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Looking at the well-upholstered figure who’s Eric Clapton’s back seat passenger on the “Riding With The King” album cover, it’s hard to imagine that here was a performer who once was lean, never really mean, but always hungry. B.B. King had begged for food in Mississippi when he was a teenager – and had never forgotten the woman who’d given him biscuits and buttermilk. “I made a promise to myself that I keep even today. Guys can be on the street begging; when you meet somebody begging, if they mention food I’m gonna get them something.”
Later on he was hungry for success – and like the biscuits and buttermilk, it came along. But even he couldn’t have foreseen the career path that has taken him from sharecropping to superstardom. No other living bluesman is as well-known, as revered, or has had as much influence as King. In a professional career now in its seventh decade, he has, to slightly amend the late Pete Welding, “seen the blues style he developed in the late 40s and early 50s become the universally dominating sound of modern blues and he, as its architect and incontestably its single finest representative, become one of the most important figures in blues history.” And the tracks here are the ones which made him into that figure. Several of them would stay with King forever, played nightly at the thousands of gigs that he has performed over the years, and many of them also turned up on the hugely-successful “Riding With The King” album.
It all had to begin somewhere. For King it was Bear Creek in Berclair, Mississippi, where he was born on 16 September 1925, the son of sharecroppers Albert and Nora Ella King. Life was never easy. His mother died when he was nine and he went to live with his grandmother. He picked up on music at an early age. The great bluesman Bukka White was a relative and he found King a factory job in Memphis. After hours, King played with harmonica player Walter Horton but, disillusioned by the musical talent he saw around him, he returned to Mississippi. In 1949, he was back in Memphis and this time for good. Within 24 hours he’d secured a regular gig at a West Memphis grill and a radio show advertising Peptikon health tonic. Riley B King had become the Beale Street Blues Boy. Very soon he’d become Blues Boy King and then B.B. King.
Memphis was in those days a wide-open musical town or, as King puts it, “a college of learning” – and he was about to graduate from it. Helping him do that were three brothers, Jules, Saul and Joe Bihari, of Hungarian Jewish parentage, who ran the Modern record label in Los Angeles. King had already cut his first record for the Nashville-based Bullet company, but it was the Biharis who would put their faith in King. They would sign him after hearing one of his demos and he would stay with them until January 1962, during which time he would cut the tracks you hear here - a selection from possibly the greatest single body of work by any modern bluesman.
The beginnings may have been a little hesitant, but it doesn’t show in the music. The opening track, B.B. Boogie, from 1950, has King in full-powered vocal mode even though the T-Bone Walker-influenced guitar is almost certainly played by Calvin Newborn. This and several of the earliest tracks King recorded would have been cut in Sam Phillip’s studio in Union Avenue, Memphis, where a few years later a fellow Memphis performer by the name of Elvis Presley would try his luck. The King we hear on She’s Dynamite, from 1951, also cut at Phillips’ studio, is more assured, with King riding over a crunching beat that owes more than a little to the recent Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston smash ‘Rocket 88’. The vocals, with their Roy Brown-like inflexions, come in like a power-hammer. This is King enjoying himself. Almost a hit, it certainly lit up the local jukeboxes.
King has always been open to musical influences – from his mother’s first cousin Bukka White to balladeer Frankie Laine, but he’s always had a direct line to older and more traditional blues styles. Shake It Up And Go, from 1952 was based on the blues standard ‘Bottle It Up And Go’ (which you can actually hear King sing a few times). Listen out too for the great guitar solo. King revisited the track on the “Blues On The Bayou” album in 1998. That elusive first hit came with 3 O’Clock Blues. A cover of a Lowell Fulson record, it showed King’s ability to get inside a song with mature, impassioned vocals and compelling guitar work. Hard to think this was the work of a 26-year-old. It went straight to the top of the Billboard R&B charts and stayed there for three months. It must also be the only chart-topper ever to have been recorded at the Memphis YMCA, where the Biharis were forced to record after falling out with Sam Phillips. Another R&B chart-topper, Please Love Me, was King’s take on a fellow Mississippi guitarist who was also making quite a name for himself, Elmore James. King doesn’t play slide so the ‘Dust My Broom’-like opening riff comes from him playing vibrato. He doesn’t sing when he plays either, so that’s why it’s either full-on in your face vocals or guitar work.
It’s hard to say which of King’s songs has been covered the most, but Woke Up This Morning from 1953 can probably lay claim to the title. Perhaps it’s the slightly tricky rhumba rhythm or the superb interplay between King’s wailing vocals, the choppy guitar work and the chunky brass work supplied by Bill Harvey and his band. For a sad topic, “my baby, she’s gone” it’s the most optimistic piece of music I’ve ever heard. Obviously he wasn’t too fussed by his woman’s departure. He sounds equally serene on You Upset Me Baby, a solid King boogie from 1954 where’s he’s backed by the doyen of West Coast music arrangers, Maxwell Davis. Cut in Culver City, it took King back up the R&B charts when he was touring constantly. “It was very significant, very fulfilling. I got a chance to travel to see the United States being a young man and find out what the road was about,” King says, which is a nice way of looking back on that gruelling timetable of gig after gig. It could have been a case of Every Day I Have The Blues, another standard which King has made his own. Lowell Fulson and more famously Joe Williams and the Count Basie band had covered the Memphis Slim song, but King was able to stamp his authority on it and take it into the charts again. King’s in great form and there’s another superb Maxwell Davis arrangement.
Anyone who doubts King’s vocal abilities should just sit in a darkened room and listen to When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer. About one minute and seven seconds in, he comes up with a “Weeeeell” that sets the record alight. It’s based on a 1941 song, ‘Million Years Blues’ by the original Sonny Boy Williamson. Ten Long Years has long been a King staple. The writer Peter Guralnick has defined the “B.B. King school of blues” as “single-string, treble-laden guitar work characteristically exploding in shimmering clusters of notes, embellishing, extending, but rarely supporting the vocal with the kind of full-bodied chords that derive from an older, failing style”. Hear it here.
Cut on the road, Sweet Little Angel suffers from a slight rough-and-ready recording quality, but that’s more than made up for by the sheer brilliance of King’s guitar work, which comes out of the speakers and bites you. Based on an earlier 1949 hit, ‘Sweet Black Angel’ by Robert Nighthawk, it’s another song which King has indelibly made his own. In contrast, Don’t Look Now, But I’ve Got The Blues, from 1958, is a wry, not-too-demanding number written by Lee Hazlewood, who would later pen ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ for Nancy Sinatra. By the time this was cut, King’s popularity was being eaten into by the rise of rock’n’roll, and although he still had his traditional fan base he was yet to make any inroads into the white market. But that would come in time. Mind you, the thunderous drum roll that introduces Early In The Morning, along with heavy backbeat and honking sax solo, has a taste of the rock’n’roll that King eschewed. The song also bears a strong affinity to Elvis Presley’s take of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s ‘My Baby Left Me’. Two Kings for the price of one, if you like.
Days Of Old, a 1958 B-side, finds B.B. in exuberant, almost playful vocal mood with a big band backing. Perhaps it’s the line “Met a girl on the avenue, she was shy and I was blue” which tickled King’s fancy. Although I doubt, considering King’s life on the road, whether that was ever the case. Crudup, who popped up in the discussion of ‘Early In The Morning’, cut the original version of Mean Old Frisco in 1942. King gives it an intriguing, chugging train-like rhythm in an attempt to catch the ear of a younger generation of jukebox-listening record-buyers in 1959. Catfish Blues (aka Fishin’ After Me) from a year later is best known from the version by Muddy Waters, which he called ‘Rolling Stone’, but King was also paying homage to the original version of the song by Robert Petway. Either way it’s an excellent uptempo version of the song helped along by the admirable rolling piano work of long-time Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker collaborator Lloyd Glenn.
Another King favourite, Sweet Sixteen, was cut in October 1959 and has formed part of his stage show ever since. It’s a perfect marriage of heartfelt vocals and striking guitar work. “The blues is almost sacred,” King says. “Like gospel music. Because it’s a part of our culture and a part of us.” Listen to the gospel-fuelled end of this two-part epic and you can see what he means. King thinks I’ll Survive is one his best tracks and that may surprise some, for this is almost supper club blues with vocals that recall Arthur Prysock or Billy Eckstine. But as Pete Welding pointed out, King’s success has in a large part been his ability to synthesise many brands of black music – blues, swing, jump and jazz – into his personal style. This is King the balladeer, and great one at that.
Downhearted, which is better known by the title How Blue Can You Get?, is probably the finest blues ever to have been written by somebody who came from Hampstead, North London (see Juke Blues #62 for the full story). The Leonard Feather song had first been cut by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1949. King cut it at the end of his tenure with Modern Records, but recorded it again for his new label, ABC, and included it in his ground-breaking “Live At The Regal” album in 1964, since when it has become another regular item in his live shows. By the time Bad Case Of Love was recorded in 1961, King was looking for success outside the blues field. ‘Love’, a perky uptempo rocker, didn’t provide it, but King liked the tune enough to record it again on his “Blues On The Bayou” album. That success he was looking for would come in 1964 with the more traditional Rock Me Baby, his biggest hit – peaking at #34 in the US pop charts – before the career-changing ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. Any blues band worth their salt will have covered this tune and the wonderfully tight arrangement. No King concert is complete without it.