B.B. King - had it all, did it all, loved by all
Riley B. King, (September 16, 1925 - May 14, 2015), known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, then Blues Boy and then simply B.B., brought the Delta Mississippi blues into the light over a rough but glorious career, from the “dirt floor, smoke in the air” juke joints of the South to the concert halls of Chicago, becoming ‘The King of Blues’ and one the ‘3 Kings of Blues’ along with Albert King and later Freddie King.
Over the six decades of his career, often with 300+ shows per year, King amassed over 45 studio records and countless collaborations with nearly all of the great bluesmen and women who adored the man and his music. With his birthday coming up this week, he’d have turned 92, we look back on some of his collaborative efforts, other than the lifelong collaboration with his beloved Gibson ES-355, called ‘Lucille’. Named after a woman he never got to meet. In the winter of ‘49 playing at a dance in Arkansas, a fight broke out over her and a kerosene heater tipped over, setting the joint ablaze. Most escaped the flames including B.B., but he’d forgotten his guitar (a 30$ Gibson acoustic) inside and went in to rescue her. The two brawlers perished in the inferno, which troubled B.B. so much, he named the guitar after her to remind him never to do something as silly as to fight over a woman again. It has been with him ever since on various Gibson models, the hollow body L-5CES, in the 50s, then the semi-hollow ES series to get more volume, and eventually the different Signature Lucilles.
His legendary ‘Lucille’ gets so much attention (he gave one to Pope Paul II) that it’s easy to forget all the ‘heavies’ who clamoured to play with him. For twenty years B.B. played mostly on what was called the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ which was a collective name for performance venues that were safe for black audiences to attend in a violently, racially divided country at the time to promote not only black music, but theatre, comedy, and baseball too. (see: the Negro Leagues).
So it’s not surprising, yet quite surprising all at once, that it took white blues rock musicians, like Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, and Peter Green to elevate blues to a white conscience and the rest is blues/rock history.
Starting with his efforts with Clapton on Riding With the King, (originally a John Hiatt number) released in 2000 that won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. Slowhand jams it up with B.B on all 12 tracks on his famous ‘57 Fender Stratocaster he built and called ‘Blackie’. They became dear friends after several appearances together, and Clapton would say after hearing of his death, “He was a beacon for all of us who loved this kind of music, and if you’re not familiar with his work I encourage you to go out and find an album called ‘Live at the Regal’, which is where it all really started for me...”
The next up is a collaboration not with another player, but with producer Bill Szymczyk on The Thrill is Gone. Bill brought in a string section for King’s 1970 hit, which took things to a new level. According to the story, B.B. had cut his part and had gone to bed without knowing about the strings, but when he heard it the next day he loved it, and thus began another aspect to his career, which was also a duet he performed with Tracy Chapman and many others along the way.
The Chapman gig was after he had made inroads to a younger MTV audience through his participation with U2 on When Love Comes to Town in 1988. Bono describes the experience as not great, but GREAT, “His voice was like a 747 taking off...as they say in New Orleans, ‘his voice was like some other kind of shit’.” He goes on to say that B.B. told him he didn’t play chords very well, so if someone else could do that, he’d just do what he does best. The song came about when B.B. met the band after one of his gigs in Dublin, where they told him how they were such big of fans of his, so he asked them to think of him when writing another song; this was the result. It was a big lift as well for King’s career as it opened him to a new public, the rock crowd, which would lead to more and more blues mixed with rock. It went to #2 on the U.S. charts and #4 in the U.K. He kept it in his songlist for the rest of his many performances.
As mentioned earlier, King was ‘discovered’ by the Brit bluesmen who brought his style to the front burner at an international level. His album In London (1971) was an effort with a coterie of British rock royalty, Ringo Starr, Alexis Korner, Klaus Voorman, Gary Wright, Steve Marriott and Peter Green, along with American players Dr. John, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon and Bobby Keys. Kings admits that the only guitarist who ever made him nervous was Peter Green, who performs with him here on Caldonia; the interaction between the two is visceral, rife with great riffs.
The list of collaborators with the King is as long as a beach. B.B. cut several ‘duets’ records over time, on B.B. King and Friends: 80 (2005), on his 80th birthday, he saddles up with Billy Gibbons on Tired of Your Love, Mark Knopfler on All Over Again, an album that goes to show how admired and adored he was not only in the blues community, but by rockers far and wide. Blues Summit in 1993 was a marvelous work with the likes of Koko Taylor on Something You Got and a line-up of black American bluesmen and women such as, Buddy Guy, Etta James, and pupils Robert Cray and Joe Louis Walker to fill out the programme. This one is for the Chicago Blues archives under: ‘outstanding’.
And Deuces Wild (1997) howls the same testimony, with Joe Cocker, In A Dangerous Mood, Dave Gilmour on Cryin’ Won’t Help You. And to finish off with the legendary hook up with The Rolling Stones on Paying the Cost to Be The Boss, back in 1997.
B.B. King will be remembered as the King of Blues not just for his ‘voice of a lion’ and limber vibrato on guitar, but also for his kindness, humility, generosity and grace. A true giant and American legend who had it all, did it all, and was loved by all.
P.S. for a quick lesson on his technique, and how it inspired the likes of Gary Moore and Peter Green, check this: "In The Style Of B.B. King".