I’ve owned a pair of B.B. King live recordings for years in various formats….Live at the Regal and Live at Cook County Jail. I figured that was all the live B.B. I would ever need, but several years ago I was talking “B.B.” with a friend and he told me that Blues Is King, to him, was THE definitive B.B. King live recording. It, more than any other, captured the true essence of the “live” B.B. King, not just his musical performance but also his personal charm and rapport with his audience.
I was surprised because I wasn’t that familiar with Blues Is King. In fact, I didn’t even know it was a live recording…..I had just seen the album in record stores a few times. It wasn’t as prevalent in the stores as some of his other releases, and there was so much B.B. King product in the record stores (even before the blues caught fire again in the mid 80’s) that it just got lost in the cracks to me. It wasn't like it is now, where you can go to the internet on your phone and find out what you need to know about an album in less than 30 seconds.
After hearing about it, I ventured to the B.B. King Museum at Indianola a couple of years ago and happened to see it in the gift shop. However, the asking price for it was a bit prohibitive, as often happens in gift shops, so I passed on purchasing it, opting for a new copy of Cook County Jail instead. Frequent searches online showed similar prices to the gift shop's, so I put it on the backburner.
A few weeks ago at the Little Big Store, however, I stumbled across it while flipping through the CDs....a very nice copy that looked like it had barely even been played, at about 20% of the cost of the one I had seen a few years earlier. I grabbed the copy as soon as I saw it, anxious to hear if what I'd heard about it was true.
|Original album cover from 1967|
Blues Is King was recorded about two years after Live at the Regal, also in Chicago, but in a smaller, more intimate nightclub, The Club (at 5523 South State Street, managed by DJ's Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones) in November of 1966. On the previous recording, King had been backed by his big band, which was not really an option in this setting. Here, he was backed by Duke Jethro (organ), Louis Satterfield (bass), Sonny Freeman (drums), Kenneth Sands (trumpet), and Bobby Forte (tenor sax).
After multiple listenings, I'm not sure that I would rate it as his best live recording, but it's certainly a contender. For starters, he sounds fantastic on guitar......he is really tearing it up on these ten tracks, really inspired, fierce stinging leads. His singing is filled with passion and soul. Sometimes, when I used to hear King on TV, he would be almost overwhelmed by the horns in his band, which is really saying something because of his booming voice and screaming guitar.....but it would happen. This five-piece ensemble complements him well and he makes the most of it.
Another standout factor of Blues Is King is the song selection. There were a few that would be familiar to most fans on the set......"Gamblers' Blues" (the last time he recorded it), "Don't Answer The Door," and "Night Life" (he basically took this one away from Willie Nelson over the years) certainly will ring a bell to fans, but there are several others that he performed less frequently, at least as the years rolled by, such as "Waitin' On You," "Blind Love," "I Know What You're Puttin' Down" (some of his best guitar work), and "Baby Get Lost."
Evidently, King was feeling mighty fine the night he recorded these tracks, with some of the most inspired singing and playing you'll hear from him. It's hard to say that Blues Is King is the definitive live B.B. King recording....the song selection is a little better on the other two I mentioned (at least more familiar to fans), but I think his performance is better on this set. It was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2018, the third live King album to receive the honor (guess the other two). Give it a spin and see what you think. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
I encourage you to check out the Little Big Store in Raymond if you're in the vicinity of Jackson, MS in the near future. It's about 20 miles south of the interstate just off Highway 18. It's easy to spend several hours in there going through the inventory and there's plenty for blues fans to enjoy.