On May 14, 2015, Joe Bonamassa came off stage at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre to find his mobile phone overloaded with voicemails and texts (“And I thought, y’know, what’s happened?”).
One look at the news feeds confirmed his worst fears: the great BB King had died in his sleep in Las Vegas at the age of 89, thus robbing the blues of its universally adored ambassador and the last artist who knew how it felt to toil in the cotton fields of the American south.
“We heard a couple of weeks before that it could happen any day,” Bonamassa reflects, as he prepares to share his rundown. “So you start getting ready for it. I got to open up for him when I’d just turned thirteen. And the summer vacation after that we did ten shows with him, at places like the Cape Cod Melody Tent. It was the proverbial What I Did On My Summer Vacation. He was just the nicest guy – and anyone you speak to will tell you the same thing.”
The Thrill Is Gone
“This was BB King’s smash hit. To me The Thrill Is Gone is the perfect blues song. It’s simple yet sophisticated, and never gets old. And, in a very un-blues fashion, it was a hit, so that was an amazing feat. It taught young kids like me growing up that it was possible to stick to your passions and have a hit song at the same time, and get it out there to a larger audience.
"I particularly loved the studio production. It was Bill Szymczyk who put all the string sections on, and they add extra sadness to the track, while staying out of the way of Mr King, allowing him to do his thing. He played a Gibson 355 with a Varitone through a Fender Twin – that’s the trick. One note tells you who it is.”
Every Day I Have The Blues
“This is the opening track to his masterpiece, Live At The Regal. BB King was a superstar, a pop icon in the black community, when this record was recorded in 1964. He had it all – and he knew it, too. When was the last time you heard screaming girls at a blues show – and John Mayer doesn’t count.”
“His version that he recorded in Kansas City in the seventies shook me to my core. I said to myself that I would literally trade it all to be able to sing like that for just a night. It’s the kind of song that separates the true blues fans from the fair-weather friends. If you do not like this song then chances are you really don’t like the blues. It’s perfection in both writing and delivery.”
When Love Comes to Town
“To me, Bono is right up there with Mick Jagger, Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers as one of the greatest frontmen in rock. But when you watch the video of this song that was broadcast on MTV – back when the ‘M’ stood for ‘music’ – you can see that even Bono himself knows there is only one King on that stage – first name Riley.”
When It All Comes Down
“A hidden gem in BB King’s somewhat overlooked eighties output. There’s a great version of this tune played live at Montreux circa 1993. My guitar-geek buddies and I always comment on how great a song that is, and how it is never mentioned among BB’s best and brightest.”
3 O’Clock Blues
“One of BB’s first hits and now a blues standard. You can tell from his fifties recordings that he was just finding himself and his voice. You generally don’t hear that bellow until the early sixties. You can tell that he sang and played the guitar all at the same time in the room with no baffling between. Those were the days when you needed the goods before they let you in the studio. Now, all you need is a decent hairline and Instagram followers.”
“From the criminally underrated live album Blues Is King. After BB’s bus crash and subsequent lawsuit [in the late 60s], he was broke and couldn’t afford to bring out the big band. He had to pare down his band and work his way up. This was a small four-piece ensemble: drums, Hammond that also played bass pedals, and two horns. Gamblers’ Blues is a testament to BB’s voice and sheer power as a singer: perfect articulation, perfect phrasing and probably all done without a monitor.
"Here’s a fun fact: if you marry Gamblers’ Blues with Buddy Guy’s Stone Crazy you get Blues Deluxe [a track on the Jeff Beck Group’s album Truth]. Even Jeff and Rod [Stewart] would admit that.”
Please Accept My Love
“The best version for me is off the Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out album. The thing about BB King was that his live albums were always were better than the studio versions. It was just the nature of a three-hundred-date touring schedule and the ever-evolving arrangements. Ike and Tina and the Stones had a hard time following that night at Madison Square Garden. It’s just an insanely good vocal and performance. To me it’s BB King and Howlin’ Wolf who are the two greatest blues singers.”
Ain’t Nobody Home
“You know, I’m realising just how many great songs BB had over his career. This is one of those exceptions to what I just said about live versus studio. The background vocals and Motown-inspired production make the studio version the definitive one for me.”
10. How Blue Can You Get
“I’ve been saving maybe the best for last. The sixties and seventies solidified BB King’s crown as the King Of The Blues and the world’s greatest blues singer. But on this song he opens with a killer guitar solo. Live At The Regal and Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out are the versions to seek out.”
Joe Bonamassa's Royal Tea Live is out now (opens in new tab).