B.B. King

TrackAlbum
How Blue Can You GetBlues In My Heart (1963)
CaldoniaLet The Good Times Roll (1999)
The Thrill Is GoneCompletely Well (1969)
HummingbirdIndianola Mississippi Seeds (1970)
Outside HelpKansas City 1972 (1972)
Paying The Cost To Be The BossBlues On Top Of Blues (1968)
Catfish BluesMy Kind Of Blues (1961)
Sweet SixteenRock Me Baby (1965)
Why I Sing The BluesLive & Well (1969)
B.B. BoogieAnthology Of The Blues 1949–-50 (1970)

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Contributor: David Lewis

Perhaps no blues player is loved more than the Blues Boy of Beale Street, Riley King. Armed with Lucille, his trusty Gibson, his distinctive guitar style and powerful and nuanced voice has been thrilling people for over sixty years. Still active in his eighties, he brought a jazz sophistication to the blues. He is the last of the jump blues performers; in point of fact, the bridge between jump blues and more modern Chicago style blues.

Unlike say, Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters, B.B. King tends to sing on the everyday problems of the working class man. The Wolf and Muddy transcend their problems, through really their own force of personality. B.B. King is the everyday man, oppressed by the white establishment, stuck in a difficult relationship, the threat of unemployment, or incarceration over his head. B.B. struck a chord with many people in his performance of these everyday dramas.

Unlike most blues players, B.B. can’t play chords, stating he has ‘stupid fingers’. His style is purely a single or occasionally double string melodic style. It’s really an outgrowth of the jump blues style of the 1940s – he has listed T-Bone Walker as a major influence. However, B.B. has been able to transcend blues by working with all kinds of acts (U2, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, etc). Horns are an integral part of his sound. During his lean times, he went drummerless rather than lose the small horn section he had.

One of the tensions of American music is that tension of the man’s duty: a man worked a full-time job, which brought in just enough money to feed his family. If however, the economy went bad, it was often the man’s job which was made redundant, and the woman, whose skills were still needed and often cheaper, became the breadwinner. This created all kinds of social and cultural and economic problems. B.B. often documented those.

How Blue Can You Get is, to my mind, the greatest of the blues ballads, though there is a personal reason for that. The remarkable bridge, “I bought you a brand new Ford / and you said ‘I want a Cadillac’” was where, at the age of 18 or so, I ‘got’ the blues (as much as a white Australian, almost as far removed from a black middle aged man, socially, culturally, geographically and economically as is possible, can). My father restores cars, so I grew up with a vague knowledge of brands, etc. When B.B. said he brought her a brand new Ford, he’s bought her an excellent car, of some expense. Nothing wrong, and much right, with a Ford. But she’s not satisfied: she wants a Cadillac – the Rolls Royce of automobiles. The imagery made perfect sense. I understood what he thought. No matter what he does, she’ll never be satisfied. He can’t win. She’s got seven children by him. She won’t look after them (the woman’s duty). The blues is right here.

On a happier note, Caldonia, an old Louis Prima number, is an explosion of praise for a woman, who may not be physically perfect, but is his woman, and he loves her just the same. The chorus is perfect, giving a sense that, again, B.B. is not in a particularly peaceful relationship, but he’s happy. (“Caldonia! Caldonia! what makes your big head so hard?”). Also, B.B.’s opening guitar phrases are just superb. (I know the idea of ‘owning a woman’ is problematic, but she would call him ‘my man’, so it’s an equal partnership thing. I think.)

The Thrill Is Gone was B B’s attempt to reach a wider audience, using rock music as a foundation. One of his best loved songs, it works on so many levels. It’s a great blues song, it’s a great rock song, it’s a great performance.

On the back of the success of The Thrill Is Gone, Bill Szymczyk, the legendary producer, and B B made the album Indianola Mississippi Seeds, named after B.B.’s home town. This is B B’s favourite recording, apparently. It’s easy to see why. Helmed by Szymczyk, it features great musicians such as Carole King and Joe Walsh. Hummingbird, the closing track, is a beautiful song, which transcends both blues and rock. And has the hint, at the end, of trouble, “don’t fly away…”

Outside Help is, again, more domestic strife, but this time with some humour. US literature fans will appreciate the lyrics, “the iceman came baby, but he didn’t bring no ice / the postman came, but you know he didn’t ring twice.” Where B.B. is a little deceptive is in the intensity of his performances – he is just as ‘blues’ (whatever that is) as his major contemporaries. Don’t let those sweet jazz notes fool you. B.B. is intense.

More women trouble. B.B. tries to set the rules – he’s paying the bills and looking after her, so he’s Paying The Cost To Be The Boss. The eternal tension: who calls the shots? He brings in the money, but a bit of drinking, or a bit of poker, creates strife. There is little doubt as to who wins this one, and my money would not go with B.B..

All this woman trouble though doesn’t mean B.B. doesn’t like the women. He does a terrific version of Catfish Blues, just in case you doubt he can do traditional blues. He has a great voice. It has a lot of variety. This song shows it does other blues just as well as it does B.B.’s blues.

Sweet Sixteen is picked as it mentions Vietnam. More of the same thematically, but in this one the protagonist has gone to Vietnam. Social and political issues are never far away, but it’s still surprising when B.B. is explicit.

Which brings us to Why I Sing The Blues. Really B.B.’s manifesto, it leaves little doubt as to what he thinks. While there’s injustice and inequality, he’ll sing the blues.

To end on a lively note, B.B. Boogie (originally recorded in 1950) is a typical example of a quick blues, with enough double entendre and fun in it to sustain the slim idea. It’s the type of song only a great performer could pull off, but B.B. has no problem with it.

It is said whenever a black man sings of women problems, the woman represents White oppression. This is undoubtedly part of B B’s mission: but also his approach gives his songs a universal appeal. It’s not just black working class men who have difficult relationships. B B has remained near the top because he can sing from all perspectives.

B.B. King is one of the towering figures of the blues. Justly and widely beloved, he tells the story of working class black America. And he tells it as well as, and maybe better than, anyone else. His musical sophistication, his intensity, and his performance, is unsurpassed. His roots stretch back to the 1930s and reach into the future. He truly is the King of the Blues.

 

B.B. King – the official website

The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center

B.B. King biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #204

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 21, 2014

    Great list on a fine artist – although his music is ocassionally too smooth for my taste…

    A personal favourite would be ‘Take It Home’ from the album of the same name & maybe “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother’ may deserve inclusion for the witty lyric (‘And she could be jivin’ me too ..’)

  2. Calvin Rydbom
    Feb 21, 2014

    King is an artist I wish I’d never seen. Twice in the 1995-2000 time period I saw him live, once with a very excellent Bobby Blue Bland opening, and it made me sad to the extent I have trouble listening to him now. Still, 1964’s Live at the Regal is an album anyone serious about having the essential albums must own.

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