Opening the doors of success
When, on 24 and 25 June 1969, B.B. King recorded his album Completely Well at the Hit Factory studio in New York, the greatest guitarist in the history of blues was 43 years old and had a 25-year career in which he had managed to place 29 songs in the Top 20 of the R&B charts but not a single one in the pop charts. Although rock's most famous guitarists, such as Hendrix, Clapton and Bloomfield, recognised him as a master, his audience was still largely black. That was to change thanks to one of the nine songs on this album, The Thrill Is Gone, which was to become his first pop chart hit and open the doors to a mainstream audience.
For that reason alone, Completely Well must be considered one of the most important albums of his career, but it is also one of his best studio albums, and has other notable attractions beyond its most famous song. King was entering another of his best periods - it is no coincidence that after this one came essential works such as Indianola Mississippi Seeds (his pesonal favourite), in 1970, and Live in Cook County Jail the following year. Additionally we might take into account that King was at one of his peak moments in terms of his vocals and playing, debuting on this same album the guitar for which he is most remembered, his brand new Gibson ES-355, which became his best-known Lucille (yes, there were several).
He is also surrounded by a fabulous band with Hugh McCracken on rhythm guitar, Paul Harris on organ and Fender Rhodes, Herbie Lovelle on drums and, above all, the incredible Jerry Jemmott on bass. To all this we must note one of the most significant elements of this album, the wonderful horn and string arrangements by Bert "Super Charts" DeCoteaux, which was added after the recording at the behest of producer Bill Szymczyk, who ended up achieving enormous success with the Eagles. If horns were already a regular feature of his music, the inclusion of the string section gave him a new audience but also controversy, as many purists complained, not understanding that the strings matched King's style of guitar playing perfectly, reinforcing his enormous class.
The album opened strongly with So Excited, pure distilled King, with a great organ riff, reinforced by bass and rhythm guitar. It was like the classic King concert opener, with horns thundering, and his guitar flying free; it's also one of his most rocking moments, so to speak, with McCracken putting the wah on his guitar. Of course, if there's one musician in the band who stands out it's Jemmott - just listen to the funky You're Losin Me and you'll know he's in the league of James Jamerson or Bootsy Collins. His bass playing here is simply masterful, perfectly supporting King's Lucille, who seems to be having the time of his life and is reinforced by the horn section. The opening of What Happened is another example of his mastery of mid-tempo guitar and vocals. On Confessin' The Blues he sounds powerful, as if he could tear down a wall with the strength of his voice alone.
The second side opened with the shortest song on the album, Key To My Kingdom, where you can see the gospel roots of his singing. Cryin' Won't Help You Now is another funky monument where Jemmott's bass interweaves perfectly with King's guitar. Even so, the best is yet to come with the last two songs on the album, the intense almost ten minutes of You're Mean and the exceptional The Thrill Is Gone, the best and most famous song of his career.
You're Mean begins as a jam that continues on from Cryin' Won't Help You Now, the band is red-hot and King is in full swing, the rhythm section sounds unstoppable and Paul Harris' organ is smoking, which gives our protagonist the perfect mantle on which to express himself with all his class on the six strings. With The Thrill Is Gone King proves once again that he is the most expressive guitarist in history, 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 playing, with another masterful bass line from Jemmott and another demonstration that he is one of the deepest and most important singers in the blues. One of the defining songs of the entire genre.
It's a perfect closer that showed that King was still at the top of his genre, even if, after the release of Completely Well, released on December 5, 1969, his music began to reach a much wider audience.