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Born Under a Bad Sign
The lyrics to “Born Under a Bad Sign” were written by Stax Records rhythm and blues singer William Bell, with music by Stax bandleader Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. & the M.G.’s). As Bell recalled in an interview:
“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.
Bell’s 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
Similar lyrics are found in Lightnin’ Slim’s 1954 swamp blues song “Bad Luck Blues”:
- Lord if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all (2×)
- 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 …
Jones’s arrangement for the song does not follow the typical twelve-bar blues I-IV-V progression. Rather, it is dominated by an R&B-style bass/rhythm guitar line, which Bell claimed that he came up with “while fooling around on the guitar”. 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.
“Born Under a Bad Sign” became a Billboard R&B chart hit for King, reaching number 49. It was later included on his first album for Stax, also titled Born Under a Bad Sign. The album’s cover depicts images of “bad luck signs” or common superstitions, including a black cat, a Friday the 13th calendar page, skull and crossbones, ace of spades, and snake eyes. Subsequently, the song has appeared on numerous King and various artist collections.
Albert King recorded an updated version of “Born Under a Bad Sign” with producer Allen Toussaint for his 1978 New Orleans Heat album. Live versions are included on Wednesday Night in San Francisco, Chicago 1978, In Session with Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Godfather of the Blues: His Last European Tour 1992, and Talkin’ Blues (see Albert King discography for album details).