track, “Crosscut Saw”, is hot enough to roast marshmallows on, and it seems like no two songs on this album have the exact same sound for the guitar, which is astounding for a Blues guitarist, as some of them won’t change tones in at least a decade, much less between songs.
I have always said (don’t fact-check that) that “Born Under A Bad Sign” is the quintessential Blues song, period. It’s so close to perfection that you can skin your knees on it. The instrumentation is a high-production Delta Blues thing with horns, a tight rhythm section, and that cool guitar tune, played between vocal lines, as it should be. The lyrics are simple and concise and who can NOT love this:
Born under a bad sign
Been down since I began to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck
You know I wouldn’t have no luck at all
That’s the Blues. It goes on quite like this for the rest of the song, and it should go without saying that it’s a really strong opening for the album.
The second song, “Crosscut Saw” is kind of abstract, if you ask me. I suppose he’s saying that he’s useful or some such. Interestingly, despite the powerful guitar tone in this song (which the Internet informs me made it onto a list of “50 Greatest Guitar Tones of All Time”), the vocals are really, really mellow and pushed all the way back to the back. Ah well, another strong number, with a simplistic piano part provided by Booker T. Jones that really gives it an interesting sound overall, almost like a samba or something. It should be worth noting that the fuzzy bass in this and all the other songs on this album were provided by none other than Donald “Duck” Dunn, yes, the afro-sportin’ pipe-puffing bass player from The Blues Brothers.
Ok, so the third track is a good shuffle called “Kansas City”, and it’s really good, but I can’t help but think he’s saying “Cancer City” and that kind of adds a sick hilarity to the whole thing. The song should stand on its own though, even if you’ve got better ears than me.
Now we’ve got “Oh, Pretty Woman”, which should not be mistaken for the Roy Orbison hit. It’s still a good song, and I kind of love these lyrics:
Oh pretty woman she’s the rising sun
Says all your cheap paint and powder ain’t gonna help you none
She’s a pretty woman right down to the bone
So you just might as well still leave your skin alone
Pretty woman, what’s the matter with you
Can’t make you love me, no matter what I do
That’s kind of awesome, though it might be a little troubling to think TOO hard about how a woman might be “pretty right down to the bone”, so don’t.
“Down Don’t Bother Me” is another of those songs that hits the bulls-eye as far as really good Blues is concerned. I’m occasionally upset at the mixing of this song, however, as all the vocals and guitar are panned all the way to the right, like they forgot to put Albert in the same room as the other musicians. That’s such an oversight!
The next song, “Hunter”, is a bit more of a blues-rock number, and it was written by the backup band (Booker T. And The M.G.’s I think was still their name at this point). It’s an interesting little number to be sure, you’d think it was straight rock with lines like “I’ve got my love-gun loaded”, but either way, it’s a really good song, and has been famously covered by none other than Glenn Danzig.
“I Almost Lost My Mind” changes things up with an R&B standard by Ivory Joe Hunter. You know the difference between R&B and Blues when there’s flute involved, and you can put that in the Oxford dictionary.
“Personal Manager” is an original by Albert in which he relates love to having a personal manager. I wish I could come up with some creative angle to work that into, but that’s quite simply what this song is.
“Laundromat Blues” goes to show that some people will pick any subject for the Blues, including blaming his wife on cheating on him with someone at the local laundromat. No lie! This song has more of that incredible tone, only this time the vocals are more powerful than something like “Crosscut Saw”.
“As The Years Go Passing By” is a Blues song in a minor key, which is one of my favorite things, and interestingly enough, we’re almost through with the album but I never notice that until this song comes along. That’s one of the marks of a good album, I’d say!
The final song actually mixes things up again with a very jazzy song that is in 3/4 time (Blues are almost never in this time signature). The song is really good, don’t get me wrong, just not what you’d expect to hear on a Blues album so much as a Frank Sinatra album.
That’s it for Born Under A Bad Sign. There’s a little something in this album for everyone, I’m sure, and if you happen to be feeling down in the dumps, at least you can sing along with some of the songs and possibly feel better about your terrible, meaningless existence.
Well, have a great day!