Ruminations from the Royal Court

Riley "B.B." King presides so dominantly over the past and present of modern blues that his influence, innovations, and massive talents are easily taken for granted, and at worst overlooked. The most visible and commercially successful blues artist of all time, King has practically always been within earshot and eyesight, a giant who towers over the genre like Hank Williams over country, Elvis Presley over rock, and Louis Armstrong over jazz. His guitar work is the most imitated and influential of any player this side of Jimi Hendrix; it's not merely a distillation of his prewar blues antecedents but is a reflection of his passions for jazz and country. His vocals have provided a benchmark for countless belters and crooners and hark back to the intensity of gospel shouters from the Forties.

His songwriting acumen is as sharp as his ability to turn other writers' material into anthems most people assume he penned. Whether he wrote 'em ("Rock Me Baby," "Why I Sing the Blues") or covered 'em ("Every Day I Have the Blues," "The Thrill Is Gone"), they will forever be his aesthetic property. He has recorded ceaselessly since his 1949 debut, releasing some albums that were definitive and others that decidedly weren't, all the while holding on to a major-label record deal through the numerous comings and goings of mainstream blues.

Yet for most of the twenty-odd years I've been listening intently and intensely to the blues, B.B. King never commanded my attention as much as other bluesmen. There was something missing. The mystery and danger, the Southern-drenched hoodoo-cum-exotica that first drew me to pre- and postwar blues wasn't there. If Robert Johnson scared me and Son House moved me and Bukka White rocked me senseless, B.B. King simply sounded okay. Slick, utterly modern, but nothing I hadn't heard before. The slickness didn't bother me -- I was, and still am, nuts about the urbane swing and taut boogie of Forties big-band blues -- but King's music seldom rocked as hard as that of Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, or Big Joe Turner. As guitarists go, I always preferred the fuzzball raunch of Howlin' Wolf's sidemen Willie Johnson and Hubert Sumlin, who lacked the technical prowess of King but rocked with ferocity. Then there was the dramatic drone of John Lee Hooker, the lacerating attack of Ike Turner and Robert Ward, and the perfectly sloppy splatter of Lightnin' Hopkins, as much a disciple of Blind Lemon Jefferson as King was of T-Bone Walker (and I've always preferred Lemon over T-Bone, as guitarist and vocalist).

King sang with gospel passion and plenty of emotion, but he seldom touched the vocals of his contemporaries who walked on either side of the blues tracks, the rural (Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi Fred McDowell) or the urban (Brown, Harris, Turner). And no one worked the middle of those tracks with the absolute mastery of Muddy Waters, who as singer, songwriter, guitarist, and bandleader best embodied the music's past while paving its future.

These artists made profound, undeniable contributions to the creation of rock and roll. They made some of the greatest music imaginable, yet none was emulated by young white rockers quite as often as King. He had bigger hits, sure, but he had more imitators mostly because of his guitar style; the short blasts of single-string runs in standard tuning were easier to figure out. When no less a talent than Eric Clapton fumbled badly with the open-tuned finger-picking of Robert Johnson, he found in King (as well as in the unrelated Kings, Freddie and Albert, who shared with B.B. both a style and a surname) something he could do. Soon the blues and rock landscape of the Sixties was littered with King-crazed string-benders, only a few of whom actually took their idol's style someplace new. (That hardly mattered to tech-heads who rallied gleefully around fine sidemen but lousy record-makers such as Peter Green and Roy Buchanan.) The progenitor, meanwhile, cranked out some of the music's best-known standards, experimented with the limits of his art through excursions into jazz and soul, and became a mainstream celebrity through a multitude of TV and live appearances. He hit the pop chart more times than Muddy, the Wolf, and Hooker combined. The man, his music, and his disciples were literally everywhere. But for me, a Memphis teenager drawn to the music's otherworldly mystery as much as to its primitive, at times savage, wallop, King's artistry was something I admired more than I actually liked.

Not much of that thinking changed as I got older and outgrew some of my more wrongheaded notions about Southern blues and the end results of its migration to Chicago, Detroit, and other urban meccas of the North and Midwest. I came to love the raucously emotional 1964 set Live at the Regal, thanks to a taped copy forced on me by a friend in the late Eighties. There was also a compilation of instrumentals culled from his Fifties recordings for RPM/Modern (Spotlight on Lucille, on the British Ace label) that made it startlingly obvious what King had picked up from T-Bone Walker and early mentors such as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Which is to say, I started hearing the jazz in his style. And the 1992 box set King of the Blues, an assortment of his best work from 1949 to 1991, was a well-chosen, opinion-swaying chronicle of not just the development of B.B.'s art but of the way he maintained his personality and commitment to the blues even as he tried to expand the genre through collaborations with dullards such as the Crusaders (who needed King more than he ever needed them).

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