Friday, July 2, 2010

The King of the Blues Comes Home

Every year in the summer, B. B. King returns to Mississippi to play two events......The Medgar Evers Homecoming and the B. B. King Homecoming Festivals.  Traditionally, these events are held the first weekend in June, but this year, King was on a European tour during that time.  The Medgar Evers Homecoming went on as planned this year in Jackson, sans B. B. King, but the legendary guitarist returns to his home state this weekend for his Homecoming Festival, which is held in Indianola.  It's a two-day event this year, featuring the blues on Friday and continuing with a motorcycle rally and a BBQ competition on Saturday.  Joining King on Saturday, July 2nd, will be another Mississippi legend, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, along with the recent IBC winning Grady Champion Revue, and L. C. Ulmer.  You may have seen B. B. King live before, but if you haven't seen him playing in his home state on his home turf, you've missed out, so if you're in the neighborhood this weekend, stop on by.

I was lucky enough to see King about three years ago.  The Medgar Evers Homecoming was held in my hometown that summer (which also happens to be Evers' hometown).  King played at the local junior college auditorium, which seats about 1,000.  For some reason, publicity was somewhat lacking for the show, so there was only about 200 to 300 people in attendance....maybe.  You know what?  It didn't matter to B. B. King.  He came out and played for 2+ hours for that crowd of 200 like the place was packed.  He didn't focus on how many weren't there....he gave it all for the ones who did come. Everyone who made the trip got their money's worth, and then some.

Speaking of the King of the Blues.....if you're reading this blog, you're probably familiar with him and you probably have a favorite song or album.  Feel free to send your favorites to us this week, but in the meantime, back by popular demand is my friend Joe, who offers up his favorite B. B. album for you to savor.  Take it away, Joe.

Every blues fan has their favorite B. B. King CD/Album.  B. B. has produced so much music that a favorite recording from a favorite period or genre of his illustrious career is probably necessary.  He has never been afraid to branch out into other formulas in his 60-year career.  The early albums characterized by his distinct lush singing and biting left-hand vibrato guitar playing; his late 60's rock-influenced blues; the 70's pop crossover and soul albums; beginning with Blues on the Bayou, the last decade's retreat back into the classic B. B. formula, culminating with the Grammy Award winning One Kind Favor; his series of duets and numerous stunning live albums, starting with 1965's Live At The Regal through 2008's B. B. King Live (Having been in the audience at his club on Beale Street at one of the shows recorded for B. B. King Live, I tend to be a little partial to that one!).  You name it and B. B. King has recorded it and done it better than anybody else since first becoming the Beale Street Blues Boy in 1948.

My appreciation for B. B. King is very personal and sincere.  Like everybody, I was always familiar with him and after moving to Mississippi in 1989, I was immediately surrounded by the blues.  Sure, I'd heard "The Thrill Is Gone" many times and I knew the influence blues had on rock and roll, but I didn't truly understand or appreciate it or its greatest ambassador, B. B. King.  That changed in 1997, when a friend gave me a cassette of B. B.'s 1993 recording, Blues Summit.  My  job required traveling through the Delta at least once a week and early one morning, I was bored with the radio so I decided to give the cassette a try.  I heard B. B. and Lucille performing classic blues standards with the likes of Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Albert King, and John Lee Hooker.  After each song, I turned the volume up louder.  During "I Gotta Move From This Neighborhood," I was halfway between Belzoni and Indianola on Highway 49.  My apologies in advance for the melodrama, but as the sun was rising I suddenly "got" it.  True blues fans know exactly what I'm talking about:  That moment when this simple, but incredibly powerful form of music gets in your soul.  From that time on, I couldn't hear enough blues and I wanted to learn everything I could about it.  I developed a passion for this music and an appreciation for the hardships experienced by its talented creators.  I also became a fervent fan of B. B. King.

Trying to decide which B. B. album is an "essential" recording is nearly impossible.  His catalogue is filled with so many incredible moments.  My top five would include:  1969's Completely Well; 1967's live recording Blues Is King; 2000's collaboration with Eric Clapton, Riding With The King, 1970's Indianola Mississippi Seeds, and 2008's One Kind Favor.  Frankly, these and many others are all essential, but there is one B. B. album that is just perfect.  I believe the King of the Blues and Lucille never sounded better than on 1972's L. A. Midnight and it is B. B.'s quintessential recording.

When B. B. entered a California studio in 1972, he was riding a wave of success that seemed unimaginable when he was a young man driving a tractor on Johnson Barrett's plantation.  A recent 45-date world tour, an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and the crossover success of 1969's "The Thrill is Gone" had significantly increased his fan base.  Two years earlier, he'd recorded in London with Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood, Dr. John, Peter Green, and a host of other musicians, and the Indianola Mississippi Seeds sessions paired him with Carole King, Joe Walsh, and Leon Russell.  The best musicians in the industry jumped at the opportunity to record with him.  His recent studio efforts had sought and achieved success in different markets, but for L. A. Midnight the King decided to go back to the blues.  Sure, he still incorporated his trademark horns (even congas find their way onto two tunes) and high profile guest musicians make appearances on the album, but B. B. went back to his classic call-and-response, 12-bar blues for these sessions.  Lucille's volume was just as loud as the previous year's Live In Cook County Jail recording and B. B. was ready to sing the blues.

The first cut, "I Got Some Outside Help I Don't Need," is a classic tale of jealousy in the same vein as "Don't Answer The Door," performed as only B. B. King can.  He and Lucille come out of the gate blazing and set the tone for the entire album.  By 1972, age and a life of constant touring had changed B. B.'s voice, but to me he never sounded better than he did in these sessions.  His voice had taken on a husky, but very powerful quality.  He could still sound smooth, but he was now able to summon an almost roar from deep within, making his already distinct voice (with its ever-present crystal clear annunciation) even more immediately recognizable.  His singing sounded more passionate than ever and he gives it everything he has on this track.

B. B. puts the spotlight on Lucille for the instrumental, "Help The Poor," and it is the one song on the album that strays slightly from the blues formula.  He is accompanied by spot-on horns and congas, combining for some 70's classic blues meets soul.  The legendary Taj Mahal adds harmonica on "Can't You Hear Me Talking To You," and the trade-offs between Lucille and Taj are fantastic.  At the beginning of the song, B. B. is heard telling Taj to get as loud as he wants and the guys in the control room can adjust the sound, if necessary.  He tells him, "You're sounding good.  I want all the push that I can get!"  B. B. should have incorporated more harmonica in his work.  It clearly inspired him in this session and is a perfect complement to Lucille.

The instrumental, "Midnight," follows and B. B. is joined by some more legendary musicians who push him even further.  Jesse Ed Davis was a Native American guitar virtuoso who could play in any style.  He was a member of Taj Mahal's band for a period of time, but he was best known as one of the most sought after studio musicians of his era.  He played guitar on recording sessions for John Lennon, George Harrison, Albert King, Eric Clapton, and Jackson Browne.  Davis and James Gang/Eagles veteran Joe Walsh join B. B. on "Midnight" and the result is extraordinary.  Walsh had previously on Indianola Mississippi Seeds and it's easy to see why B. B. brought him back for these sessions.  He was only 25 years old and in the process of leaving the James Gang and embarking on a solo career in 1972.  The mood created by King, Davis, and Walsh is relaxed and it showcases some of B. B.'s best work ("Midnight" is the perfect title for this track).  Jesse Ed Davis was incredibly talented and is an under-appreciated guitarist.  He tragically died in 1988 from an apparent heroin overdose, but we're fortunate to have this recording of his inspired playing with B. B. in 1972.

B. B.'s the furthest thing from relaxed on the next song, a remake of "Sweet Sixteen."  He digs down deep for this one.  By the end of the song, he and Lucille are in a rage over the trouble caused by the woman he's loved before he could "call her name."  He revises some of the lyrics (he "....just got back from Vietnam") and puts so much passion into the song, you'd never know he first recorded it 12 years earlier and had performed it countless times.  The song is a show stopper to this day, but in 1972 on this album, "Sweet Sixteen" is simply a masterpiece.

Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis join B. B. on guitar for "I Think I've Been Blue Too Long."  It's another relaxed blues jam with all three guitarists stretching out as B. B. sings about his misfortunes.  The album concludes with the instrumental, "Lucille's Granny," a tribute to the original guitar B. B. risked his life to save from a juke joint fire in Twist, Arkansas in 1949.  B. B., once again, is teamed with Davis and Walsh for eight minutes of unparalleled electric guitar.  Victor Feldman, a future Steely Dan contributor and noted session musician, adds piano to the mix and the result is a perfect ending to a perfect album.

B. B.'s next work was an unabashed soul record.  He recorded it with Stevie Wonder and many of the creators of the 70's Philadelphia soul sound.  Never one to be put in a box, B. B. experimented with different genres for much of the 70's and 80's, but on L. A. Midnight, he embraced the blues.  His voice, playing, song selection, and fellow musicians all came together to create a blues masterpiece.

Tonight, I'll see B. B. King in concert for the 12th time.  Like he has for the last 30 years, he'll play in the park at his annual "B. B. King Homecoming" in Indianola, and then around midnight, he'll stroll on the stage at the Club Ebony.  He's been playing the small club across the tracks in Indianola for nearly 60 years and he'll pack the joint again tonight.  Like he has thousands of times before, he'll play "Every Day I Have The Blues" and "The Thrill Is Gone" and some other classics from his endless repertoire.  He'll reminisce about life on the plantation, his travels around the world, and, like he's been doing for so many years, he'll put every ounce of energy into bending Lucille's strings and summoning that roar.  It's what he does and it's who he is.  B. B. isn't just the King of the Blues.  He is the Blues.

Earlier, I said that B. B. was never better than he was in 1972 on L. A. Midnight and I consider it his quintessential recording.  I know that many would disagree with my choice, but we can all agree that it's never been more essential to see B. B. perform and truly appreciate his legacy and greatness than it is right now.

I'm off to Indianola to do exactly that.

Note:  For the true B. B. King/Club Ebony experience, check out Kenny Wayne Sheppard's 10 Days Out.  KWS performed with B. B. at Club Ebony in 2004 and the DVD shows exactly what it's like to be crammed into this legendary Delta juke joint at 1:00 am jamming to the blues.

Thanks for the insight, Joe.  Have fun in Indianola and we'll be waiting for a full report on the festivities. 

L. A. Midnight is now available as a two-fer with the classic soul disc that Joe mentioned, To Know You Is To Love You.  There's no question that it's a nearly impossible task to pick just one essential B. B. King album.  I have always been partial to his 50's and early 60's recording (perfectly captured in the 4-disc setThe Vintage Years), but I have really enjoyed his return to basics over the past few years with discs like Blues On The Bayou, Let The Good Times Roll, and One Kind Favor.  Like Joe said, he can do it all, but the blues is what he does best and whatever style he tackles, or whoever he sings with, it's saturated with the blues and that raises it to the next level.  As we close things out for this week, here's an added bonus for our loyal viewers, a rarely-heard track from the 1971 London session Joe mentioned.  This track was part of the CD that accompanied the excellent book, The B. B. King Treasures, by Dick Waterman.  It's a version of Howlin' Wolf's "May I Have A Little Talk With You."

One more fascinating tidbit:  Jesse Ed Davis was a major talent, no question about it. Taj Mahal featured Davis prominently on several of his early albums. His guitar work on Taj's version of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" bore a striking similarity to a version done by another session guitarist of note, Duane Allman, for the Allman's take of the song a few months later. Allman counted Davis as a major influence and found little to improve upon from Davis' original version.

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