Buyer's Guide: BB King

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RIDING WITH THE KING

Riding With The King, 2000

If Eric Clapton was ‘God’, BB King was The Big Bang. Clapton acknowledged the debt he owed to King in a statement issued shortly after his friend and hero’s death: “I want to thank him for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave me as a player over the years, and for the friendship that we enjoyed”. King knew just how much Clapton respected him during his lifetime.

“People praise me for playing guitar and I know [Eric is] number one,” he told Rolling Stone in 2000. “Of rock’n’roll guitarists, nobody plays better than he does, and he plays blues better than a lot of us. It’s been said many times, ‘Why don’t you and Eric do something together?’ Finally, he found the time, and here we are.”/o:p

Riding With The King – the song and its album namesake – was the ultimate display of affection between BB King and the disciple he once described as the only white boy with soul. In truth, King saved this collaboration from a complete dip in Clapton’s inherent slickness. He’s the boss here in terms of sheer presence and vocal power. And Eric’s Stratocaster is no threat to Lucille. That said, in contrast to his late period solo work, Clapton is obviously having such a blast here that it’s hard to be mean. The song’s promo video is great fun too, with Eric chauffeuring King around in a big-ass convertible, just as it should be. And King’s spoken word refrain tells his story in four lines: “I stepped out of Mississippi when I was 10 years old, with a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold, I had a guitar hanging just about waist high, and I’m gonna play this thing until the day I die.”/o:p

EVERY DAY I HAVE THE BLUES

Singin’ The Blues, 1956

You can take your pick of great versions of this Pinetop Sparks standard, first cut by the pianist in 1935 and reworked by Memphis Slim in 1949. The arrangement recorded by King is attributed to Slim under his real name, Peter Chatman. King first cut the track at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, California on March 2, 1954. It became an essential part of his live shows and features on his ’65 masterpiece Live At The Regal and 1971’s Live In Cook County Jail. The version on 1990’s Live At San Quentin record is worth looking out, too./o:p

ROCK ME BABY

Rock Me Baby, 1964

Ironically, given that it’s one of King’s best loved tracks, there’s a Loch Ness Monster-level of myth about where and when Rock Me Baby was recorded. The song was released as a 45 in 1964 but it may have been languishing in a stockroom as early as 1958. The likely case is that it was cut in LA in the early 60s. King had recorded the track for the Bihari brothers and Kent Records but signed with ABC-Paramount (home to Jimmy Reed and Bobby “Blue” Bland) in January 1964. When the track was eventually released it snagged position 34 on the Billboard Hot 100./o:p

SWEET LITTLE ANGEL

Live At The Regal, 1965

Although King cut a studio version in 1956 for his debut album Singin’ The Blues, the greatest take of Sweet Little Angel appears on his ’65 album Live At The Regal. The screams of the women in the auditorium as he sings, “I’ve got a sweet little angel, I love the way she spreads her wings” demonstrates the power the man held over his audience.

The song is damp with sexual innuendo, which makes sense as it was first recorded as Black Angel Blues in 1930 by classic female blues singer, and purveyor of spectacularly filthy couplets, Lucille Bogan. Note: her 1935 recording of Shave ’Em Dry, the notorious alternate take, is not for the prudish or the faint hearted./o:p

Black Angel Blues was picked up by influential slide guitarist Tampa Red (born Hudson Woodbridge) who recorded a slow tempo version for Vocalion Records in 1934, then Helena, Arkansas-born guitarist Robert Nighthawk (aka Robert Lee McCollum) cut the song as Sweet Black Angel – with Chicago blues songwriting genius Willie Dixon on bass – for the Aristocrat label in 1949. Tampa Red then recorded an updated version, renamed Sweet Little Angel, in 1950 and Earl Hooker cut it as the primitive-sounding (for its time) guitar and harp-driven Sweet Angel in 1953.

When BB King heard Nighthawk’s recording of Sweet Black Angel, he assumed the guitarist had written the song. Before he cut the tune himself, he altered the title to avoid limiting its appeal. “At the time ‘black’ was not a popular word,” he later explained. “I changed it to Sweet Little Angel and that was a pretty big record for me.” The song which he cut in Little Rock, Arkansas, again with the Bihari brothers, in the spring of 1956, made it to No.6 on the US R&B charts later that year./o:p

THREE O’CLOCK BLUES

Singin’ The Blues, 1956

While Three O’Clock Blues (sometimes labelled 3 O’Clock Blues) wasn’t BB King’s first single, it’s only challenged by his ’69 classic The Thrill Is Gone as his most important. King released eight solid but undistinguished records, beginning with Miss Martha King in 1949, before he cut his version of Lowell Fulson’s smouldering 1948 12-bar.

“Then out of the blue came 3 O’Clock In The Morning!” wrote journalist Jim Roberts in the Tri-State Defender, a Memphis-based newspaper serving the African American community, back in 1952. Roberts fluffed the song’s title but nailed the significance of King’s cut: “After a sluggish start, the new tune spread like wildfire across the nation’s juke box circuit, finally becoming the ‘most played’ disc and the hit blues tune of the year. Today, the Itta Bena, Miss schoolboy, farm hand, tractor driver, singer and guitar player is travelling throughout the mid-south on a successful ‘star-billing’ tour. Like others before him, BB King walked through Beale Street mists and found a winner.”

King cut the song in September 1951 in Memphis at the YMCA, with producer Joe Bihari calling the shots. King had become accustomed to better surroundings when he cut his previous four sides at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording & Sound Service (later immortalised as Sun Studio), but Bihari’s makeshift studio captured King’s first great performance on record. Three O’Clock Blues features some of his busiest guitar work, picked hard and conspicuous with the influence of his idol T-Bone Walker; and a full-bodied yet sweet vocal which drove female radio listeners crazy.

Authorship of the song is an apparent grey area, credited to Lowell Fulson or BB King and Jules Taub (aka Jules Bihari, see Blues Brothers, below) depending on what record label you eyeball. Whoever got the story straight, Three O’Clock Blues put King on the map with a No.1 hit for five weeks on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart./o:p

WHY I SING THE BLUES

Live & Well, 1969

The first record to partner King with producer Bill Szymczyk, this album was a mix of live and studio tracks. The first five were captured live at The Village Gate, a club on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Streets in Greenwich Village, NYC. Why I Sing The Blues closes the five studio cuts. Co-written by King and record producer Dave Clark, the song deals with the challenges faced by African Americans during the civil rights struggles: “When I first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship, men were standing over me, and a lot more with a whip…”/o:p

AIN’T NOBODY HOME

BB King In London, 1971

BB King In London might not be a critics’ favourite, but what do they know? The standout track is Ain’t Nobody Home, written by American songwriter and record producer Jordan “Jerry” Ragovoy. This is the guy who – under the assumed name of Norman Meade – penned the Irma Thomas classic Time Is On My Side, famously covered by Dartford oiks The Rolling Stones in 1964. The personnel list on BB King In London was huge – Peter Green, Ringo Starr, Alexis Korner to name but three – but Ain’t Nobody Home proves that King was always the star of the show./o:p

LUCILLE

Lucille, 1968

“Lucille took me from the plantation, oh and you might say brought me fame,” says King on this ode named in honour of his six-string partner in crime, and featured on his ’68 album of the same name. The story of why King named whatever guitar he was clutching Lucille has been well-documented – he risked his life in a fire to save his axe – but this track offers the definitive account. Not many artists could hold your attention for 10 minutes rapping about a Gibson ES-355, but the man’s guitar is a huge part of his legend: “Lucille don’t wanna play nothin’ but the blues, and I think I’m pretty glad about that.”/o:p

YOU UPSET ME BABY

Singin’ The Blues, 1956

One of King’s greatest 50s cuts deals with his infatuation with a girl who’s “36 in the bust, 28 in the waist, 44 in the hips.” He’s upset alright… in a good way (“well I’ve tried to describe her, it’s hard to start, I’d better stop now, because I’ve got a weak heart…”). Kicking off with T-Bone Walker-infused picking – there’s sizzling guitar and sax soloing halfway through into the bargain – it was cut at the Bihari brothers’ Modern Studios in Culver City on August 18-19, 1954./o:p

SWEET SIXTEEN

Live/Fillmore East, 1971

You need to check out a couple of contrasting performances of Sweet Sixteen to appreciate BB King’s range. On Live In Cook County Jail he thrills his captive audience with a masterclass in blues power, pulling fat licks from Lucille. In his ’71 Live/Fillmore East set he takes the volume down to a whisper – like he’s playing in an intimate bar – before creating a shiver of excitement with his falsetto delivery of the song’s opening words: “When I first met you baby, you were just sweet sixteen…” Both versions are spine-tingling./o:p

EARLY IN THE MORNIN’

Let The Good Times Roll: The Music Of Louis Jordan, 1999

Let The Good Times Roll: The Music Of Louis Jordan rockets along with great takes on the late saxophone legend’s finest tracks. Caldonia and Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens explode with R&B nitroglycerine before King takes it down a couple of notches for the beautiful Early In The Morning, which finds him trading licks with pianist Dr John. King evokes the song’s early bird setting with a vocal that sounds genuinely weary./o:p

NIGHT LIFE

Joe Bonamassa’s Black Rock, 2010

Some people still won’t have it that Joe Bonamassa is a proper bluesman, despite the fact that BB King took JB under his wing before the kid had even started shaving. Bonamassa and his mentor celebrated their friendship with a romp through Night Life on JB’s 2010 album Black Rock. The most enjoyable part is listening to Lucille duelling with one of Joe’s ridiculously expensive vintage guitars. This ranks as one of King’s finest partnerships./o:p

HUMMINGBIRD

Indianola Mississippi Seeds, 1970

A killer from Indianola Mississippi Seeds, Hummingbird was written by pianist Leon Russell. The album, the follow-up to Completely Well, saw producer Bill Szymczyk assemble a team of pop and rock heavyweights – including singer-songwriter Carole King and guitarist Joe Walsh – to collaborate with King. Hummingbird features King on guitar and vocals, Leon Russell on piano, Joe Walsh on rhythm guitar, Bryan Garofalo on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums. Sherlie Matthews, Merry Clayton, Clydie King and Venetta Fields provided backing vocals as the “angelic chorus”. The latter pair formed The Blackberries, touring with Joe Cocker and, later, Humble Pie with Steve Marriott./o:p

HOW BLUE CAN YOU GET? (AKA DOWNHEARTED)

Live At The Regal, 1965

How Blue Can You Get? had been around since 1949 when it was recorded by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. King cut it for Crown in 1963 as Downhearted then for ABC-Paramount in 1964. King has a blast pleading with a lover he just can’t satisfy: “I gave you a brand new Ford, and you said, ‘I want a Cadillac’, I bought you a 10 dollar dinner, and you said, ‘Thanks for the snack’! I let you live in my penthouse, you said it was just a shack! I gave you seven children, and now you wanna to give ’em back!”/o:p

PAYIN’ THE COST TO BE THE BOSS

Blues On Top Of Blues, 1968

A standout track on Blues On Top Of Blues, Payin’ The Cost To Be The Boss is a horn-driven warning to his woman to mind her Ps and Qs: “As long as I’m payin’ the bills woman, I’m payin’ the cost to be the boss.” Not a feminist anthem, but it was a different time. The track was cut in Universal Studios, Chicago on September 14, 1967 with a crack band that included pianist Duke Jethro, tenor saxophonist Johnny Board, bassist Leo Lauchie and drummer Sonny Freeman, the team that backed King on Live At The Regal./o:p

WHEN LOVE COMES TO TOWN

U2’s Rattle And Hum, 1988

Yeah, screw Bono and his endless preaching about the poor, questionable tax arrangements and those big sunglasses. That frequently said, credit where’s it’s due. Old Hewson didn’t half know how to celebrate black artistry and cultural impact in a well-crafted couplet back in the day. Like that Angel Of Harlem: “Birdland on 53, the street sounds like a symphony, we got John Coltrane and A Love Supreme…”. Then there was that other corker on the tracklist of the band’s ’88 movie and album Rattle And Hum. When Love Comes To Town, the duet between U2 and BB King, was recorded at Sun Studio in February 1987, and completed in Hollywood in November that same year.

King was impressed with Bono’s songwriting. “You’re mighty young to write such heavy lyrics,” he commented as the Irishman ran through the song with him for the first time. King delivered the lyrics with a bellow: “I was there when they crucified my Lord, I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword, I threw the dice when they pierced his side, but I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.”

King and U2 performed the song live for the first time on November 24, 1987 in Fort Worth, Texas. The entertaining encounter was captured for Rattle And Hum, the movie. “I’m no good with chords so what we do is get someone else to play chords. I’m horrible with chords…” insisted King before the soundcheck. “Edge will do that,” Bono replies. U2 performed the song again this year – the first time in 23 years – as a tribute to King. A lot had changed in those intervening years. Back in ’87, U2 were the biggest band on the planet. BB King was just another bluesman playing to a ‘select’ clientele. In 2015 BB King is universally loved and respected. U2? Not so much. But King was always grateful for the exposure they gave him to the MTV generation./o:p

THE THRILL IS GONE

Completely Well, 1969

If Three O’Clock Blues was the starter motor of BB King’s success, The Thrill Is Gone was the gearshift that sped him down a new avenue.

The song started life as a bad break-up endured by songwriter Rick Darnell, who then spun his experience into a lament with the help of blues musician Roy Hawkins in 1951. Hawkins scored a No.6 placing with the tune on the Billboard R&B chart later that same year.

Produced by Bill Szymczyk, King recorded his version at The Hit Factory in NYC during sessions on June 25-26 1969. The first King heard of Szymczyk’s plan to spice up the song’s arrangement came during a phone call at two o’clock in the morning. “I’d dialled him up and said, ‘I want to put strings on this.’” the producer told Tape Op magazine (www.tapeop.com). “And he said, ‘What?’ Then he said, ‘Well, okay. I’ll try it.’” The landmark string parts were arranged by Bert “Supercharts” De Coteaux, whose CV includes work with Albert King and Stevie Wonder. Says Szymczyk: “The only thing I told Bert was, ‘I want it to be dark… not joyful in any way; the thrill is gone.’ He brought it in and it was hypnotic. BB said, ‘I want to come to the session,’ and I said, ‘Of course, come.’ I was engineering the string overdubs and glanced over at him. When he started smiling, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m good now.’”

Szymczyk’s use of strings on a blues recording – it was more of a pop and country thing – was inspired. The Thrill Is Gone became King’s biggest hit, his signature tune, and its title a poignant epitaph when he passed away. As Joe Perry of Aerosmith commented, “It showed that given the right song you could sneak some great guitar sounds into Top 40 radio.”/o:p

TEN LONG YEARS

Singin’ The Blues, 1956

Another cut from Modern Studios, Ten Long Years features one of King’s greatest early vocals. The arrangement by orchestra leader and saxophonist Maxwell Davis allows King to concentrate on his vocal and stinging lead guitar licks. King wasn’t a chord man, or interested in propping up the bottom end… that was the band’s job. His guitar style is more distinctly ‘him’ at this point, but there’s still that frenetic T-Bone Walker influence at work. That was just fine with King: “If I could have played like him note-for-note, I would have…”/o:p

CHAINS & THINGS

Indianola Mississippi Seeds, 1970

The standout track on the Szymczyk-produced Indianola Mississippi Seeds builds like a tougher sibling of The Thrill Is Gone. It has strings too, but the whole effect is even darker. King takes chances with his second guitar solo, kicking off with a discordant stab that throws you before he resolves the lick. And yes, he hits that high note. This is BB King at the top of his game. We wish someone still cut blues of this calibre, but this is the product of a singer/guitarist at his most confident and a producer with his finger on the pulse./o:p

SEE THAT MY GRAVE IS KEPT CLEAN

One Kind Favor, 2008

The opening track of King’s final studio album, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean was first recorded by its author Blind Lemon Jefferson back in 1927. Since then the likes of Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, Mike Bloomfield and Lou Reed have had their wicked way with the song (Lightnin’ Hopkins and Canned Heat tackled the tune too, under the title of One Kind Favor.) King hands in the most muscular version yet with a syncopated drum and bass pattern that never quite overpowers the great man’s lungs and Lucille’s humbuckers./o:p

Blues Brothers

The shady Los Angeles siblings who helped make King a star…

Record label owners the Bihari brothers — Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe [pictured below, far right] — were hugely important in the exposure of black blues artists to a record-buying public, and the development of R&B into rock’n’roll. There’s absolutely no doubt they helped make BB King a star, a process initiated when Joe Bihari produced King’s first hit Three O’Clock Blues at the YMCA in Memphis. The reason for the makeshift studio was that the Biharis had cut ties with Sam Phillips at Memphis Recording Service where King — and Howlin’ Wolf, and soon, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins — recorded some earlier sides.

The Biharis were the founders of the LA-based label Modern Records. They later added subsidiaries RPM, Meteor, Flair, Crown and Kent Records to their business concerns. Like many label owners, producers, even radio DJs and artist managers, the Biharis have faced accusations of falsely including their name on songwriting credits to boost their earnings. “Some of the songs I wrote, they added a name when I copyrighted it,” King told Blues Access magazine in 1999. “Like ‘King and Ling’ or ‘King and Josea.’ There was no such thing as Ling or Josea. No such thing. That way, the company could claim half of your song.”

A good example of this practice is his 1964 single Rock Me Baby, credited to BB King and Jules Taub. The latter was an alias of Julius/Jules Bihari. Exactly how much ‘Taub’ contributed to the song is unknown; and to be fair, King’s song is based on Rockin’ And Rollin, a song cut by Texan blues artist Lil’ Son Jackson and released on Imperial Records in 1950.

As Joe Bihari recalled in an interview in Arnold Shaw’s 1978 book Honkers And Shouters: The Golden Age Of Rhythm & Blues, “The only thing we might have done — they might not have constructed the tune properly — we’d change certain lyrics. On some songs, they had them in their head but couldn’t quite get it together, and there was help. We worked with artists in recording sessions. We rehearsed with them and changed things.”

These changes, his brother Jules suggested, would be minimal.

“I don’t think you have to be a genius to record blues,” he was quoted as saying in Honkers and Shouters. “All you have to do is stick a microphone out there and let them play.”

Complete The Set

Got Live At The Regal ? Buy these next…

COMPLETELY WELL (1969)

From opener So Excited, its frenetic organ-fuelled testifying living up to its title, to the gospel-influenced What Happened, this is another masterpiece from King and Bill Szymczyk. It’s more commercial than Indianola Mississippi Seeds but it remains a hardcore blues record.

INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS (1970)

The epic Chains & Things is on here… you need a copy. King’s Delta roots are reflected in the gospel moan of opener Nobody Loves Me But My Mother which cuts to the string-drenched funk of You’re Still My Woman. The soulful Until I’m Dead & Cold kicks off with some of King’s sweetest guitar work.

RIDING WITH THE KING (2000)

Eric Clapton chose the tracklist and King had the casting vote. Among perennials like Three O’Clock Blues and Ten Long Years lay a stonking version of Sam & Dave’s ‘66 Stax masterpiece Hold On, I’m Comin’, delivered as a funk-fuelled blues. King’s huge vocal and stinging lead takes it to another level.

ONE KIND FAVOR (2008)

Lovingly overseen by T-Bone Burnett, this 2008 small-group session (featuring Dr John and Jim Keltner) revisits the early repertoire of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson and others. This is King’s equivalent of the power affecting late-in-life masterpieces cut by the likes of Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker, and their equal.

THERE MUST BE A BETTER WORLD SOMEWHERE (1981)

Stewart Levine commissioned a bespoke suite of songs from Dr John and the great lyricist Doc Pomus, and assembled a superb studio cast. King rises to the occasion; more proof that funk came as naturally to him as swing and jump blues had done decades before.

SINGIN’ THE BLUES (1956)

King’s first long player Singin’ The Blues is an exciting record because while you can hear the King blueprint emerge — the call and response guitar, huge vocal range — he’s still in debt to his influences, his idol Mr T-Bone Walker being the most obvious. Just listen to the way he attacks a young Lucille on Every Day I Have The Blues./o:p