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B.B King

The blues had been around for a couple of decades before it had a baby and named it rock’n’roll… or rather B.B. KING, a spirited singer and self-taught electric guitarist whose influence on contemporary blues in the latter half of the 20th century – and a good part of the 21st – has been phenomenal. It’s fair to say that without the long life of Riley B. King (born September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi) and trusty “Lucille”, the given name to his Gibson guitar, there might well’ve been no CLAPTON, PAGE, CRAY, et al – B.B. was indeed a man that instigated a blues style that became the cornerstone of rock music.
The cousin of respected country bluesman, BUKKA WHITE (18 years his senior), greenhorn KING would indeed search out the man for pointers, learning a lot in their ten months tenure together; his earliest influences were jazz giants CHARLIE CHRISTIAN and DJANGO REINHARDT, although T-BONE WALKER and LONNIE JOHNSON would become B.B.’s future idols.
The son of a sharecropper, his father left the family home, leaving a young Riley to be bandied pillar to post from mother to grandmother. KING duly picked cotton day and night (through the depression) for around a couple of dollars a day; the chances of buying a $200-$300 guitar were remote, not to mention the fact that his town didn’t have any electricity! From the heart of the Mississippi Delta, to church gospel singing in nearby Indianola (where he performed with The Elkhorn Singers), Riley jumped at the chance to move to Memphis, looking for work as a musician. In 1946, after spending time with cousin Bukka, KING linked up with SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON and initially played a residency at the 16th Avenue Grill.
Subsequently talent-spotted, KING won his own, regular 10-minute spot (for the Sepia Swing Show) on a black music radio station, WDIA, and word of his prowess spread; the station’s PR man dubbed him “The Beale Street Blues Boy”, which, in turn, was shortened to “Blues Boy” and, ultimately, the abbreviated “B.B.”.
Towards the end of the 40s, KING signed to the Bullet label and debuted with `Miss Martha King’, while that same year, 1949, they released his `Got The Blues’. Better still, and more enterprising and consistent, B.B. inked a deal with RPM through their talent scout, IKE TURNER, remaining there until 1958. KING developed his own distinctive soft-fingered sound on his guitar, Lucille (so named because of an incident after a gig in Twist, Arkansas, during which a fight – caused by a woman named Lucille – ended up in the venue being evacuated).
Back in February ‘52, KING hit R&B number 1 for fifteen weeks with LOWELL FULSOM’s`3 O’Clock Blues’, while that November, `You Didn’t Want Me’, repeated the feat. KING was to enjoy regular R&B chart success over the next five years, including two further chart toppers, `Please Love Me’ (1953) and `You Upset Me Baby’ (1954); both credited with his “Orchestra” The big man achieved his first national chart success in 1957 through `Be Careful With A Fool’, and followed it with `I Need You So Bad’, which also broke into the Top 100. At a time when the likes of CHUCK BERRY, LITTLE RICHARD and FATS DOMINO et al, had incorporated R&B into the predominately white rock’n’roll scene, the bluesman-turned-disc-jockey had shaped the scene without much in the way of financial rewards. Then again, this was a time when all black artists were treated as second-class citizens by apartheid establishments and venues, who would only let entertainers in through the back door.
Blues artists especially were given short-shrift, B.B. himself having to ply his trade night after night at various venues, which left any domestic life impossible to maintain. His initial LPs too, such as SINGIN’ THE BLUES (1957) {*7}, THE BLUES (1958) {*7}, B.B. WAILS (1959) {*6}, sings SPIRITUALS (1959) {*5}, THE GREAT B.B. KING (1960) {*6}, KING OF THE BLUES (1960) {*6}, MY KIND OF BLUES (1961) {*6}, MORE B.B. KING (1961) {*5}, TWIST WITH B.B. KING (1962) {*5} and the instrumental EASY LISTENING BLUES (1962) {*5} – the earliest in compilation format, the latter part-exploitation – were issued on Kent’s budget imprint, Crown. Surely a kick in the family jewels for an artist of B.B.’s stature. KING consequently bailed from Kent in early ‘62 for the larger A.B.C. Records, with whom he was to stay with until their absorption into M.C.A. in ‘79.
His first fresh release was `I’m Gonna Sit In Until You Give In’ (April ’62), while several others in the same pattern also found their way on to KING’s inaugural bona fide LP, MR. BLUES (1963) {*5}. Not particularly ground-breaking at a time when soul and blues merged into a melting pot of pop-fuelled ideas (asides from IVORY JOE WHITE’s `Blues At Midnight’), material such as Ahmet Ertegun’s `Chains Of Love’, opener `Young Dreamers’ and others, were obviously better suited to the groomed crooning of JOHNNY MATHIS, or even RAY CHARLES.
B.B.’s first minor hit in several years, a version of LOUIS JORDAN’s `How Blue Can You Get’, was somewhat overshadowed that May (1964), when Kent Records (not for the last time), produced KING’s first recognised Top 40 pop hit with ARTHUR CRUDUP’s `Rock Me Baby’, soon to be the subject of countless cover versions by a raft of British Invasion blues bands. `Help The Poor’ (penned by Charlie Singleton) and `Never Trust A Woman’ for A.B.C. were pitted against Kent-era minor volleys, `Beautician Blues’ and `Blue Shadows’, but thankfully most of the confusion was settled with B.B.’s finest ¾ hour, LIVE AT THE REGAL (1965) {*10}.
Recorded at the Regal Theatre, Chicago on November 21, 1964, the disc captured KING – and his tight “Orchestra” backing band – at his very best, playing soul-blues songs that were to be mainstays of his set for years to come: MEMPHIS SLIM’s `Every Day I Have The Blues’, JOHN LEE HOOKER’s `It’s My Own Fault’ and several of his pieces penned with Jules Taub, including `You Upset Me Baby’, `Woke Up This Morning (My Baby Left Me)’, `You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now’ and `Sweet Little Angel’.
Subsequent studio album, CONFESSIN’ THE BLUES (1965) {*7} – taking its title from the attendant track by Jay McShann – demonstrated that at a fresh 40 years of age, B.B. could express his modern Memphis blues in a class above his peers, some of them already hopping on the revival bandwagon that was establishing the British stars of the future; CLAPTON, MAYALL, et al, while trad piece `See See Rider’ was a staple for most generic artists.
After `Don’t Answer The Door (part 1)’ sold well enough to reach the Top 75, BluesWay – once a subsidiary of ABC Records – came a-knocking for the prized signature of KING. On April 4, 1968 (the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated) B.B., BUDDY GUY and JIMI HENDRIX played an all-night blues session, passing the hat around to collect money for the Southern Leadership fund. It just might’ve went a long way in giving the man his biggest hit in years, with the timely and aptly-titled `Paying The Cost To Be The Boss’ (from BLUES ON TOP OF BLUES {*8}; `I’m Gonna Do What They Do To Me’ and `You Put It On Me’ (the latter produced by QUINCY JONES for the Sidney Poitier flick, For The Love Of Ivy), also maintained chart status. On the back of his first commercial breakthrough LP, LUCILLE (1968) {*6}, KING was also to leave out his long term manager, Lou Zito, after an argument over money, while his accountant Sidney Siedenberg took over the reins. B.B. made his first trip to Europe, appearing at numerous festivals, including the Newport Jazz Festival, and opened for The ROLLING STONES on their sixth US tour. KING’s new manager subsequently encouraged him to widen his fanbase, steering him away from his traditional (although declining) black audience towards the middle class white kids involved in the R&B/blues revival.
At a time when singles returns from `Why I Sing The Blues’, `Get Off My Back Woman’ and `Just A Little Love’, were healthy enough to boost sales of accompanying platinum-selling albums, LIVE & WELL (1969) {*6} – partly cut in the studio with AL KOOPER and Hugh McCracken on board – and its cohesive cousin, COMPLETELY WELL (also 1969) {*7}, B.B. was in complete control. Spawned from the latter set, his Grammy-winning version of Roy Hawkins’ `The Thrill Is Gone’, gave him his biggest hit single so far, reaching the Top 20, while `So Excited’ bubbled under the Top 50.
Reverting to ABC Records, the Top 50, LEON RUSSELL-penned `Hummingbird’ hit (as well as the equally fruitful `Chains And Things’ and `Ask Me No Questions’), carried most of the weight of KING’s next full-LP, INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS (1970) {*7}; his highest achiever yet at No.26. Depicting an amp and plugged-in watermelon guitar, it was clear that the jazz-infused bluesman had lost none of his amiable and wry sense of humour.
Taking his mantle from country star JOHNNY CASH, the Top 30 LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL (1971) {*8} was stylised on the ethos and formula of B.B.’s legendary “Live At The Regal”; which incidentally, belatedly reached the Top 100 for the first time later that year. With `Worry Worry’ also a feature, and refined beauts such as `Sweet Sixteen’ and `The Thrill Is Gone’ catching a fresh audience, KING was the epitome of soul-blues.
Surrounding himself with rock royalty in the shape of PETER GREEN, ALEXIS KORNER, DUSTER BENNETT, GARY WRIGHT, DR. JOHN, RINGO STARR et al, IN LONDON (1971) {*5}, didn’t quite live up to its promise, although with hits `Ghetto Woman’ and `Ain’t Nobody Home’, the king of the blues was again riding on the crest of a wave sweeping both sides of the Atlantic.
Also peaking just outside the Top 50, L.A. MIDNIGHT (1972) {*6} – highlighting `I Got Some Help I Don’t Need’, and re-vamps of `Help The Poor’ and `Sweet Sixteen’ – was bolstered by the jam crescendos laid down by JOE WALSH and Jesse Ed Davis. Taking its name from a long-time favourite-cum-re-hit, GUESS WHO (1972) {*4} probably took the formula one stretch too many. While 1973’s TO KNOW YOU IS TO LOVE YOU {*5} showcased a STEVIE WONDER/SYREETA title track hit and took a softer, Philly-blues approach, the equally inspiring `I Like To Live The Love’ (one of four penned by Dave Crawford), the disc lacked the edge and cohesion that B.B. had always strived to maintain.
Probably rated as his worst album ever, the ill-advised soulful and funky-blues set, FRIENDS (1974) {*3}, fell short of its target market. For many fans and critics, this was a low period in B.B.’s exhaustive life. Squeezed in between a couple of BOBBY BLAND concert collaborations (TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME… LIVE (1974) {*6} and TOGETHER AGAIN… LIVE (1976) {*5}), the lacklustre LUCILLE TALKS BACK (1975) {*4}, was basically KING winding down after a long and tiresome touring schedule.
KING SIZE (1977) {*4} – with guest tenor Jimmy Forrest, MIDNIGHT BELIEVER (1978) {*6} – with jazzateers The CRUSADERS, and TAKE IT HOME (1979) {*5} – his first UK entry, all sold moderately well enough in the States to keep the HOWLIN’ WOLF from the door… so to speak.
On the back of the dire and dismal “NOW APPEARING” at Ole Miss (1980) {*4} live set (recorded at the University of Mississippi), the slightly more palpable THERE MUST BE A BETTER WORLD SOMEWHERE (1981) {*6} – with music and lyrics by DR. JOHN and Doc Pomus – was one of his finest studio albums in years, cuts such as `The Victim’ and the ironic `Life Ain’t Nothing But A Party’, enduring highlights.
KING duly demonstrated what a thoroughly generous guy he was when he donated his entire record collection (20,000 discs including 7,000 rare blues 78s) to the Mississippi University Centre for the Study of Southern Culture. While one could dismiss his foray into Nashville for LOVE ME TENDER (1982) {*3} as ill-advised, B.B.’s second Grammy award came the following February for his previous disc. On September 16 (his 57th birthday), the singer recorded his umpteenth set, BLUES ‘N’ JAZZ (1983) {*6}, a disc which won him yet another Grammy.
The bluesman added yet another similar trophy to the cabinet in ‘86 with `My Guitar Sings The Blues’, a track taken from his 50th album (or thereabouts), SIX SILVER STRINGS (1985) {*5}, while he’d given his “Lucille” a cameo in the flick, Into The Night, and again, two years later it appeared in Amazon Women On The Moon.
In 1988, B.B. took up an invitation to appear in U2’s soundtrack movie, Rattle And Hum; `When Loves Comes To Town’ an immediate star of the show reaching the UK Top 10, the first and only time in his chequered history. Meanwhile, the bluesman continued with his charity work, performing at a concert for the National Coalition for the Homeless; with Dallas-based group for the homeless, Common Ground; he later performed at the ROY ORBISON All Star Benefit Tribute helping to raise $500,000 for homeless charities.
After umpteenth set, KING OF THE BLUES 1989 {*5}, failed to go mainstream, he featured on the album, Happy Anniversary Charlie Brown, which commemorated the 40th year of the Peanuts comic strip; B.B. continued his association with cartoon characters by playing guitar on `Born Under A Bad Sign’ for the Simpsons Sings The Blues album (1990) and `Monday Morning Blues’ for Am I Cool, Or What? (1991), a homage to Garfield the cat.
KING had been admitted to hospital in April 1990 because of problems relating to his diabetes, resulting in the cancellation of some concerts, although he soon got back to his intensive recording and touring schedule. While he averaged 300 one-nighters a year, mainly to pay for his compulsive gambling habit, B.B. displayed the usual character and charisma on his concert set, LIVE AT THE APOLLO (1991) {*6}.
February 1991 brought him another Grammy, this time for MCA’s exploitative LIVE AT SAN QUENTIN {*5} – recorded some 20 years earlier – and in May that year he opened his own restaurant and night club (BB Kings Memphis Blues Club) on Beale Street. This busy time continued in October with the release of his best studio album in a decade, THERE IS ALWAYS ONE MORE TIME {*6}; highlights being `I’m Moving On’ and `The Blues Come Over Me’. KING in collaborative form once again reached the UK Top 60 in 1992, this time with GARY MOORE on `Since I Met You Baby’. In December, B.B. performed at the Gainesville Drug Treatment Centre in Florida before 300 prison inmates including his daughter, Patty, who was serving a 3-year term for trafficking. March 1993 saw the legend headline a benefit concert in Chattanooga, raising $90,000 for the Bessie Smith Hall (opened later in the year).
In September ‘93, BLUES SUMMIT {*7} gave him his first Top 200 entry for a decade. Recorded with guests ROBERT CRAY, ALBERT COLLINS, LOWELL FULSOM, KOKO TAYLOR, ETTA JAMES, JOHN LEE HOOKER, BUDDY GUY, IRMA THOMAS, JOE LOUIS WALKER et al, the collaborative generic set strode through classics, ditching the gloss for down to earth, back to basics chitlin.
Every bit as much a duets set as his previous “best buddies” encounter, LUCILLE & FRIENDS (1995) {*5} and DEUCES WILD (1997) {*5}, featured not so much blues stars, but contemporary pop-rock artists such as STEVIE NICKS, STEVIE WONDER, WILLIE NELSON, VAN MORRISON, Mick Hucknall, TRACY CHAPMAN, DR. JOHN, BONNIE RAITT, COCKER, CLAPTON et al, performing the usual suspects alongside the gritty groover and his Gibson guitar. The latter performed well sales-wise, hitting the Top 75, spurring B.B. to self-produce his next set, the free and relaxed BLUES ON THE BAYOU (1998) {*5}.
A man still willing to take a few chances in his life, he roped in the likes of DR. JOHN (piano), Hank Crawford (alto sax), Dave “Fathead” Newman (tenor sax) and Earl Palmer (drums), to complement the arrangements of his next jump blues venture, LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL: THE MUSIC OF LOUIS JORDAN (1999) {*6}. An entirely different proposition to his contemporary blues sets of old, KING just about swings on the once-celebrated `Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’, `Choo Choo Ch’boogie’ and `Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’.
Straight from the MAKIN’ LOVE IS GOOD FOR YOU (2000) {*5} set, perhaps a hint as to this colossus’ longevity, the legend of urban blues duly teamed up with the legend of white boy English blues, ERIC CLAPTON, for RIDING WITH THE KING (2000) {*7}. The two guitarists amicably traded licks on a bevvy of B.B. nuggets, `Ten Long Years’, `Three O’Clock Blues’, `When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer’, etc., and other assorted blues favourites such as `Key To The Highway’; this was indeed a match made for the gods.
Well into his seventies come the new millennium, KING kept on trucking with the festive, A CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION OF HOPE (2001) {*5}; one for the family roasting chestnuts by the fire and all that. Whatever it was in the water, for the previous “Making Love…” disc, B.B. still had that musical virility missing in many players half his age. On the likes of the title track and the cover of Barbara George’s `I Know’, he proved he could still cut it a soul-man as well.
2003’s REFLECTIONS {*6}, as its title suggests, was more of a taking-stock affair, winding casually and going nostalgically back through the decades with readings of `Always On My Mind’, `What A Wonderful World’ and `(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons’, alongside straight-up blues cuts.
KING returned to his old neighbourhood each year to put on a weekend of free concerts; a tireless ambassador for the blues, he succeeded in bringing the form into the mainstream and remains one of the most well-known artists in the genre’s near hundred year history. He’ll hopefully be approaching the big ton himself soon: as it is, he turned eighty, celebrating a landmark that most musicians would likely never see in the company of premier division pop/rock/blues acts, including old buddies ERIC CLAPTON, BOBBY BLAND and VAN MORRISON, as well as less likely partners Billy Gibbons, JOHN MAYER, ELTON JOHN and GLORIA ESTEFAN. The results were issued under the self-explanatory title 80 {*5}, a record released in 2005 that met with critical ambivalence and a US Top 50 entry.
2008’s ONE KIND FAVOR {*7} was just what the doctor ordered, an album prescribed with some old buddies, DR. JOHN, Jim Keltner and the production of T-BONE BURNETT, featuring some songs from the pen of LONNIE JOHNSON. Without getting too dark or morbid, B.B. almost brought a heavenly spirit and joy to dirges, `See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, `I Get So Weary’, `Waiting For Your Call’ and HOWLIN’ WOLF’s `How Many More Years’. Poignant in his own ironic patter, who knows how long the man still has on Planet Earth, but one thing is for sure, the King of the Blues has made use of every one of his minutes. A testament to his raft of achievements (comprising many of his best songs and interviews), the Morgan Freeman-narrated documentary, THE LIFE OF RILEY {*7}, was released in 2012. Sadly, but inevitably, B.B. died from diabetes complications on May 14, 2015.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2014

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