If I am not mistaken Riley "Blues Boy" King is currently the most famous old school bluesman alive today. There is also Buddy Guy but he is a generation younger.
B B was one of the originators and supreme practitioner of what was once categorised as urban blues by academic bluesophiles who wrote the story of the blues and had to pigeonhole various offshoots of a very broad river. Urban blues was smooth, sophisticated, and jazz and gospel influenced and a million miles away, supposedly, from the Mississippi Delta country blues of sharecroppers and levee camps. Urban blues was big city blues: uptown and sleek. For a while in the Fifties B B King toured with a big band with a full brass section that could riff behind him as if they were Count Basie's big band our of Kansas. In contrast the typical Delta bluesman was a solo performer on guitar. The electric downhome sound featured a small combo, with no horns, except that the blues harp often simulated a horn section, and was still more primitive than the big band sound.
For the first 15 years or so of B B King's career in blues he played almost exclusively to black audiences paradoxically because his ostensibly more sophisticated style was not recognised as an authentic folk expression by the White bluesophile academics that researched the blues and wrote the story of the blues. These White guys preferred the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and the new-folk blues stylings of Big Bill Broonzy and the electric downhome style of Muddy Waters, as these musicians were considered as authentic. Somehow, B B King was a showbiz bluesman who had none of the deep blues feeling some guy on the porch of a Delta juke joint was thought to have.
The joke was that King came from the Mississippi Delta and was as authentically steeped in blues as any of the musicians so admired by the blues scholars. Today, of course, King is as venerated as anybody else in the genre and possibly more than most. Maybe it is simply down to outlasting so many of his contemporaries.
I came to the blues via Dr Feelgood and Cream. A VeeJay album of John Lee Hooker's greatest hits was the first blues album I ever bought. My initial interest was in electric blues from the southside of Chicago, as this type of blues was more to my taste than the sophisticated style of B B King or T Bone Walker. At first I did not even care for acoustic Delta blues or blues piano.
I started reading about blues and came across the name of B B King, as part of the trilogy of Kings (BB, Albert and Freddie) and as a practitioner of a gospel inflected jazzy style with fluent guitar playing. This sounded good until I actually bought a B B King album.
Before that my first exposure to B B King's music was on an ABC Bluesway compilation where his "Blue Shadows" (taken from the 1971 album B B King In London) was a serious contender. King was backed by a small group with a solid rhythm section powering a relentless performance with pained vocals and elevating, piercing guitar playing. Many years later I also bought the CD of B B King In London.
Not long after being impressed by "Blue Shadows" I saw a B B King record (I think it was an album called The Best Of B B King, Volume II) on sale at Sygma Records in Stellenbosch and bought it, along with a John Lee Hooker album on the same label. I played the Hooker album to death. I later learnt that the British blues band The Groundhogs, or elements from the band, formed Hooker's backing band. Their version of "I Cover The Waterfront" was spectacularly spooky and affecting. On the other hand, I barely played the B B King album.
The problem with the King set was that it comprised recordings from the mid-Fifties where he was backed by a big band. The album cover gave no details of the musicians on the record and if I had seen that there was big band backing, I would never have bought the record. It was seriously disappointing after "Blue Shadows" and its powerful, piercing guitar licks. The first impression of these songs was that King mostly just sang and played very little guitar and if he did, it was mixed way down behind the riffing brass section. This was just about exactly the kind of music I did not like when I was in my late teens and early twenties and it was absolutely not the kind of blues I wanted to hear. Sophisticated, uptown and jazzy were anathema to me. It took many years and a lot of growing up before I realised that jump blues could be as exciting and interesting in its own right as downhome was.
Anyhow, though I investigated the blues and started collecting blues records in a serious way, I avoided B B King like the plague. My perception was that his music was all like that blasted cheap album and I did not care for gospel blues with no guitar at all.
I found the Albert King album As The Years Go By in a budget record shop in Cape Town and this record was a revelation. Albert King was a big, powerful man who played his Gibson Flying Vee guitar left-handed with an unmatched force and aggression. The conventional truth was that Albert King was no match for B B King when it came to imparting that deep blues vibe, either on the guitar or vocally. B B's patented vibrato and soulful gospel tones were technically superior to Albert who had only a few licks up his sleeve. If Albert had only a few good licks he made the most of them. His power sometimes outpunches B B's fluency and vibrato.
On As The Years Go By Albert King was backed by a small group of session musicians from the Stax soul machine and turned in a pretty effective set of blues underpinned by the solid groove of a Memphis soul band. This is what I liked. Brute guitar power, screaming string bends and a supple, driving rhythm section. Albert King became my favourite King in the blues field.
My aversion to B B King's music softened over time because I started getting into jump blues and R & B from the Forties and Fifties, which was very similar to B B King's style.
Then there was the second album he recorded with Bobby Bland, Together Again … Live, the second of two releases documenting live shows where the two giants of urban blues entertained audiences with their trademark gospelized blues. There was still not enough King guitar for my taste, as he played second fiddle to Bland, or so it seemed, but the tunes were big and it sounded as if the two stars were having fun. The main conceptual breakthrough for me was that I came to appreciate B B King's voice and impassioned singing style. The guy was worth listening to even if he put his guitar to one side and he gave Bland, s specialist singer, a run for his money.
My attitude towards B B King materially changed with The Blues Collection, a weekly part work publication during 1995 and 1996. Each issue told the story of a selected blues artist and came with a free CD of the music of the subject of that issue. The CDs could be free as the tunes selected for them were not necessarily the best work of the artists but it was nonetheless eye-opening for me in respect of a number of bluesmen whose music had hitherto been unknown to me. One of the first batch of issues concerned B B King. The music chosen for his CD was a mixture of old tunes: some deep blues and some blues ballads.
These songs kind of whetted my appetite for more B B King. In relatively quick succession I came across some more budget compilations of his music. One in particular, called something like King of the Blues (perhaps in homage to an apparently seminal Sixties album by the man, which had a very good cross-section of tunes that were mostly quite powerful readings of BB King standards and unfamiliar material too.
By and by I built up a nice little selection of B B King albums and eventually even found BB King in London, the album from which "Blue Shadows" had been extracted for that ABC Bluesway compilation. I still do not much care for those Fifties big band blues tracks but for the most part King's music is pretty well up there along with Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf and the rest of the downhome gang. I know that B B has his guitar schtick, his signature licks, like most other players and yet his solos thrill almost every time. Of course his many versions of his big hits get a tad overfamiliar and if I had to select my favourite blues albums of all time it would be difficult to pick any particular album. In his case I would definitely simply want to make a good mix tape.
A moment that stands out for me is the segment of B B King duelling on guitar with somebody like Steve Vai on the Access All Areas concert movie that played at the V & A Waterfront's IMAX theatre somewhere around 2002 or 2003. The concept of the movie was a bunch of acts filmed on stage, maybe at one concert. The standouts were George Clinton doing his parliafunkadelicment thang, Kid Rock and this amazing performance from B B King and Vai. King was seated during his time on stage (he was already a pretty old guy) while Vai moved around. At the end of whatever song they were doing, the two guitarists engaged in a quite nasty razor fight with guitars. I knew that Vai was a master of weird guitar tones and fleet fingered solos but it was B B's brutally nasty guitar tone and violent attack on the strings of Lucille that was the astonishing thing. King got sounds from his guitar strings I would never have he was capable of. For every nasty tone Vai produced King produced something even nastier. He was like the guy who brought a gun to the razor fight Vai had anticipated. For an old guy he could sure make a lot of amplified, electrified noise. I was reminded of that scene from the movie Crossroads where the character played by Ralph Macchio blows away the satanic character played by Steve Vai, who plays in much the same way as when he faced down B B King. Vai loses in the movie too, but not because Macchio is nastier. In Access All Areas Vai gave it his best shot but he sounded like a wanna be compared to the old blues guy with the nastiest tone this side of any crossroads at midnight.
Then there is the DVD of the concert King played in Kinshasa as part of the festivities around the "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Before the fight there was a 3 day music festival featuring a bunch of the biggest black acts of the time and somehow B B King, the indomitable international ambassador of the blues by then, was on the bill as well. I bought this DVD, called Sweet 16 (after one of the songs King performed), in 2005 at a flea market stall just off the Chinatown section of Soho in London, along with a DVD of the live Parliament experience from the late Seventies.
On the night B B wears a natty grey suit and a white shirt with a crisp, pointy collar. His backing musicians include a large brass section, some extra percussion and a rhythm guitarist. The second guitarist, piano player and about half of the horn section are White, which seems a tad incongruous at a celebration of African Black culture and celebrity.
The opening song is a bit of a soul ballad, "To Know You Is To Love You", where B B does his patented 'can't play when I sing" thing and emotes mightily. The songs that follow ("I Believe To My Soul:, "Why I Sing The Blues", "Ain't Nobody Home", "Sweet Sixteen", "The Thrill Is Gone", "Guess Who" and "I Like To Live The Love") comprise the core of the kind of hits repertoire King has reprised, in various combinations over many live albums.
Throughout the rhythm section is tough yet supple and King's guitar playing is smooth, fluent and affective. He sings equally strongly. Of course he has performed these songs many times before and will perform them many times in the future but there does seem to be a freshness and enthusiasm that gives a great deal of power to the familiar. As the cliché has it: this is a musician at the top of his game. This is what he does for a living and he does it with consummate ease and professionalism and delivers the blues goods. As I have mentioned, I am not too keen on the big band blues thing and for this reason this would not be a top favourite DVD to watch, except for the historical values of seeing B B King play.
Towards the end of the set BB introduces his band. Everyone has been with him for a number of years. In particular the drummer has been part of the B B King band/orchestra for 17 years and the bandleader and arranger has been with him for 20 years. That these two guys could stay with King for so long either shows a tremendous sense of loyalty or very simply that being in blues can be a career in music regardless of how tough times might have been for blues musicians over the years.
Eleven years after this gig and in 1985 MCA released Six Silver Strings, B B King's 50th album. I did not buy it at the time. I found it a flea market stall in the Gardens Centre one Friday evening in late July 2011. I bought a stack of second hand CDs, including a couple of blues compilations and this B B King album, because it was there and cheap and not because I expected much from it.
BB was about 60 at the time of Six Silver Strings' release. Since 1974 he had recorded a couple of jazzy-funky albums backed by the Crusaders. His producers and record company had done their best to modernise his music and to bring it up to date. The perception was that blues could only advance beyond a small, fanatical core audience, and B B in particular could only continue to thrive in his career if he got with the program of embedding his brand of gospel blues in smooth soul and cocktail funk that would be radio friendly and would fit right in with so-called urban contemporary playlists.
Many rock giants of the Sixties and Seventies tried to embrace Eighties production values and recording techniques that makes so much music from that era sound so distinctive, in particular the big drum sound that often threatens to overwhelm any other instrument in the mix.
Six Silver Strings falls into the category, I guess, of what Robert Christgau called night club funk when rating a different King album from that era. The rhythm section is somewhat robotically regular and the production values give the music a deep sophisticated sheen, with the prominent drum sound, that kills any vestige of deep blues feeling despite King's best efforts. I won't say he phones in his contribution but it is mostly kind subdued and without the fire one associates with blues. This is blues as background music for an uptown party where evening dress is mandatory. Obviously B B's management and record company must have tried to sell him to an audience that would not normally appreciate Mississippi delta blues but who liked lightweight jazz funk and for whom the term quiet storm was invented as a radio format. BB King therefore aimed at urban contemporary.
Luther Dixon wrote (in the case of one song, co-wrote) 5 of the 8 songs on the album, Ira Newborn wrote 2 and there is one track written by Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett. The concept is that blues is the feeling imparted by the songs and not so much the deep emotion behind them. Apart from "Big Boss Man" there are no blues standards on the album and apart from "Into The Night" there is no song from this album that has become a B B King standard. This is a R & B slbum slanted towards blues, mostly because B B King is the artist, but the songs could have been placed with almost any R & B singer from the era and they would have worked as well in a lounge soul, quite storm context.
B B King's guitar is the big theme, in that no fewer than 3 songs allude to Lucille the Guitar. The title track, "My Lucille" and "Why My Guitar Sings The Blues" all deal in one way or another with one of the primary reasons King is world famous: his infinitely special blues guitar playing. Without the guitar B B King would have been simply Bobby "Blues" Bland.
The second track on the album, "Big Boss Man", is one of Jimmy Reed's hits and is generally played with a relaxed swinging groove that is typical of the patented Reed boogie. The lyrics serve as a warning to the singer's employer to take him more seriously and not to mess him around, in case the employee takes a fancy to give the bossman a few slaps. Reed himself doesn't sound too aggressive when he delivers his message of warning because his lazy drawl is not exactly the best way to make anything sound life threatening. Yet King's take on the song is even less urgent and has less of the sense of imminent aggression that the lyrics promise. It is just a weak version of a blues classic that makes no sense. Was there nothing better to put in its place?
Next up is a stone soul classic: Wilson Pickett's big hit "In The Midnight Hour", which is also intended as being a badass song of sexual braggadocio of the type that is common in blues. Wicked Pickett gave the song an air of menace and a promise of sexual fulfilment that was an offer impossible to refuse. It is well known that King himself liked, and probably still likes, the ladies and had many of them over the years. He should know a thing or two about sexual attraction.
B B King imbues "In The Midnight Hour" more with a melancholy than with threat. The band plays tough (though still not as tough as the Stax house band would have done) and the guitar sings the solo but the power of the song is diluted to the degree where it is a pleasant diversion and no more. It could be a showstopper at a concert; here it sounds too much like filler.
"Into The Night" comes from the John Landis film of the same name, with Michelle Pheiffer and Jeff Goldblum and does sound like soundtrack blues for a nightclub audience somewhere in uptown Hollywood.
Ira Newborn, a piano player as far as I know, wrote "My Lucille" and with the double entendres this song could be about a woman or B B King's guitar Lucille. He does get passionate enough about the title character that one might think it is actually about his six stringed instrument and his undying love for her. It has been with him long enough, through thick and thin and has no doubt never let him down and has given him more confidence and support than any woman could ever have done.
"My Guitar Sings The Blues" is a 1985 rewrite of "Every Day I Have The Blues" or "How Blue Can You Get" in that it is a medium paced shuffle in which King narrates all the reasons he and his guitar have to sing the blues. Essentially the blues come from the different ways his woman treats him badly. Of course he actually confides in us that it is the guitar that has the blues but we know the man with the guitar is the one that suffers. Surprisingly, this is not the track with the best, rawest guitar sounds. Even "In The Midnight Hour" is a better showcase for Lucille the guitar than the track about the guitar and its blues.
The final track, "Double Trouble", is another Luther Dixon original and not the Otis Rush tune of the same name. it features some Eighties synths, funk drumming (not to mention an electronic percussion breakdown) and some of the tastiest, if brief guitar licks on the album. This sounds like a strong attempt at making a contemporary R & B artist out of B B King. Not a bad tune and a stellar performance from the man, but overall pretty weak and pointless.q
I would imagine that Six Silver Strings would have disappointed long time B B King fans and committed blues fans alike, as it does not deliver much that sticks in the mind. One should never demand that an artist simply keeps repeating himself or sticks to a well-known and well-established method or path, but an artist should also not venture onto paths that are dead ends, regardless of the initial promise, or be different simply for the sake of change. On Six Silver Strings B B King may be as professional as he ever was and may be giving the material his best shot but the impression is that his heart isn't truly in it. Maybe he realised that yet another attempt at commercialising his blues for a generation for whom the blues was a tad too archaic was not actually going to make a difference.
As 50th album celebration Six Silver Strings falls short. It is not B B King's best album by any means and even if it finds a place in a complete discography of King's work, I cannot imagine that anyone would recommend it as a must have. It sounds more like a contractual obligation.
Riding With The King, B B's album with Eric Clapton, is more of a real deal. The band is tight and the production favours a sound that is more rootsy, taking contemporary recording techniques and philosophies into account, and the songs are top notch, a mixture of old favourites, brand new songs and some judicious covers, like the title track by John Hiatt who would probably not have conceived this song, a tribute to Elvis Presley, as a blues tune. Appropriating as referring to B B is audacious and amusing. The two guitarists spar delightfully and sharply and both sing well and seem to have a lot of fun. Clapton is not in the same league as vocalist as King but he is up there as blues guitar player and for that reason alone this album is a great listen. But it also emphasises the trite truth that good tunes done well go a long way.
I wonder why there has never been a similar project with Peter Green and B B King. Reportedly B B once said that Peter Green was the only (White) blues guitarist who made him sweat. Green's style with Fleetwood Mac certainly sounded a lot more like B B King's than Clapton's sound with John Mayall or Cream.
I believe King played some concerts in the UK in mid-2011. The audience must now be of the type who goes to see him as much for being able to say they saw one of his last gigs as for the pleasure of prime B B King. However he strong he may still be, he is still north of 80 and if he was already sitting down at his gigs ten years ago, I would imagine he does so now. For that matter, that was what John Lee Hooker did in his last years but whereas Hooker's guitar and vocal styles seeme4d to lend themselves to a seated delivery, I cannot quite see how B B King's gospel take on the blues survives being delivered from a chair.
I guess a DVD is going to be the closest I will ever get to experiencing B B King live. Even if he ever comes to South Africa while he still can, I would not want to go to any of his concerts, for much the same reason I never went to Deep Purple, Uriah Heep or Z Z Top when they played Cape Town. I would never want to pay to hear Uriah Heep and I would have preferred the other two bands in their mid-Seventies heyday. In B B King's case, I would probably have enjoyed him in the late Sixties and very early Seventies, after he found that he could tour with a small backing group and before he was paired with the Crusaders.
My CD collection probably contains an elegant sufficiency of B B King albums and compilations. Maybe if I ever find Live at the Regal I will buy it, and probably anything from the period mentioned above, but I truly love the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf in an unconditional, visceral way, B B King has been an acquired taste with a lot of provisos. I cannot see how that will ever change.
Now he is King of the Blues but the blues of the King is not exactly the greatest souvenir of the blues one can own.