Cream made it popular, but bluesman Albert King originally recorded—though did not write—”Born Under a Bad Sign,” and it is rightfully the song most often associated with him. The blues classic was written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell, both of whom were essentially house musicians for Memphis-based soul label Stax Records. Although the Stax stable of artists was mostly soul musicians (notably Otis Redding), the label also took on funk (Isaac Hayes, the Memphis Horns) and the blues—King predominantly. Stax released the career-making “Born Under a Bad Sign,” on an album of the same name, in 1967. It was King’s first record with the label, but despite its influence and the power of the single, not his best.
Start to finish, King’s finest album on Stax (arguably finest, period) is 1972’s I’ll Play the Blues for You. It was released as King was still basking in the success he’d built from Born Under a Bad Sign, and it solidified his standing as one of the most unique of blues talents—one of the three “Kings of the blues,” along with B.B and Freddie.
Now, Concord Music Group has re-releasing I’ll Play the Blues for You as part of its Stax Remasters series. Enhanced by Joe Tarantino’s 24-bit remastering and the addition of four unreleased bonus tracks, the reissue underscores the album’s popularity and importance over the four-plus decades since its release.
Albert King (1923-1992) was not a great blues singer, even though he’d lived the life. But he was a singular electric blues guitarist. King was left-handed, but he played his now-famous (among blues lovers, that is) Gibson Flying V right-handed guitar flipped upside down, which made for an inimitable sound. He pulled down on strings that other guitarists push up on. Add to his guitar work the soul-funk infusion underlying the Stax backing sound and the result is really a different kind of blues, certainly for its day. Even now—especially now—the Albert King “Stax sound” is distinctive among blues musicians. It’s blues with a soul feeling.
I’ll Play the Blues for You represents a chance to rediscover, or hear for the first time, a distinctive bluesman. Thanks to Concord, King gets to shine anew in the remastered I’ll Play the Blues for You. His voice throughout is warm and casual, even chatty, and his guitar a stinging whip of high, bended notes that speak of all things blues—bad luck and trouble.
In addition to the LP’s eight original tracks, I’ll Play the Blues for You includes four previously unreleased titles—two of which are alternate takes of songs in the main sequence, including the title track without the spoken interlude. The other two are fine, undiscovered additions to King’s body of work: “I Need a Love” and the funk-heavy “Albert’s Stomp.”
King’s discography encompasses some 25 albums, and nearly all of them contain moments of fiery brilliance, owing to the unique way in which he played his iconic guitar. But it is King’s years with Stax that both define and differentiate him. The Stax sound made King something different for a bluesman, someone who transcended the typical blues sound and yet remained firmly grounded in its electric traditions.
I’ll Play the Blues for You represents the best of King’s Stax years, and is a vital re-release even for casual fans.