As the only true bluesman to successfully cross over into the mainstream, B.B. King stands alone in American music. His blues stitch together various elements — the country blues of Robert Johnson, Bukka White and Furry Lewis; the single-string electric blues of Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker; the jump blues of Louis Jordan — with lighter doses of gospel and jazz. In turn, he became a huge influence on the ’60s generation of rock guitarists — Clapton, Bloomfield, Beck — and each new wave of six-string-slingers since.
Though he emerged in an era when singers dominated blues, he and his acolytes made electric guitar the instrument that mattered most. The consummate artist, he’s worked just as hard to become the consummate entertainer. Playing gutbucket music born and raised in juke joints, he and his horn-heavy bands have always been the nattiest lookers on the block. Today, with the real blues closer to extinction than ever, even as mutant fragments remain at the core of most American music, most true rock and roll fans have heard the name “B.B. King.” He has in many ways transcended the idiom.
And yet he’s never left it, either. And except for the manner in which age changes all musicians — hell, all humans — King hasn’t changed his music much in order to get it heard by ever-widening audiences. Instead, he’s moved into the mainstream through the inherent power and the force of his own humble, gracious personality. His style developed and matured fairly quickly; since then, he’s constantly honed it, paring it down to its absolute essence. And what could be more essential than B.B. King’s brand of blues?
The Boy King
This is essentially B.B. King's first album, released five years after his first hit single, minus one song and plus 14 more. It is jam-packed with early hits, from the slow and anguished "3 O'Clock in the Morning," with its kinetic interplay between King's voice and guitar, to the nervous energy of "Every Day I Have the Blues," from the gleeful explicitness of "You Upset Me Baby" and "Sweet Little Angel" to the uncertainty and insecurity of "Please Love Me" and "Did You Ever Love a Woman." In his earliest days, B was arguably more a singer than a guitarist. His use of gospel-style melisma (singing the same syllable over several notes) was unforced on even these early records, while his voice was naturally sonorous; his vocal style and sound was his own. But his guitar work was still very much under the sway of T-Bone Walker, even if a bit fuller sounding, the better to boogie Memphis-style. More than anything, it's his persona that sets King apart from the era's blues peers; ultimately, he has little of their swagger, but responds to life's pains and pleasures with a realistic kind of vulnerability.
This compilation collects two of B.B. King's early LPs (plus some bonus tracks). He has said that My Kind of Blues (tracks 11-20 here) is his favorite of his albums, and it's easy to see why. Backed only by bass, drums and piano, he cut it in one session, and it represents the unembellished B.B. King — spare, clean and to the point. It has both the sound and feel of a relaxed, live set. "You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now" opens with his bristling guitar and then gives him extra room to stretch out on his solo; "It's My Own Fault, Baby" is a stirring vocal showcase. King of the Blues is a more arranged affair, and perhaps also a tad more upbeat than much of his early output. He's still working towards his jazzy, "classic" guitar style of fluid, immaculate bent notes and the like — the tone and attack here are harder and fuller — but he's definitely getting there. None of the hits featured — "I've Got a Right to Love My Baby," "Partin' Time," "Walkin' Dr. Bill" — are among his signature songs, but they're far from being throwaways, too. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more well-rounded collection of early King.
Unlike some bluesmen, B.B. King always understood and embraced show biz, and for all the grit he could bring to a song he also had — and has — a fair amount of crooner in him. That's the whole point of this album, and despite the surprise of hearing him make like a late-night, West Coast balladeer, he pulls it off with panache. He can swing ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore"), he can sigh ("I'll Survive") and he can swoon ("I Love You So"). The band is superb, the horn players full of empathy. The piano man gets more of the spotlight than B's guitar, but that's okay too; the guy can really drive a sentiment home. The strings rarely get in the way — yes, B.B. sang with strings way before "The Thrill Is Gone" — though the backup singers are hit and miss. If you have any taste for blues balladeers like Charles Brown, give this a try — it's not for everyone, but until you've immersed yourself in this side of King you don't really know the man and his music.
King of the Blues
Perhaps this compilation of early-'60s instrumentals falls into the "not for everyone" category, but few albums achieve their desired effect the way this one does. B.B. King's guitar style combines the country blues techniques he learned from his cousin Bukka White with the swinging jazz of Django Reinhardt and the single-string electric soloing of Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker. You can hear that singular fusion coming into its own here; nearly everything he's done with his ax since the early to mid '60s has been a refinement and polishing, like continuing to sharpen an arrow until it has the point of pin while retaining its original deadly force. Backed by a blasting horn section that gives a jazz overlay to the music, he hasn't quite perfected his approach on every track yet. But from the guitar precision of the first four cuts to the relentless swing of "Powerhouse" to the wild abandon of "Just Like a Woman," it's difficult to listen and not instantly recognize the signature B.B. King sound.
A slapped-together compilation of live and studio recordings that put a '60s spin on even the '50s material, this is short (just over 42 minutes) but satisfying. For starters, if you were to limit yourself to just one King track that definitively laid out the fully-developed range of his guitar playing, from the raunchy to the refined, you'd be crazy not to take "Lucille," a good-natured love song to his instrument. "Don't Answer the Door" and "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss" are B.B. at his most defiant and paranoid, the former slow and spare, the latter jumpy and full; "I'm Gonna Do What They Do to Me" adds an exclamation point to both. All of these tracks are beautifully arranged, with each one boasting an exciting big band sound that still leaves the spotlight on B's expansive voice and razor-sharp guitar.
Long celebrated as the ultimate live urban blues album, this 1964 set captures a master musician and showman at his peak. B.B. King paces his set magnificently, opening with "Every Day I Have the Blues" in high gear and then slowing things down and building to climax after climax, the band behind him turning on a dime; by the mid-set "Please Love Me" his roaring vocals and the steamrolling band are an unstoppable juggernaut, and even when they rush the tempos, it's impossible not to get caught up in the frenzy. By this point, King had honed his guitar work so finely that each note is like a sharp diamond with a bit of a rough edge; the sustained notes shimmer with rare beauty. The feeling is intimate and conversational throughout; "this is the part I like," he confides as he enters a new verse of "It's My Own Fault." The simpatico between artist and audience, the way they feed off each other, is astonishing; from beginning to end, this is the blues as you never hear them anymore.
Blues Crossover King
More than a few artists cut live albums behind bars in the wake of Johnny Cash's galvanizing Folsom Prison triumph, but none came closer than B.B. did to approaching Cash's impact. If King's band for the Regal performance simply plowed through the audience, this lean-sounding crew is more like a hot knife effortlessly cutting through butter. The set features some of King's most expressive and diverse guitar work, especially when he stretches out on the likes of "How Blue Can You Get" (where he injects a little horror into humor without undermining the lyrics) and "Worry, Worry." "Please Accept My Love" has a sexy, Gulf Coast flavor absent from studio versions. But this take on "The Thrill Is Gone" is the capper; he's not just sad or angry or disillusioned, he's contemplating the complexity of the matter and trying to figure out what it all means. This also has more '50s material than most of his live albums, as if being inside the prison walls has inspired him to philosophically look back in wonder. All this, plus you get to hear the inmates boo the warden when he's introduced.
The King and His Court
The collaborative album is another concept that seems to work best when tackled by a real veteran like King. How else to explain the devastating melancholy between B's guitar and Etta James's voice on "There Is Something on Your Mind," or the barroom jousting between King and swamp queen Katie Webster on "Since I Met You Baby," or how delightful Ruth Brown's sassiness is on "You're the Boss"? King and Albert Collins try to burn each other down on "Call It Stormy Monday" and succeed mainly in bringing out the best in one another. The whole album is like that, whether King's teaching a lesson to relative newcomers like Robert Cray and Joe Louis Walker or digging down to the roots with old masters like John Lee Hooker. Credit producer Denny Diante (an unlikely choice) for preserving the chemistry by not forcing marquee-name rockers on B.B. The star performs with more authority than he showed at any other time in the last 20 years.
King of Kings
It's so easy to take an artist like B.B. King for granted, especially this late in his career, when his timing, dexterity and vocal chops aren't what they used to be. Most box sets confuse "best of" with "greatest hits," but of the multi-disk packages available, this one is the best, even though it's still vulnerable to criticism. Older listeners would doubtless like even more tracks from his RPM/Kent years, for example, and fewer from the '80s. But then, this box does include a healthy sampling from the '50s and early '60s that, at the time of this release had never appeared anywhere before (though many have since been issued elsewhere). In all, there are some 30 tracks here that were new at the time — a handful still appear nowhere else — and there's still room for the hits and assorted other gems. Arranged chronologically from 1949-91, they document an astonishing career — one that never stopped evolving even as it stayed within strictly-defined parameters. That's the thing about King that can't be over-emphasized: His singular style was there in embryonic form from the beginning, and was fully realized within a few years of his first hit. He's dedicated the rest of his life to exploring every possible nuance, no matter how subtle, of that style. In doing so, he's leaving behind an unmatched — and instantly identifiable — body of work.