Last week I came upon two major examples of The Song Behind the Song. Like so many things, they were complete news to me. They both involve R&B hits from Stax in the 60s: “Born Under a Bad Sign” and the totemic “Mustang Sally.” For decades I’d been going around believing that Albert King introduced the first (followed by the acid bath it got from Cream) and Wilson Pickett the second. I’ve been grateful to these people. I still am. But if we take these covers and lift the lid….
“Born Under a Bad Sign,” it turns out, was written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones and first recorded by Bell himself. As you may know, he was one of those almost-major figures on the Stax roster back then with a couple of important hits to his credit. This wasn’t one, in his own rendering:
But Albert King made it famous. This is partly because King’s version is a lot better, as you can tell instantly from that four-note power climb at the start —
But it still wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t such a great song, one of those twists on the blues that seems like the blues at first but is really a fabulous thing of its own. William Bell has just released his first Stax album in 40 years, in which he revisits the song himself:
You can hear another 40 years of a man’s life in it for sure.
As for “Mustang Sally,” I now discover that Sir Mack Rice, who died last summer, wrote and recorded it with modest success (#15 on the R&B charts in — what else — 1965) before Wilson Pickett lit up the sky the following year:
Again, two bars of Pickett’s cover and you know that musically you’re in the presence of greatness. But without Sir Rice (knighted by his producer) we wouldn’t be.
A little research reveals that Aretha Franklin, his piano player on the demo, convinced him to change the title from “Mustang Mama.” And you thought she couldn’t get any cooler.
Truth to tell, when I want to listen to this song these days — and I can’t go too long without it — I find myself creeping back to Andrew Strong’s cover in The Commitments:
Yeah, I know he’s white, but still.