All hail the King

September 13, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

Tony Sarabia:

One of the most iconic names in music is B.B. King.  The ‘B.B’ by the way stands for Blues Boy, which was shortened from Beal Street Blues Boy. It was a self-titled nickname from his days as a singer and disc jockey in Memphis.

Now you may know only B.B.’s biggest hit “The Thrill is Gone” but if you enjoy any number of blues or rock guitarists you are more familiar with Kings’ music than you think.

There are a good number of guitarists who owe a great debt to B.B.’s style of guitar playing. Here’s a list of those who have said B.B. influenced their playing: Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Elmore James, Jimmy Page, Buddy Guy and Duane Allman.

B.B. King was himself influenced by the great T-Bone Walker; the pioneer of the electric blues sound. King once said, “Once I'd heard him for the first time, I knew I'd have to have an electric guitar myself. 'Had' to have one, short of stealing!"

King has said he was never good at playing chords and therefore put all his concentration on improvising, which served him and our ears quite well over the years.

He started out singing in the church as a youngster and not long after that debut he formed a gospel group. Then, he caught the blues bug. He eventually moved from his rural hometown of Kilmichael, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee where he landed a job as a singer and disc jockey at a local radio station.

Since that first ‘gig’ B.B. has played some of the biggest music halls around the world and recorded 43 studio albums, 33 lives albums and released 138 singles.

He’s 87 years old now and has slowed considerably since those 265-days-out-of-the-year, one-night-stands of decades past. But with his iconic status firmly cemented, he deserves a break. Happy Birthday Riley ‘B.B’ King.

The guitar wielding preacher at King’s childhood church, The Church of God in Christ, once told a young Riley that the guitar is a precious instrument, another way to express God’s love. Well King sure was expressing the love on the album B.B. King Sings Spirituals from 1959.

Why King recorded so little gospel music in his long career remains a mystery given that gospel was his starting point. Luckily he released this one, his fourth album. This is a program of high energy gospel numbers mostly by the father of gospel, Thomas Dorsey. "Army of the Lord" is a traditional gospel tune and a tour de force and King’s powerful throaty delivery is a prefect recruiting tool. It’s a high powered number with organ, drums, trumpet, of course Lucille and the backing of L.A.’s The Charioteers and the Southern California Community Choir.

There’s no arguing that B.B.’s album Live at the Regal is the essential example of a B.B. King on stage, but 1971’s Live in Cook County Jail is certainly a strong contender for that spot. Here’s King seems to squeeze out even more soul, grit and emotion than his Regal performance; maybe it was the venue. "How Blue Can You Get?" kicks off with one of those classic King solos full of single guitar lines that are suspended and bent for greater effect.

I wanted to include this jump blues "Don’t Leave Me Baby" from 1946 to provide a clear line from T-Bone Walker to B.B. King, who said once he heard T Bone play he just knew he had to have an electric guitar. We’re sure glad you felt that way B.B.

Richard Steele:

Riley B. King’s life started on a cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1925. He picked up the name B.B. King as a result of his stint as a Memphis deejay in the late 1940s when his radio name was “Blues Boy King.” That was shortened to B.B. King and the rest is history.

He cut his first blues recording in 1949, and famously performed more than 300 shows annually for years. His best-selling recording was “The Thrill Is Gone,” which turned out to be a huge crossover record, something that’s rare for a blues artist. In 1979, this vocalist/guitarist became one of the first bluesmen to ever tour the Soviet Union. King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. 

B.B. King did a stellar performance at Chicago’s Regal Theater in 1964. The recording of this show became a best-selling album called B.B. King Live at The Regal. Music critics consider it to be one of his best efforts. He was in great voice, and considering the lively response from the audience, he totally connected with them. One of the best examples of that is the track called “It’s My Own Fault.” Many artists have cited this album as one of the finest examples of how to interact with a live audience while maintaining the highest level of musicianship needed for a live recording.

The late LaVern Baker was a native Chicagoan who became a major part of the burgeoning R&B sound of the 1950s. She moved to Detroit while she was still a teenager and that’s where she honed her talent as an R&B vocalist.  She will always be remembered for her best-selling recording of that era called “Tweedle Dee.” Later in her career, she did a phenomenal job on one of the hit tunes written and first recorded by B.B. King. Baker does a slow, sensuous version of “Rock Me Baby.”             

It’s always interesting to hear early work by a recording artist and note the changes that come later with more experience and maturity. In the case of B.B. King, when you listen to this 1956 recording, he seems to have developed those qualities pretty quickly. King is heard here with a full ensemble. While the style is definitely 1950s, his blues sensibility was as strong then as it is now. This is B.B. King doing “Dark Is the Night.”         

Bobby Blue Bland was born five years after B.B. King, but they formed a friendship and musical bond that would last a lifetime. Bland came to Memphis when he was 17 and made a living working in a garage while at the same time grooming his very mellow voice by singing gospel on the weekends. Eventually he got to know several up-and-coming blues greats by finding a way to be in their employ. At one point, he was a sometime chauffeur/bus driver for B.B. King and a valet for blues master Junior Parker.

Bland’s career blossomed, and he later recorded more than 50 singles that made the top 40 on the R&B chart. At one point, he recorded a dozen hits in a row, and 11 of them made the top 10. By 1974, both artists were at the top of their game, so they recorded a live album together. It did so well they did another one two years later at the Coconut Grove in L.A. The second one was called Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King, Together Again Live. Bland had previously recorded a hit version of “Stormy Monday,” but his duet with B.B. King on this live recording took it to the next level.