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).
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.
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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.