Talk From The Rock Room: March 2021

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Albert King - Born Under A Bad Sign 1967 LP - 'Play It Pretty'

A compilation album that influenced an entire generation of players and a record that is entrenched as a blues classic and one of the finest recordings ever made. Released in August of 1967, and spinning in the ‘rock room’ today is the stereo version of Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign. Recorded at Stax Studios from March 1966 through June 1967, Born Under a Bad Sign is a quaking electric blues vamp. While not an album that blew apart the charts (which is usually the case with great Blues records) but an album topping with soul and stellar guitar playing. Albert King’s style influenced a host of players ranging from Eric Clapton. Mike Bloomfield, Jerry Garcia, Hendrix and a plethora of others. Every song, every groove and every nuance of the guitar work was studied by these hopeful and talented guitarists. Obviously the LP has gained importance and media acceptance in hindsight which is the usual with great blues records. If you are in to that sort thing, Rolling Stone listed the record on their 'Top 500 Records of All Time" list.

King’s, ‘tool of the trade’ was a famed right handed Gibson Flying V guitar strung normally. The kicker in this, is that King is a left handed player! Thus King’s technique and approach caused him to pull strings from above as opposed to pushing them from below. This in turn allowed King for a unique way of phrasing notes with special inflections and bends. This record is not only influential, it freaking jams and highlights some of the most soulful blues playing you will ever have the pleasure to hear.

The LP opens with the instantly recognizable lick and shady strut of ‘Born under a Bad Sign’. The Memphis horns blast the central lick like a steamship as the ‘Booker T and the MG’s stick the eight ball corner pocket. King goes down smooth vocally as after each verse as he squeezes out a trebled response to each of his verses. Written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ is one of the most addictive licks and blues blueprints in the history of modern music.

‘Crosscut Saw’ follows with a dusty swamp groove that just makes ya jiggle right where you sit. We all know what King is talking about when he asks to, ‘drag my saw across your log’. Sensual, yet sinister the rhythm undulates like the rocking of a serrated blade through moist wood. One of the earliest of the  Delta Blues, the song made its first appearance outside of the jukes in 1941 when it was released by Tommy McClennan. King’s gritty riffing working against the tidal pull of Al Jackson Jr’s drums and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn’s substantial bass lines.

The Leiber/Stoller classic and a favorite cover tune of rockers of the era ‘Kansas City’ comes next and is played with a chunky swing. The cut opens with King's silvery and brisk quotation of the main lick. Second verse the 'Memphis Horns' kick in for a sweet contrast punctuating Albert's chilly vocals. Mmmm, this swings with some attitude. King and the horns then pair up to sing there way through an instrumental verse. 

'Oh, Pretty Woman' is the next track on side A and was composed by Memphis DJ,  A. C. Williams. Other musicians including Gary Moore and John Mayall both later covered the cut. In the 'rock room's' humble  opinion this one is a highlight of the record. A menacing stomp with a sturdy bass line and perfectly slotted horn lines moaning under the central melody. King, lends just enough guitar to increase the edge of his vocals during the chorus. He takes two navy solo's throughout the track, smooth enough to sooth and with just enough bite to scare ya.

'Down Don't Bother Me', is a straight forward blues and King original with on time call and response guitar and vocal and some rolling saloon piano setting the table. King's guitar rings through the verses and for the first break King takes a solo spot that would make E.C. blush. 

"The Hunter' concludes side A, a composition composed by the members of 'Booker T and the MG's'. "Led Zeppelin', well known thieves and borrowers from the land of juke joints quoted this song in the middle of 'How Many More Times' from Led Zeppelin I, a song that took it's influence from Howlin' Wolf's , 'How Many More Years'. Full circle indeed. 'The Hunter' opens on a steady piano vamp which morphs into a straight forward stomp after the airy entrance of the 'Memphis Horns'. King sings slyly behind the undulating blues gait, hoping to steady his love gun for the perfect shot. King then takes a stringy high on the neck solo spot with some off  hearty mic asides before closing the side with a final verse.

Flipping the LP, side two lights a smoke, pours a glass and leans way back in it's respective chair for an immersive collection of slinky blues. The side opens with 'I Almost Lost My Mind', a crooning contemplative blues with King in his best throat of the record. A flute appears toward the end of the opening verse along with the horns lending a windy emotion to the melody. The descending chord change is the recipient of King's contrasting solo spot which he bows and bends like soft silver. The solo contains a buoyancy the repels the weeping of the song's arrangement. King goes to see the gypsy for the song's final verse with further assistance from the perfectly placed flute. A beautiful song to set the darkened stage of the flip side.

'Personal Manager', the longest cut on the record opens with a stabbing clipped guitar, similarly to the opening of Dylan's 1997 track 'Love Sick'. This song was co-written by King and David Porter. The brilliant premise of being a chosen woman's 'Personal Manager' is laid out by King as a proposition. Just sign on the dotted line and never have to worry about anything again. Once the verses begin, tickled in by the woody trills of a piano, King explains to his baby the benefit of him becoming his lady's 'Personal Manager'. You know what? I believe every word. The mid song solo rings with attitude and sings with sustain. The tension rises and King takes the musical document to get notarized by the blues gods. This shit makes my eyes squint. Highlight.

The 'Velvet Bulldozer' takes on 'Laundromat Blues' next. The suspicious narrator hoping that that his baby doesn't get it too clean as she seems to have a load to wash everyday. The instrumentation stays consistent with side two with a boozy barroom backing and a silky reading. Knocking piano and tasty licks from King get things sudsy. Kings tone with just a touch of distortion slices through the perfumed open arrangement. The tension of the music increases with the anxious wonder of our narrator. King drops a coin into the slot with a start stop solo spot. The band cycles around King as he pulls on and off the strings with deep feeling.

The penultimate song on the record is 'As the Years Go Passing By' composed by Don Robey, though King was known to tell others that he wrote the song. One can understand why, with a dramatic spacious arrangement and a killer set of lyrics the song fit King like hand in glove. A simple sentiment and a detailed expression, King emanates the deepest blue on this track. Delicate and jazzy drums lay back while the piano and horns try to stop the time. An emotive solo spot appears as a lone saxophone quivers from center sound stage. Stunning.

The LP closes with fittingly 'The Very Thought of You', a pop standard hailing from 1934 and composed by Ray Noble. The son had been covered prior to Albert King's version by artists as diverse as Ricky Nelson and Little Willie John. The song illustrates both King's ability to take on the deepest most guttural blues as well as the most lilting melodic construction. The song acts as a healing finale after the previous musical journey through suspicion, loss and heartache. The standard's instrumentation sways with the hopefulness of the lyrics content. King voice is the obvious highlight and his ability to translate the song is its strength. Like King states during the instrumental break, 'Play it pretty', Play it pretty'. His final vocal line is testament to that statement as he caresses the final word gently to all of our ears and hearts.

Albert King's 1967 record Born Under a Bad Sign was critical in assisting bringing blues to a mainstream audience. It's influence on a number of up and coming rock guitarists cannot be understated. The dictionary of licks displayed by King on guitar designed the template for all rock and blues that would come after. The LP was ransacked for its sonic gold and jewels for a number of years by enterprising musicians and continues to be. The diversity of  the catalog of songs, the professionalism of the musician's and the colossal talent of Albert King collided to develop an album of important songs and an enduring presence.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Now Playing: Moby Grape – Live on the Mike Douglas Show /Steve Paul Scene 1967

Aired smack dab in the middle of the ‘Summer of Love’ and one week after the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, ‘Moby Grape’ appeared for a live appearance on the Mike Douglas Show. A rare paisley glimpse into arguably one of the tightest and best songwriting bands of the 1960’s. Jamming both aurally and visibly in the ‘rock room’ today is a unique performance by a San Francisco band that burst into flames before they earned their rightful due.

Unfortunately, even in current times, television is not the best transmitter of perfect sound nor is it a perfect representation of a ‘rock band’ in their element. Television production is a far cry from front of house music production and balance and quality is not at the top of the list. But, that being said the ‘rock room’ considers us very lucky to have a performance such as this one captured for us to enjoy years after the fact.

Looking like it was dubbed from an nth generation VHS tape multiple times, the performance itself is precious. First off, having footage of the original band with Skip is cause for celebration. As previously mentioned the color is washed out the audio is muffled but the footage is absolute gold. The band begins their set with ‘Omaha’, a rock guitar monument. Introduced by Mike Douglas as the ‘Moby Grapes, gives me a chuckle. (NOTE: Recently on social media some time stamped footage of the show outro has circulated with the band playing 'Aint No Use' under the exit voiceover. This segment looks absolutely stunning! Let's hope the entire clip will circulate at some point in the future!)

The footage begins with Mike Douglas checking in with the band to see if they are ready as instruments can be heard tuning up off screen. The band begins following introduction and is as tight as a ‘go-go’ dancers skirt right from the start. A priceless moment occurs when Skip and the group come in a bit late with their vocals and Spence lends a beaming and mischievous smile at the rest of the band while getting it on! Jerry Miller stands center stage and splays a teletype series of lead lines from his hollow body guitar throughout the cut. The energy emanates from the group regardless of the substandard television sound quality.  It really is special to be able to watch the individual instrumentalists working out their respective parts. 

The band appears to be getting off with shared smiles and bring the outro jam of ‘Omaha’ to a crowd rousing conclusion. The available visuals improve slightly with 8:05 probably because of the brighter stage lighting. The song is played flawlessly, the only issue being the aforementioned messy mix from live television. Spence again has a trouble making look across his face, which is to be expected. The band’s harmonies are tightly pressed, especially in contrast to other contemporaries from the ballroom scene on San Francisco. Oddly and humorously enough, just prior to the conclusion of ‘8:05’ Mike Douglas walks out as the band is finishing the song! The band gathers to finish properly as the show heads to commercial break. A puzzling performance to say the least in the aspect that the band didn't blow up nationally just on the basis of this clip!

A short juicy bunch of ‘Moby Grape’ in their early prime while colliding with the ‘straight’ world of primetime television. Well worth searching out for the quality of the musical performance as well as the rarity of the footage. Well deserving of the possibility, the ‘rock room’ hopes, that someday a proper box set of rare live cuts and available footage will be compiled. I know I’d be down for helping out any way that I could. ;) 

If you like what you checked out above here there is also an additional bit of rock film of the original members performing two additional cuts from their debut LP, including ‘Hey Grandma’ and ‘Sitting By the Window’. While going on a run of available footage of the original ‘Moby Grape’ I figured I discuss another ‘rock room’ favorite. This footage is from a 1967 film shot at the Steve Paul Scene in Manhattan.  This film was broadcast on WNEW New York in November of 1967 and features a host of popular musicians from the time performing at the club. Included in the film are 'The Staple Singers', 'Blues Project', Aretha, and of course, 'Moby Grape'.

Again, like the Mike Douglas footage the band is playing live on stage, as this was a favorite club for famous musicians to play in clandestine fashion. Jimi Hendrix in particular liked the aspect of anonymity and intimacy the NYC club offered. Spence goes properly crazy during the jam, convulsing in excitement and exuding a prickly stage presence to which the band responds. Specially placed dancers and psychedelic displays flood the screen, but do not distract from another thankfully immortalized piece of celluloid from ‘Moby Grape’ and their comet trailing musical career. This footage is a bit washed out, but in actuality clearer than the Mike Douglas footage, with more than acceptable sound quality considering the source.

‘Sitting by the Window’ follows and is played dynamically with Peter Lewis taking a perfect lead vocal spot. Grape’s three guitars work together chain on gear lending the song a diverse blend of melodic lines. Spence sits behind the group on the line of amps watching the band perform the debut album cut perfectly. Even in this sterile environment the band's talent is fully discernable.

Man oh man, four songs from the first ‘Moby Grape’ record played with color footage! What more could a ‘rock geek’ as for? While not perfect in any fashion, for fans of the ‘Grape’ and or San Francisco rock in general this stuff is priceless. Short and sweet but full of magic and well worth 15 or 20 minutes of your rock and roll attention. Until next time…