“Born Under a Bad Sign” was recorded by blues singer and guitarist Albert King in 1967. Called “a timeless staple of the blues”, the song also had strong crossover appeal to the rock audience with its bass and guitar harmony line and topical astrology reference. “Born Under a Bad Sign” became an R&B chart hit for King and numerous blues and other musicians have made it perhaps the most recorded Albert King song.
The lyrics to “Born Under a Bad Sign” were written by rhythm and blues singer William Bell with music by bandleader Booker T. Jones. When Albert King signed with Stax Records in Memphis, Booker T. Jones, who was a member of the Stax house band Booker T. & The MGs, was assigned his producer. Albert King provided his signature guitar fills around his vocals and solos during the break and outro, with backing by Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns.
In an interview Jones explained:
At that time, my writing partner was William Bell. He came over to my house the night before the session. William wrote the words and I wrote the music in my den that night. That was one of my greatest moments in the studio as far as being thrilled with a piece of music. The feeling of it, it’s the real blues done by the real people. It was Albert King from East St. Louis, the left-handed guitar player who was just one of a kind and so electric and so intense and so serious about his music. He just lost himself in the music. He’s such a one of a kind character. I was there in the middle of it and it was exhilarating. He was coming to town and it was the last opportunity we had to write a song. But you know, now that I think of it, the fact that the song was in D flat, there is definitely an Indiana influence because, you know, a blues song in d flat? I tell you, I learned the value of flat keys and sharp keys and how to use them for emotional value so I could have more range and capacity for touching the human heart. I think that was one of the reasons that song became as huge as it did. Because it was in D flat.
We needed a blues song for Albert King … I had this idea in the back of my mind that I was gonna do myself. Astrology and all that stuff was pretty big then. I got this idea that [it] might work.
The lyrics describe “hard luck and trouble” tempered by “wine and women”, with wordplay in the chorus in the turnaround:
“Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”
The words to ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ are similar to Lightnin’ Slim’s “Bad Luck”, from 1954, and the truth is the blues are riddled with similar phrases and riffs popping up all over the place. It’s a sort of living library, and Lightnin’ Slim’s words may have lodged in Bell’s subconscious, ready to be “borrowed” at the right moment in time.
“Lord if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all
You know bad luck has been followin’ poor Lightnin’, ever since I began to crawl
Now folks I was born in the last month of the year”
“Born Under A Bad Sign” has been recorded by many artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy with Koko Taylor, Robben Ford, and Rita Coolidge. Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles, recorded an instrumental cover in 1969 as a tribute to King. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band played this at Woodstock in 1969 when they went onstage Monday morning 2 sets ahead of Jimi Hendrix.
Probably the best known version of later generations is by Cream in 1968. Cream’s rendition follows Albert King’s, except for bassist and singer Jack Bruce combining two verses into “I’ve been down ever since I was ten” and an extended guitar solo by Clapton. It marked a change of guitar style for Clapton, who adopted a harder, attacking style on this song in place of the sweeter, sustaining notes he called “woman tone”. Musicologist Robert Palmer described Clapton’s playing as “practically Albert King parodies”. They played this when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 12, 1993 in tribute to Albert King, who died the previous year. In 2005, they played a version at the Royal Albert Hall.
Albert King was a huge influence on so many artists over the years, including Stevie Ray Vaughan. In late 1983, Albert and SRV played and taped a television special called “In Session” and “Born Under A Bad Sign” was one these two legends graced us with on an extended version.
In 1988, Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and he himself was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in May 2013. Writing for the Blues Foundation, Jim O’Neal called it “one of the signature hits of Albert King that started to win the left-handed string-bender a crossover following in 1967, as he began to break out of the chittlin circuit to invade rock venues like the Fillmore”. King’s song is also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”. In 2011, he was ranked number 13 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
King’s health problems led him to consider retirement in the 1980s, but he continued regular tours and appearances at blues festivals, using a customized Greyhound tour bus with “I’ll Play The Blues For You” painted on the side. King died of a heart attack on December 21, 1992, in his Memphis home. His final concert had been in Los Angeles two days earlier. He was given a funeral procession with the Memphis Horns playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and was buried in Paradise Gardens Cemetery in Edmondson, Arkansas, near his childhood home. B.B. King delivered a eulogy, stating, “Albert wasn’t my brother in blood, but he was my brother in blues.”