1970 was BB King’s year. As his 1969 studio album Completely Well continued to gain momentum, groundbreaking single The Thrill Is Gone made the top three on the Billboard Best Selling Soul Singles chart and No.5 on the Billboard Top 100. A reworking of the 1951 Roy Hawkins hit, its brooding arrangement helped King win that year’s Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
King’s The Thrill Is Gone is notable for its orchestral strings, a wash of ear candy that was commonplace on country and pop records in the 60s but a real game changer for blues. A crossover hit, it changed King’s life too and became his signature tune. After almost 30 years of overnight success, ‘The King Of The Blues’ had made the leap from chitlin’ circuit workaholic to household name.
Never one to allow the grass to grow beneath his feet, that May BB headed to LA to record the follow-up to Completely Well.
“Indianola Mississippi Seeds was the first BB record I did in LA after moving there from NYC in 1970,” producer Bill Szymcyzk says of King’s eighteenth studio LP. “I wasn’t trying to do something different, just make the best BB record I could at that time. In a sense it could be considered Completely Well but new and improved.”
The Seeds album cover is unusual to say the least. It features a guitar cut from a watermelon, with neck, bridge and pickups, plugged into an old amplifier that looks like it’s been dragged through every juke joint in the Deep South. Why is it called Indianola Mississippi Seeds?
Szymcyzk recalls the conversation: “During one of the sessions, I asked B where he was born, and he told me Indianola, Mississippi. I found it interesting that such a great talent came from such a small town. On a whim I asked if he had a copy of his birth certificate… and he did! In designing the cover, we used that on the inside. ‘Seeds’ are the songs B gave to the world.”
While fellow blues icon Albert King went to the trouble to be born in Indianola, Mississippi, BB adopted the place as his home town; he actually took his first breath 20 miles up the road, on the Berclair cotton plantation near Itta Bena, a city in Leflore County, Mississippi, on September 16, 1925.
He was christened Riley B King. A few years before his death, BB sought out the precise location of his birth, guided by his late father’s spoken directions on a cassette tape. The scene was captured by filmmaker Jon Brewer for his 2014 documentary BB King: The Life Of Riley.
These days, Indianola is like any other small Mississippi town. There’s a main thoroughfare where you’ll see clumps of fast-food joints set apart by Mexican cantinas, gas stations and supermarkets.
It’s in the old town, away from the neon and noise, where you can see the streets and buildings that have barely changed since BB busked on the corner of Church Street and Second Street. There’s a mural on the sidewalk, depicting his guitar ‘Lucille’, to mark the spot. On his second attempt, in 1948 (he’d followed his cousin Bukka White there two years previously, but returned home after 10 months), BB headed to Memphis, Tennessee, where ultimately he hook up with record label owners the Bihari brothers and began his gradual ascent to stardom.
He became the Beale Street Blues Boy, eventually shortening it to BB, or just B to his friends. In 1975 he set up home in Las Vegas, where he would reside for the rest of his life.
Yet the bond with Mississippi, and Indianola in particular, would prove unbreakable. In 2005, Mississippi state House and Senate declared February 15, BB King Day. The man of the hour was overcome with emotion.
“I never learned to talk very well without Lucille,” King said, referencing his iconic Gibson guitar. “But today I’m trying to say only God knows how I feel. I am so happy. Thank you.”
He also commented that the last time he cried was at Ray Charles’s funeral. “That was tears of sorrow,” he said.“Today it was tears of joy.”
Three years later, The BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opened in a restored cotton gin at 400 Second Street in Indianola. When he came to the grand opening, King revealed that he had worked there in the 1940s. In 2015 he was posthumously named Secretary Of State Of The Blues.
This outpouring of love and respect was such a huge departure from his early life in Mississippi, it’s no wonder he wept. As a young man, BB had endured abject poverty; abandonment by his mother at the age of four; and the constant threat of violence or worse at the hands of white supremacists. On one occasion he recalled witnessing a black boy being hanged, castrated then dragged behind a car by a white mob in Lexington, Mississippi.
“Where I came from they used to hang them every week,” he told The Blues Magazine in 2012. “It wasn’t nothing I hadn’t seen before. That was one of the strange things about white people in that area. Usually you had no problems out of a white family. Butthe guys, the men, they’d hang some youngster, a black boy, nearly every week or so.
“I grew up knowing that I didn’t have a name but ‘boy’,” he continued. “‘Come here boy! That’s your name.’ There were certain rules you grew up knowing about. If I saw a white man at that time and didn’t know him, I’d get off the street and let him pass by.”
To paraphrase one of his greatest songs, BB King had paid the cost to be the boss. He famously toured relentlessly – more than 350 dates some years – but by the mid 60s he was essentially cutting the same studio record over and over. A new approach was needed, and salvation came in the form of young record producer Bill Szymcyzk.
“I had been listening to B since I was a teenager,” says Szymcyzk. “I already knew the reputation he had among his peers. B could put more soul or heartbreak in a single note than other players could in a dozen. He was a one of a kind as a guitar player.”
Szymcyzk is not a musician himself. A whistle-stop tour through his early life and career finds him working as a sonar operator for the US Navy. Things get really interesting when he quits NYC’s Hit Factory studio and lands a job at ABC Records, taking a pay cut for the opportunity to switch from engineering to production, to ultimately work with his idol BB King.
“I felt more than ready,” he told Musicradar. “I had done a lot of records and demos, and I picked up a lot of tips. But the truth is, nobody can really teach you how to be a producer. It’s such a subjective endeavour, and it changes all the time. Either you have the temperament to do it, or you don’t.”
These days Szymcyzk is probably best known for his production work with the Eagles, including their epic Hotel California. He also worked with Joe Walsh, the J Geils Band, Johnny Winter and many many more. In the late 60s, however, he was a fresh pair of ears with some very good ideas. It was Szymcyzk who convinced BB to record with young musicians and not his touring band.
The first attempt was the early 1969 release Live & Well, King’s first Top 100-charting album. A bit of a compromise, the record included five ‘live’ tracks with BB’s backing band, plus a five-track studio set made with what Szymcyzk considered to be “some of the best young blues musicians in the country”. We’re talking about guys like Aretha Franklin bassist Gerald ‘Jerry’ Jemmott and organist and Bob Dylan collaborator Al Kooper.
The album produced a pop and R&B hit Why I Sing The Blues, which pleased the record label no end, prompting the follow-up album Completely Well.
It was during the recording of that album that Szymcyzk had the genius idea to add strings to The Thrill Is Gone.
“On that record I used Herbie Lovelle on drums, Gerald Jemmott on bass, Paul Harris on keyboards and Hugh McCracken on guitar,” Szymcyzk told Sound On Sound magazine. “It was an evenly mixed band racially. Half black, half white, but they were all young guys. The energy was there. BB started playing the song riff in that minor key, and Paul picked up on it immediately on the Wurlitzer electric piano.
"It fell into its groove in minutes. I was freaking out, that’s how good it was. Then I got the idea to put strings on it. I called BB, and he hesitated a bit. But I called in a great arranger, who wrote this killer, hypnotic chart and we put it down. That was his breakthrough record.”
Given the tremendous success of Completely Well and The Thrill Is Gone, it’s hardly surprising that Szymcyzk would repeat the winning formula for Indianola Mississippi Seeds. When King joined Szymcyzk at The Record Plant studios in Los Angeles in May 1970, he was once again faced with a studio full of young hotshots.
“I had to put a new band together,” says Szymcyzk. “I had been working with Russ Kunkel and Brian Garofalo since I came to LA. They were my rhythm section long before Russ played with everybody under the sun.” (To bring you up to speed, Russ Kunkel played with Jackson Browne, Eric Carmen, JJ Cale, David Crosby and Clannad and more. Bassist Brian Garofalo has performed with John Stewart, Joe Walsh, Kim Carnes and others.)
Songwriter Carole King (still pretty much unknown then but who would hit big the following year with her now classic album Tapestry) played piano on a number of songs on the record: You’re Still My Woman, Until I’m Dead And Cold, and Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore, and notably the smoking electric piano on the epic Chains And Things.
“Carole King and I had known each other from NYC since 1964,” Szymcyzk recalls. “She was living in LA at that time, so I called her up and asked if she would like to do the sessions. She jumped at the chance! Day one of the session, I introduced B and Carole: ‘BB King, meet Carole King. Possibly you’re related.’ Musically they were!”
The roster of players was rounded out by singer/pianist Leon Russell and James Gang guitarist and future Eagle Joe Walsh. It was Russell who provided one of the album’s standout tracks, and singles, Hummingbird.
“That was the only song I brought to B, because I thought it was a hit song. So through a couple of friends I got to Leon, and he too jumped at the chance to record with BB. Same with Joe Walsh.”
Hummingbird is beautified with backing vocals from Sherlie Matthews, Merry Clayton, Clydie King and Venetta Fields. Among their staggering list of sessions, Matthews, King and Fields performed as The Blackberries, famously working with Humble Pie in the 70s. Clayton also has collaborations too numerous to list here, but you’ll know her as the female voice on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter.
“It was marvellous to work with BB,” Sherlie Matthews tells us. “He knew what he wanted as far as the arrangement for the backup vocals, and encouraged and accepted all of our input.”
For all the great production on the record, however, one of the most effective tracks is the starkest. Indianola Mississippi Seeds opens with Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, a solo blues piano piece from Carole King. The punch line is ‘She might be jivin’ too…’ It hints that BB is having a good time making the record.
“He was very comfortable in the studio,” says Szymcyzk. “I ran very relaxed sessions, letting B show the tune to the players, and then everybody work out the arrangements. Once he got to know the players, none which he’d played with before, he was quite loose.”
You can hear that in King’s guitar playing, not least in his wonderfully soulful solo on Chains And Things. The song could be considered the Seeds take on The Thrill Is Gone. Chains And Things broods its way through its almost five-minute running time. According to Szymcyzk, similarities to BB’s signature tune were unintentional.
“To be honest,” he says, “I don’t think I compared it to The Thrill Is Gone. I guess the string overdub would call the comparison to mind.” Chains And Things was covered by Joe Bonamassa during the Shepherd’s Bush Empire set that was captured for his 2014 Tour de Force: Live In London DVDs and CDs.
BB King and Bill Szymcyzk would record one more album together, the highly rated Live In Cook County Jail, released in 1971. The albums they made together remain among the most popular of the bluesman’s career.
King sadly passed away on May 14, 2015 at the age of 89. He’s buried at his museum in his adopted home town of Indianola, 20 miles from where he was born 89 years earlier.
As well as the aforementioned Eagles, Joe Walsh, Johnny Winter and J Geils Band credits, Bill Szymcyzk also worked with REO Speedwagon, Rick Derringer, Elvin Bishop, Wishbone Ash, Santana, Bob Seger and The Who (the latter on 1981’s Face Dances).
By 1990 he had quit the music business, but has made occasional trips back to studio life. While it will always likely be overshadowed by Completely Well, many consider Indianola Mississippi Seeds a true blues masterpiece. Some think it’s the better album of the two. But what does BB’s main collaborator on both of those records think?
“‘Masterpiece’ is a very heavy word,” Szymcyzk says thoughtfully. “Personally, for me the high point of B’s and mine working relationship was Completely Well. That was the album where my vision for him came true for the first time and got him off the chitlin circuit, and got both of us a huge hit record with The Thrill Is Gone.”
Rolling Stone’s Gary Von Tersch acknowledged the brilliance of Indianola Mississippi Seeds: “Nothing is overdone on this album, from the choice of material to the arrangements and production. BB is surrounded with people sensitive to his genius at work. The album displays the vital and ever-developing nature of this man King, who has been playing and wailing the blues for more than twenty of his forty-five years. Success at times was slim and often illusory, but the ‘sound’ that was BB King never altered, as these two releases more than illustrate.”
Of course, the smart money says it’s okay to love both of those records; why choose just one when both are so good? Along with BB’s 1956 album Singing The Blues, 65’s Live At The Regal and, of course, Completely Well, Indianola Mississippi Seeds is an album that everyone should experience.
As BB once said, he took the blues from dirt-floor, smoke-in-the-air joints to grand concert halls. It’s the raw and the cooked and Indianola Mississippi Seeds offers the listener a bit of both.