The crowning piece by Albert King

By Sergio Ariza

One of the three ‘kings’ of blues, together with B.B. and Freddie, Albert King was at his best in 1966 when he signed on to legendary label Stax; accompanied by the studio band, none other than Booker T. & THE M.G.’s with the Memphis Horns, King lets fly in a series of sublime singles between March 1966 and June ‘67 that appear on this album released in August ‘67. His influence on rock was as great as it was overnight, to the point where Clapton almost copies note for note the King solo on Oh, Pretty Woman in Strange Brew, but ‘Slow Hand’ never hid his admiration and would make a cover of the title song on Wheels of Fire by Cream the following year. 

When Albert King first stepped into the Stax studio in Memphis, March 3, 1966, to record Laundromat Blues, he had had no  success on the charts for several years, playing in dead-end juke joints, together with Lucy, his legendary ‘59 Gibson Flying V. Such was the case that he lost that guitar, and when it came to recording most of the cuts on the record, he was already using the second Lucy, another Flying V, this time from ’66, as a gift from Gibson. He would return it with affection hundredfold to the brand making it one of the most mythic guitars of history; it wasn’t by accident that Hendrix would be using it by the end of the decade.

But back to March 1966, at 926 East on Mclemore Avenue, Memphis, where one of the all-time best guitarists of blues got together for the first time with that legendary studio band Booker T & The M.G.’s, an incomparable group put together by Booker T. himself on keyboard, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn -bass, Al Jackson Jr. playing drums, and another 6-string stud, Steve Cropper. Also on board is the funkiest wind section in history, the Memphis Horns, with the great Isaac Hayes on piano. Every square inch in that tiny studio overflowed with talent. The success of the session was inevitable, the M.G.'s laying a grooving danceable soul, and Albert King with some salsa in his bends.  

The rest of the classics came little by little, the incredible Oh Pretty Woman with its brilliant bass riff by Dunn and the aforementioned King solo, the powerful Crosscut Saw with Jackson shining on drums. However, the most memorable moment was the title cut. On May 16 1967 Booker got a visit, at home, by the Stax artist William Bell. Bell was a soul singer and was renowned for his 1961 hit You Don’t Miss Your Water. He came over to say he needed a new song for his next day’s session with King. Jones sat at the piano and began to play something more R&B than blues, shortly after Bell joins in: “Born under a bad sign , I have been down since I began to crawl…” . At 2am on May 17, they wrapped up Born Under A Bad Sign. But they they needed a cherry on top. The next morning, Jones showed the piece to the band and they began to play an arrangement together with the Memphis Horns, then King comes in with Lucy and flashed some licks that Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and so many others would painstakingly study ever since.

There’s not a bad song in one of the two or three best blues records in history, and there’s no better blues or rock guitarist who hasn’t been influenced by him since their release. Albert King left behind the dead-end juke joints and just like B.B. King (the man he called his step-brother)  and went on to play for thousands of white youth in places like the Fillmore. Not bad for someone who sang the phrase that best sums up the spirit of blues, “If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all...”