His style is immediately recognizable with the fluid string bending and his shimmering left hand vibrato. As impressive as it is to hear on record, you really have to see him do it, and how effortless he makes it seem to be. Despite his influence on other guitarists, there really isn't anybody else out there who plays quite like him....yet if you listen to other guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Luther Allison, Otis Rush, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Elmore James, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Derek Trucks (how's that for a wide-ranging list of talent??!!!!), you can actually hear King throughout their fret work. As formidable as his talents are on guitar, his vocal power is every bit its match. Rugged and strong, even as he approaches 90 years old, it's as distinctive as his guitar work.
B.B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, near the small Mississippi Delta town of Itta Bena. As a youngster, he moved between his mother and his grandmother....his father abandoned the family when King was four years old and his mother remarried soon after. Raised predominantly by his grandmother, young King was raised singing in the church and working as a sharecropper before moving to Indianola, MS as he approached his 18th birthday.
King took what White showed him, along with influences from early giants like T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson, mixed it with the gospel style that he had played for several gospel groups previously, plus his love for country music and the jazz stylings of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and forged his own distinctive style, but soon he headed back to Indianola, where he stayed until 1948, when he returned to the Bluff City to stay.
|"The Beale Street Blues Boy"|
In 1949, King cut his first record, "Miss Martha King" (named for his wife), for Bullet Records, out of Nashville. Soon, he signed with the Bihari Brothers' RPM Records in Los Angeles, and most of his early recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who later started Sun Records. King was very active with RPM, eventually moving and doing his recording in L.A., and his first big hit came in 1951 with "Three O'Clock Blues." Originally recorded by Lowell Fulson, the song has become a blues standard.
The hits continued pretty much non-stop, with songs like "Woke Up This Morning," "Please Love Me," "You Upset Me Baby," "Every Day I Have The Blues," "Sweet Little Angel," and "When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer." During his years with RPM (and later Kent Records), King moved effortlessly from the gutbucket roadhouse blues to the smoother urban blues to exuberant gospel numbers and swing tunes. His guitar work became more forceful and aggressive (the vocals were already there at the time) and he started his long 300+ shows a year streak, becoming a mainstay of the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit"
Live at the Regal. King has released many great live albums, but this effort, recorded in Chicago, captures him at his best, not just as a guitarist and singer, but most of all as an entertainer. At times, the crowd seems as if they are on the verge of exploding. This is what a live performance is supposed to sound like.
Among King's other hits from the 60's with ABC were the above track, "How Blue Can You Get," "Don't Answer The Door," "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss," and "Why I Sing The Blues." In 1969, he recorded his signature song, Roy Hawkins' "The Thrill Is Gone." It was a marked departure from King's standard fare, with a lush arrangement including violins replacing the usual horn backing, and the results placed King not only at the top of the R&B charts, but also placed King firmly in the Pop charts as well. In 1969, King also opened for the Rolling Stones during their American tour, so his name was pushed into the mainstream at that time, based on this and his new and improved chart success.
In the 70's, King continued to have chart success, in part because he veered from the standard blues treatments and combined Pop, R&B, and Jazz into his sound. "To Know You Is To Love You," was a Stevie Wonder/Syreeta Wright composition that saw King teaming with Wonder and the band that was prominently featured on many of the 70's Philly Soul hits. He also ventured into the Jazz arena by working with the Crusaders, one of the biggest groups in the jazz field during the 70's, on "Better Not Look Down" and "Never Make Your Move Too Soon." In addition to two live recordings with longtime Memphis cohort, Bobby "Blue" Bland, King also released another excellent live album, Live at Cook County Jail, that runs a close second to Live at the Regal.
In the 80's, King's recorded output decreased quite a bit, and a lot of what he did release hasn't held up very well due to concessions to the popular bells and whistles of the era (synthesizers, computerized drums, etc...) but he continued to perform over 300 shows a year and made numerous appearances on the late night shows, assorted movies and TV shows (Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show, Married.....With Children, Touched By An Angel, The Young and the Restless, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). He reached a whole new audience in the late 80's, when he appeared on U2's Rattle and Hum album and movie, singing with Bono on "When Love Comes To Town." He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
In the 90's, King sort of enjoyed a resurgence in the studio, cutting several albums that rank with his best. 1993's Blues Summit was the first of several releases that teamed the legend with various guest stars....in the case of Blues Summit, it was an all-star group of his peers, including Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Joe Louis Walker, John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson, Etta James, Koko Taylor, and Albert Collins. Riding With The King was a 2000 collaboration with Eric Clapton that won a lot of well-deserved attention.
Blues on the Bayou, recorded in Louisiana with his working band, and with King himself serving as producer, was a great return to the straightforward blues, and Let The Good Times Roll, a tribute to one of his heroes, Louis Jordan, was a fun set as well. He also recorded a pair of live discs that show the old tiger had plenty left in the tank, even as he approached his mid 80's.
King's most recent studio effort was One Kind Favor, recorded in 2008. Produced by roots favorite T-Bone Burnett, the set really took King out of his comfort zone. He recorded a set of songs he had never previously recorded and the whole disc has a really earthy feel, far removed from the slick sound that he's been associated with for so long. There were also three songs from one of his earliest influences, Lonnie Johnson, and a reflective take on Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," from where the album title was taken. If this should happen to be King's final studio recording, and there seems to be nothing else in the works right now, it's an appropriate send-off.
Over the past few years, King has trimmed back his touring schedule somewhat, not traveling abroad as much and staying seated for most of his shows, and has the occasional health issue (he developed diabetes in the early 90's). However, he hasn't slowed down that much and continues to make appearances and numerous domestic festivals, including all of Eric Clapton's Crossroad Guitar Festivals, and recently performed at the White House in 2012, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 and the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 1988.
This has been a lengthy post and, believe or not, we've only scratched the surface as far as the importance of B.B. King to the Blues World. No one else has influenced more guitarists and performers than he has. It's hard to imagine what the blues would actually sound like had he never played a note. It's absolutely amazing that as good as his career has been, it still continues nearly as strong as it has ever been. Blues musicians and fans will never be able to repay their debt to this great man.
Before we go, here's a few other selected recordings by King that no self-respecting blues fan should be without. Please keep in mind that this represents just a small portion of King's body of work and nobody should stop with just a couple of B.B. King albums in their collection. These recommendations will focus on collections of his best work.
First, let's look at his early recordings, covering the early 50's through the early 60's, when he was developing his sound and combining his influences (urban blues, country, jazz, rock & roll, jump blues, and R&B) to create his own unique brand of blues.....
The best single disc release from this time is King of the Blues, which was his sixth release for Crown Records. This set was reissued by Ace Records in 2003, and adds ten bonus tracks to the original release. If you only want one disc of early B.B. King, this would be the one to go for. It doesn't have all the hits, but it's a good and diverse representation of his work during this era. For the hits, listeners will be well-served with Original Greatest Hits, released by Virgin Records on the anniversary of King's 80th birthday, which includes 40 tracks on 2 discs covering this same period. This is as good and representative a set as you can get of King's early recordings, hits, near-hits, and a few rarities, too.
For the period covering the early 60's through the modern era, here are two selections (of many) worth hearing. We discussed Greatest Hits a few weeks ago for our first Ten Essentials List, so you know what you're getting there, but Anthology offers more tracks (34) on 2 discs, basically the cream of all of King's recordings during the 60's and 70's with a few sprinkled in from the 80's and 90's. You really can't go wrong with either of these sets.
For listeners wanting to expand their knowledge of B.B. King, here are two four-disc sets to consider. The Vintage Years was released by Ace Records about ten years ago and is probably my favorite collection. I love the early 50's and 60's recordings and this set is as close to perfect a box set as I've ever heard. There are four discs, one consisting of his hits, another focusing on his Memphis-styled blues sound, another showcasing on his gospel, soul, jump, R&B, and rock & roll ventures, and a disc that covers many of his later works of the 50's and early 60's, with some tunes that may be new listening to even die-hard fans. There are also several interesting essays in the accompanying booklet. King of the Blues was also a four-disc set, released by MCA in 1992, and covering his entire career up to that point, though the first decade gets short shrift a little bit, and featuring all of the familiar songs.
Ladies & Gentlemen...Mr. B.B. King, which was released last year. This set covers everything from start to his most recent studio release in 2008. It's available as a 4-disc set, or as a 10-disc set (exclusively from Amazon) and I'm pretty sure this is all the B.B. King you will ever need. I don't have this set in either form, maybe one day, but I'm pretty confident that it has to be the be-all, end-all for B.B. King's recording legacy.