Ruminations from the Royal Court

Two albums in particular, though, drove home the utter brilliance of B.B. King. The first was the domestic release a few years back of another Ace compilation -- Heart & Soul: A Collection of Blues Ballads. The assortment, compiled by Ray Topping in 1992, consists of, well, blues ballads from the RPM/Modern era of the Fifties and Sixties, when King was hitting the R&B charts with pretty much every single and touring the clubs and dives of the chitlin circuit. The second, How Blue Can You Get? Classic Live Performances 1964 to 1994, is a two-disc snapshot of at least part of those chitlin circuit years. It's also a reminder of how crucial the bandstand has been to King's art and career, as well as an overview of his evolution. With the exception of a few previously unissued cuts, fanatics will already have everything on it. And Live at the Regal (represented here by four songs) notwithstanding, How Blue works as a vital live document, and damn near makes a better case for King than the box set.

Heart & Soul is something of an anomaly in regard to King's reputation and acknowledged influence, for it contains hardly any guitar playing, and many of the arrangements are steeped in big-band jazz. In this context, the appearance of Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" from 1960 is no more surprising than was the wholly convincing version that surfaced a few years later on a single by Sam Cooke. And much like Cooke's epochal, cover-laden 1963 album Night Beat, Heart & Soul sounds like a sort of exploration of roots, a discovery of something new in something old. Yet most of these songs were written by King. Some were buried on budget-line compilations, a few were R&B chart hits, still others were tossed on to B-sides. Whatever their source, the way they're assembled on Heart & Soul makes them sound like so many miniature masterpieces that not only hang together but that establish a mood setting the album apart from anything else in the King canon.

From "Three O'Clock Blues" to "The Thrill Is Gone," B.B. King's signature songs have been ballads. The ones compiled on Heart & Soul are different; the man relies on his voice and the swing caress of the arrangements more than on his guitar. The results fall somewhere between the yearning, late-night balladry of Percy Mayfield and the ache and torment Little Willie John added to R&B's legendary Book of Love. Whether he's swaggering through "I'm King" or begging a cold lover to "Please Accept My Love," King sounds comfortable in the big-band settings. Even more, he sounds open in ways that -- and I'm not even sure exactly why -- he never did on many of his more revered sides.

Throughout How Blue Can You Get? he sounds more than comfortable. There's an energy and intensity on nearly all of the 29 cuts that, as with classic live sets from Otis Redding's Live in Europe to the myriad bootlegs culled from Elvis Costello's late-Seventies gigs, pulls you through the stereo and into the sweaty face of a man with something on his chest. On songs he has sung who knows how many thousands of times, songs you've probably heard too many times to count, he bites into the lyrics like he's never really savored them, never tasted the bitterness of "Baby Get Lost" or wallowed in the salacious horniness of "Eyesight to the Blind." And his guitar work over the years proves itself wholly astonishing, jagged and violent when the song calls for it, other times delicate, rolling out notes like tears down a face full of them. Replicated to death, King's style, as evidenced on this miraculously revealing set, has never been bettered.

King's next album, Blues on the Bayou, isn't due out until October. More than anything else he has released in the past two decades, Bayou finds ground somewhere between the gut-wrenched mood of Heart & Soul and the scalding ambiance of How Blue Can You Get? The first studio album he has recorded in years with his long-time road band, Bayou is also the first time King has seen fit to do an album without the aid of guest-star cameos, a la Deuces Wild and Blues Summit. Fittingly, he turns a lot of the solo space over to the band, which makes the album a showcase for the extraordinary work of keyboardist James Toney, among other veteran King-band luminaries.

More important, the album captures the spontaneity and roadhouse grit that's been missing from too many of King's albums of late. That might be because King assumed production duties, or maybe because he and the band had only four days to cut it. Whatever the case, Bayou is a triumph, from the loose-limbed groove that underpins "Bad Case of Loving You" to the graceful slink of the set-opening instrumental "Blues Boys Tune."

It's "I'll Survive," however, that turns Blues on the Bayou into something more than the tremendous album it is. Returning to the song he nailed in 1964, the song that provided the centerpiece for Heart & Soul, King doesn't even try to re-create the brass-splashed melancholy of the original. Instead, bolstered by sweet strings and Toney's piano, he sings it like a man who, at age 73, has lived long enough to know what simply surviving means. Surviving, not just making it through the sting of a nasty breakup (although you hear plenty of that pain in his rawhide vocal and forceful phrasing). It becomes a statement of endurance, a boast of longevity and vitality that summarizes his career just as it defines the essence of his easily misunderstood body of work: Guitar playing aside, the man can sing the hell out of a ballad.

B.B. King plays the Blues and Barbecue Fest Saturday, September 19, at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, with Johnny and Edgar Winter, Dr. John, and Susan Tedeschi. Gates open at 5:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $25. Call 954-946-2402.

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