At the time of BB King's death in May 2015, the man born Riley B King in mid-20s Mississippi was the undisputed King Of The Blues. The ‘Blues Boy’ survived brutal racism, extreme poverty and even a brief association with U2 to endure as the ambassador for a style of music that has defied being written off countless times.
Stylistically, BB King’s first few albums were heavily indebted to his idol T-Bone Walker, but by the early 60s he was his own man, and a powerful influence on a gang of white kids in London that included Peter Green, future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and those two’s predecessor in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton.
“If you’re not familiar with his work,” said Clapton, “I would encourage you to go out and find an album called Live At The Regal, which is where it all really started for me as a young player.”
Released in 1965, Live At The Regal, the first of BB King’s masterpieces, finds an artist in complete control of his audience. While many blues performers were backtracking on their careers to satisfy a new white Delta blues-obsessed audience, King gave his predominantly black followers exactly what he wanted: progression. His music took on elements of jazz, funk and soul while never obscuring his first love, the blues.
When he did cross over to a young white rock audience at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium on June 6, 1968, it was on his own terms. At a time when his contemporaries Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were talked into cutting career-low psychedelic shit to pander to the hippies [Electric Mud in ’68 and The Howlin’ Wolf Album in ’69 respectively], BB King went in the opposite direction. With The Thrill Is Gone, from his ’69 album Completely Well, he recorded a new, sophisticated blues, augmented with orchestral strings.
Even in his dotage, BB King maintained a punishing touring schedule. No one, to paraphrase one of his classics, paid a higher cost to be the boss, and despite his wealth, he feared slowing down: “If we don’t work, how we gonna eat?”
That work ethic, forged in the poverty he experienced as a child, is there in his discography too. When he released Completely Well in 1969, he was already on his 17th studio record.
BB King and his band had been playing well over 300 dates a year since the mid-50s by the time they rolled up at the Regal Theater in Chicago on November 21, 1964, to play the show that was recorded for this album.
What makes this peerless record so special is King’s electric interaction with his audience, which climaxes with the sexual innuendo of Sweet Little Angel (‘I love the way she spreads her wings’) and his ode to a two-legged heart attack, You Upset Me Baby. Rolling Stone Mick Taylor described Live At The Regal as “BB King in his prime”. No shit. It’s the greatest blues album of all time.
Produced by proof-reader’s nightmare Bill Szymczyk, Indianola Mississippi Seeds was named after the town nearest to BB’s birthplace, and the place where he first started playing blues on Church Street.
Kicking off with a short juke-joint rendition of Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, the album soon reveals itself as King’s finest studio record, with the brooding blues of You’re Still My Woman, the gospel-fuelled Until I’m Dead And Cold and the epic Chains And Things. Its predecessor Completely Well is the critics’ favourite, but BB himself claimed that Indianola Mississippi Seeds was his greatest work.
BB’s debut album, released in 1956, features the track that made him a star: Three O’Clock Blues drove female listeners crazy when it was played on late-night radio in the deep south, and their enthusiasm drove the song to the No.1 spot on the R&B chart.
Vocally, King was pretty much fully formed on Singin’ The Blues, with his trademark sweep from baritone to a sweet falsetto – Sweet Little Angel serves as exhibit A. His guitar playing is another matter. On tracks such as Everyday I Have The Blues, it’s way busier than the economical BB of later years and betrays his love of T-Bone Walker.
What with Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin and At Folsom Prison and BB’s Live In Cook County Jail, the late 60s and early 70s were a bloody good time to do porridge in America.
Here BB pulls out all the stops in front of the – literally – tough crowd with throbbing takes on How Blue Can You Get?, his trademark Everyday I Have The Blues and his recent smash hit The Thrill Is Gone, all with the chain-gang pounding support of his rhythm section. Some consider this album to be better than Live At The Regal. They’re wrong, but it comes pretty damn close.
Always one step ahead of his audience and peers, BB, with the invaluable assistance of producer Bill Szymczyk, claimed a blues first on Completely Well. The Thrill Is Gone, arguably BB’s best-known recording, featured orchestral strings, something that was previously deemed acceptable only on pop and country records.
It was a game changer for BB and the blues, but Completely Well has plenty of other great moments, with King on his best lung-shredding form on Confessin’ The Blues, So Excited and No Good. This is the album that took BB King from a cult performer to a household name.
That BB King’s final studio record is so strong is in part thanks to producer T Bone Burnett. One Kind Favour is a stripped-down affair and all old-school blues, with King paying tribute to idol Lonnie Johnson on three maudlin classics: My Love Is Down, Backwater Blues and Tomorrow Night.
A sprint through Howlin’ Wolf’s How Many More Years and the soulful lament of T-Bone Walker’s Waiting For Your Call are among the best tracks here, but they’re pipped at the post as the album’s high point by King’s take on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 recording See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.
A bit of a forgotten gem, 1968’s Lucille opens with a ten-minute love letter to BB’s guitar. He famously rescued it from a fire, and then named every guitar he played, usually a Gibson ES-345, Lucille. ‘Lucille took me from the plantation/Oh and you might say brought me fame,’ he says, before claiming, ‘Lucille don’t wanna play nothin’ but the blues.’
Bowing to Lucille’s wishes, King and his six-string partner wring ever ounce of emotion out of Ivory Joe Hunter’s late-40s sob story No Money, No Luck and BB’s own Rainin’ All The Time and Stop Puttin’ The Hurt On Me. The stomping, horn-driven You Move Me So is one of the record’s non-tear-jerkers.
While the two of them had been backslapping and namechecking each other since the 60s, it took until the millennium for BB King and Eric Clapton to record an album together.
As you’d expect from anything with Clapton’s name attached, the production is so slick the record could have been sponsored by Teflon. What makes it worth your coin is the obvious affection BB and Eric have for each other. The title track (written by John Hiatt) is a blast, and King is effectively in the driving seat, with a respectful Clapton playing support on King classics such as Ten Long Years and Three O’Clock Blues.
It’s not just a clever name. Live & Well features five tracks recorded live at The Village Gate, a nightclub in Greenwich Village, New York City. A further five tracks were cut in NYC’s Hit Factory with the assistance of Aretha Franklin bassist Gerald Jemmott, Dylan sideman Al Kooper on piano, and McCartney collaborator Hugh McCracken on guitar.
The live tracks are the pick of the litter, with King playing some of his best guitar on Don’t Answer The Door and Sweet Little Angel, and singing at the top of his game on Just A Little Love.
Of the studio tracks, Friends and a smoking take on Why I Sing The Blues are the keepers.