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B.B. King Live At The Hollywood Bowl, September 5, 2007

AAJ Staff By

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One of the greatest blues figures is, of course, B.B. King. King fused the Texas blues playing of T-Bone Walker with a broader, almost literary sensibility; his thicker solo lines provide the opportunity to tell a story, to impart depth, and to dominate a horn section or at least supplement it on equal terms.
Walker had learned his art from leading Blind Lemon Jefferson around from bar to bar when Walker was a young teenager in Dallas. Jefferson can be heard playing long, spiky and, as it turned out, futuristic, guitar runs between vocal lines on some of his 1920s recordings. Walker put this approach above a Count Basie sound; "T-Bone's Boogie," for example, sounds like a Basie track, except that there is a lead guitar above it all instead of saxophone riffs. The guitar also takes the role of Basie himself, the piano on the Walker record being simply subsumed into the mix as a purely rhythmic instrument.
King expanded the Walker picture. In a sense, he could be called the Ray Charles of the blues. The size and color of his name even led to its use in the Beatles' track "Dig A Pony" from Let It Be (EMI, 1970). It is as if John Lennon was trying to bolster the song by including King's name in the lyrics (the Beatles' music was running a little dry at this point). Still, only a household name would suffice for a Beatles song; another person named in the same song is Doris Day. It shows how big King's name was by that time and how pervasive his music was and is.


Muddy Waters had electrified the rural open-tuning bottleneck blues, and like that illustrious and deep acoustic music, painted a broad picture of daily life, a tapestry of that world. Willie Dixon added the more clearly aimed compositions (lyrically) for Waters to perform, that emphasized the swaggering persona of the slide guitar slinger—a type of advertising. Waters was the template for the Rolling Stones and other rock groups (groups of individuals) to follow—all rock is really Chicago blues.

King, however, looked forward and narrowed the focus of the blues to the passion of one man and his virtuoso solo guitar, the guitar dueting with the vocals, back and forth. His immediate influence was Walker, but Walker's sound is still the bouncy swing era, and his guitar does not dominate as the major instrumental voice in the ensemble. Some of Walkers's lyrics may have been serious, for example "Stormy Monday," but the words are still carried by the cheerful jazz-like backing.

King is therefore the origin of the Clapton/Hendrix/McLaughlin soloist tradition (though it is also possible to say that the violinist soloists of classical music, or even jazz soloists, are just as much the origin, and the origin of King too). The blues of the singer/soloist is more solitary and focused—Waters sang of the state of going home or of being a rolling stone, but King sings about the intense feeling of a particular occasion, such as that feeling at 3am when he's alone, or the currently existing fact that nobody loves him except his mother. He also, unusually for blues artists, brings in humor: for example, by saying that nobody loves him except his mother, but even she might be jiving too!

In this way, King has more in common with rock lyrics than with the more general lyrics of jazz and folk, or of Muddy Waters. King is a later and more pointed phenomenon than Waters. He is more "Foxy Lady" or "Purple Haze" than "Rolling And Tumbling" or "Hootchie Cootchie Man."

Born Riley B. King, the guitarist had his first hit with the evocative "3 O'Clock Blues" in 1951, where already the big thick electric sound of his solo lines can be heard. He soon recorded a series of classic tracks for the Crown label—these are "must-listens." Something in his sound is beyond most performers. Like the Jimmy Reed hits that appealed to The Rolling Stones, these bright and colorful records were 10 years ahead of their time. It is very polished music.

The same effect was communicated by his classic live album Live At The Regal (MCA, 1965). The sound and feeling is of the current day—or to use another word, timeless. It is also worth noting that King's sound is so big that he is probably the only blues guitarist able to be solidly presented with a horn section and thundering, flowing bass lines as if the instruments were fused completely together. He is a musical "one-stop shop."

King's strength and artistry was such that he could record a U2 song—"When Love Comes To Town"—in 1987 and become an authentic, seamless part of U2's act. This was no mere "guest artist" appearance. He could communicate to 17-year-old fans, and he did.

In 2008, he released what many commentators say is his best studio album since Blues On The Bayou (MCA, 1998), The T-Bone Burnett produced One Kind Favor (Geffen, 2008).

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