Riley “B B” King died on 15 May 2015 at the age of 89 and with his passing we’ve lost yet another, and perhaps the last, of the bluesmen who popularised the blues after World War II and eventually took it to an international audience that was way beyond the original Black audience for whom they performed in the early years of their careers.
My abiding memory of B B King as performer (he never toured South Africa, even post 1994) was a performance in an Imax movie called All Access where King had a throw down with some well-known, much younger White rock guitarist. BB, whilst sitting down (he must have been in his seventies by then), played some of the toughest, loudest, fiery lead guitar licks I’d ever heard, with a harsh metallic edge to the violence of his attack on the strings, completely and utterly cutting the other guy. King may not have been the most facile of technicians but he did what he did extremely well and beyond compare. It was truly astonishing that an old guy, sitting down no less, could produce such ferocious sounds from his guitar.
I got into blues through the trinity of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and it was some time before I came to appreciate and even love the music of BB King. Literally the first King track I’d heard was “Blue Shadows,” a track from the album BB King in London, which was on a compilation on the BluesWay Records label. King was backed by only a rhythm section and made a tough blues that, as it turned, out was not necessarily typical of his work. This song induced me to buy an album of earlier material, where King fronted his big, jazzy band and to my ears at the time it sounded like tepid swing with lead guitar and an emphasis on gospel driven vocals. It was considerably more sophisticated than the Southside of Chicago downhome electric blues I was listening to at the time. To me the sophistication took the edge off the blues and I did not listen to the record much. It was many years before I bought any other B B King album. I became a fan or Albert King instead.
My musical tastes broadened over time and I started buying CD albums of BB King’s music, mostly compilations but also proper albums, such as the aforementioned In London, the much later Six Silver Strings, and the joyous collaboration with Eric Clapton called Riding With the King. There are also a number of live albums that are less rewarding because, as was the case with so many of the old blues guys, King kept re-recording a core group of his best known songs and even though each version may be different to the rest one does eventually get tired of the umpteenth version of “Sweet Sixteen” or “Everyday I Have The Blues.”
BB King was one of the leading proponents of the “urban” style of blues that White bluesographers once looked down on as not being the authentic folk voice that Delta blues supposedly was. The irony was that the rediscovered folk bluesmen lionized by these bluesographers were introduced to adoring White audience while King was still playing to Black audiences, his own people, and the White blues cognoscenti were looking down their noses at his music. The triumph of B B King is that he stuck with his vision and his mission and kept going on his path until the White audience came to him and he became the beloved Ambassador of the Blues.
BB King recorded some classic blues, mixing elements of big band jazz, gospel vocals, R & B pop smarts and stinging single string lead guitar playing. Perhaps one could never call him of think of him as a folk bluesman and perhaps he always was a showman who thrived on the big stage, as entertainer, sticking to renditions of his greatest hits, but he was an undoubted icon of the genre he represented and advanced.
There are not that many musicians currently working whose roots and style can be traced back to Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf but there must be thousands who are directly or indirectly influenced and motivated by the style of blues B B King gave us: a soulful vocalist and strong lead guitarist fronting a band. The modern blues guitarist is most probably more technically adept than King ever was but, as that example from All Access showed, none of them can do what he could do, even with a limited bag of licks.
King was a prolific recording artist and one would have to be carefully selective in picking out the best of his albums. Live at the Regal is generally regarded as the one to own, and, as I’ve indicated, one should be wary of the various live albums released in its wake. I am fond of In London and Riding With the King, probably because I own them. The trio of albums King recorded with the Crusaders in the late Seventies has their moments but on the whole they represent an attempt at real jazz sophistication that I still find hard to enjoy even now. I guess the Greatest Hits album on MCA is as good a point of entry as any and to a degree one does not need all that much more, as the impact will be diluted if one were to be a completist.
I suppose one can make a list of the 50 best B B King recordings. There probably are no more than about 20 that are truly essential. Beyond that one would simply hear variations on the theme that become less and less rewarding as the number of performances increase.
Nonetheless, it is a sad day for lovers of the blues. Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Albert King and John Lee Hooker (and I’m referring only to some of the giants; there have been many others who were also noteworthy) have passed on since I became an aficionado of blues and it almost seemed as if B B King would go on forever. He became the greatest living blues musician simply by outliving most of the completion but he was pretty great anyhow.
No doubt there will be numerous glowing (and even overly sentimental) tributes and a rekindled interest in his recordings, particularly the ones with which he made his reputation.
That is okay. The flame must be kept burning.
B B King took his take on the blues all over the world and made friends everywhere. “Ambassador of the Blues” sounds like a marketing slogan, yet it was probably as any description of the stature B B King achieved in his lifetime, a stature that will not be equaled again.