B.B. King: 10 songs to understand the King of Blues

By Sergio Ariza

B.B. King is the most famous electric bluesman of all time. And rightly so, because Riley 'Blues Boy' King is the greatest blues guitarist of all time and one of its most outstanding singers. Furthermore, nobody in the genre had a career as long and sustained as his, from his beginnings in Memphis in the 40's, the influential singles of the 50's, where he combined the solo guitar with the voice like nobody before him, the incorporation of horns and strings in the 60's, the incredible live shows of the 70's, plus his ability to represent the blues, of which he was the absolute monarch since the death of Muddy Waters, for the rest of his career. B.B. King did not play a chord in his entire life, but his ability to express himself through his beloved Lucille (or, more correctly, his various Lucilles) is unique, and he invented a new musical language from which all the guitarists who followed him, from blues to rock, benefited, like the other two "kings", Albert and Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Peter Green and Eric Clapton. 

3 O'Clock Blues (1951)

B.B. King's recordings with Sam Phillips, before he created Sun Records, may sound better than this 3 O'Clock Blues, but there is a huge reason why this song became the artist's first number one on the R&B charts and a perennial in his live repertoire throughout his career. And that's because it's the first time that Lucille and his voice have begun to dialogue as fluently as they will for the rest of his career. Seeing how these two elements, clearly placed in the foreground of the mix, interact is one of the greatest pleasures for any lover, not just of the blues, but of music. By the way Lucille at this time was a Gibson ES-125 and it wasn't even the first Lucille, the one that was saved from a fire, as the first guitar was a Gibson L-30.


You Upset Me (1954)

We jump to 1954 to find ourselves the fourth number one in the R&B charts for King, after 3 O'Clock Blues in 1951, You Know I Love You in 1952 and Please Love Me in 1953. You Upset Me Baby begins powerfully, with a wonderful arrangement followed by his guitar, demonstrating again his mastery of vibrato and ‘bending’, supported by a great horn section and then his powerful and masculine voice enters, a great contrast with his more sensual and feminine way of playing the guitar. It is as if they were the yin and the yang, complementing each other perfectly. The song appears both in the remarkable compilation of his first singles, Singin' the Blues, released in 1956, and on the fundamental Live At The Regal.


Every Day I Have the Blues (1954)

Another of King’s greatest hits of the 50's and the song that would end up becoming his personal brand - the one that would serve as a presentation of his concerts for countless years -, present as the first song on his two most important live albums, Live At The Regal and Live In Cook County Jail. King loved the arrangement that Maxwell Davis wrote for him and always shone with some of his most agile and fast phrasing during his performance.


Sweet Little Angel (1956)

Want to know what a guitar sounds like when it cries? Listen to Lucille empty her soul every time B.B. King starts playing Sweet Little Angel, another big hit in the R&B charts where King's ‘bends’ sound like a lap steel. And then listen to B.B. sing answering Lucille with those superhuman falsettos and you can understand the greatness of this man, the original version is good enough but the one on Live At The Regal is the definitive version.


Sweet Sixteen (1960)

A song with a very similar feeling to Sweet Little Angel, Lucille takes the floor again first, thrilling everyone with one of the sweetest tones in history. Then King's voice comes in and every vocal break is answered with a concise response from Lucille. Again the song, released in two parts in 1960, had its best versions live. I particularly like the version recorded in 1967 in the same sessions of the great live album Blues Is King but released as a separate single. The beginning of this version has one of the best solos in the history of B.B. King, one that is pure subtlety and class concentrated to introduce one of his most remembered ballads. Listen and you will see King's huge imprint on Peter Green, one of the few British guitarists who knew how to approach the unique feeling he manages to get from the strings of his guitars.


How Blue Can You Get (1964)

1964 is one of the key years of B.B. King's career. It was the year in which he recorded, in November, the most famous and important album of his career, Live At The Regal, one of the best live albums in history, but that year that he also recorded songs like Rock Me Baby, Help The Poor and How Blue Can You Get, a song that
Johnny Moore had first recorded in 1949, but that found its definitive version in the voice of Riley King, especially when everything stops and that voice began to sing "I gave you a brand new Ford, you said 'I want a Cadillac', I bought you a ten dollar dinner, you said 'Thanks for the snack', I let you live in my attic, you said it was only a hut, I gave you seven children, and now you want to return them". It was to be heard in almost every concert since its release, including the aforementioned Live At The Regal and the essential Live in Cook County Jail. Here he already had a Lucille model much similar to the one everybody remembers, a Gibson ES-335.


Heartbreaker (1968)

I allow myself this little license so I don't only mention the artist's best known songs. Heartbreaker was the opening song of Blues on Top of Blues, one of his best albums, released in 1968, and which also contained one of his greatest hits, Paying the Cost to Be the Boss. This is one of the artist's most soulful songs, thanks to a ‘horn storm’ and a great bass line, and then, of course, his two most distinctive elements, his voice and Lucille.


Why I Sing The Blues (1969)

Absolutely essential, an irresistible song with a great funk bass by Aretha Franklin's regular bassist, Gerald 'Jerry' Jemmott. On Why I Sing The Blues B.B. King gives several clear answers as to why he sings the blues. We are talking about a black man who grew up in the South of the United States in the first half of the 20th century, someone who saw lynchings every week and whom no white man called by name, but "boy" ("come here, boy"), no matter how old he was. Perhaps the first part of this song explains it much more clearly: "When I first got the blues They brought me over on a ship, Men were standing over me And a lot more with a whip, And everybody wanna know, Why I sing the blues.” I think it's already clear, Riley.


The Thrill Is Gone (1969)

The most famous song of his career, also the best, in addition to his greatest success. The inclusion of the string section gave him a new audience. Many purists complained but the strings matched King's style of playing the guitar perfectly, reinforcing his enormous class. Here was already the Lucille that everyone relates to King, in fact his brand new Gibson ES-355 made one of its first appearances in the iconic opening of the song, a great bass riff and Lucille proving that it is the guitar that is able to thrill with the fewest notes in history. King proves once again that he is the most expressive guitarist ever, capable of communicating with very few notes what other guitarists are incapable of in a whole career. But The Thrill Is Gone goes far beyond his solo, being the most rounded song of King's career. By the way, if you want to hear how it sounds without the strings, you can opt for the powerful live version from the outstanding Live in Cook County Jail.


Chains and Things (1970)

After the success of The Thrill Is Gone King, King entered the studio with producer Bill Szymczyk to record the album he was most satisfied with in his career. It was Indianola Mississippi Seeds, an album of which King said the following: "I know the critics always name Live & Well or Live at the Regal as my best albums, but I think Indianola Mississippi Seeds was the best album I have ever made artistically”. There were songs like Ask Me No Questions and Hummingbird, although my favorite is the wonderful Chains and Things in which Carole King accompanies with the Fender Rhodes, giving it that characteristic sound. The producer was looking for a new The Thrill Is Gone, hence again the magnificent string arrangement, and he got it with one of the most exciting songs of King's career. By the way, the wonderful solo began with a mistake: "I played the wrong note and followed it as best I could... then we got the arranger to make the strings follow it".