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 slingera type of advertising. Waters was the template for the Rolling Stones and other rock groups (groups of individuals) to followall 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 focusedWaters 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 labelthese 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 dayor 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).
One Kind Favor (Geffen, 2008) is an album of covers that King used to play in the '50s and before, performed on carefully selected '50s recording equipmentvalves and so on. It was recorded live. The tracks include classics by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker.
The year before, King played a great outdoor gig at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, September 5, 2007, as the final concert of that year's Jazz at the Bowl series. North Highland Avenue, which leads up to the venue before segueing into Cahuenga Boulevard West alongside the 101 Freeway, found itself clogged more than usual with carsthe Bowl is almost a mile north along North Highland from Hollywood Boulevard and its array of stars impressed into the sidewalk.
Fans at the outdoor arena were about to see a great evening of blues. The show began with British blues-soul guitarist James Hunter and then featured Robert Randolph and the Family Band. For the Bowl rock gig debutantes among the crowd, the three fundamentally guitar and amp acts may even have given some indication of what the Beatles must have been like in 1964 and 1965. The Hollywood Bowl is a great venuethe semi-circular arced rings that hoop over the stage, giving a feeling of activity even in their stillness. The picture is set against the forest-like backdrop of trees and, at this time of year, bare summer hills.
Hunter's blues-soul sound was a good introduction to the evening. In 2006, he instantly became a favorite of American blues and rock aficionados with the release of his first solo album People Gonna Talk (Rounder Records, 2006), which was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional Blues Category the next year. (King won the award five times in the 2000sin 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2009!)
Robert Randolph and the Family Band then gave a funk-soul vibe to the gig. Pedal-steel guitarist Randolph climaxed the band's show with a "guitar in his lap" version of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." Could this have been similar to what it would have like to hear Hendrix at the Bowl? The searing riffs of "Voodoo Chile" swept the audience, as the lights became brighter and the surrounding hills became darker.
These broad musical flavors prepared ears for the B.B. King Blues Band. Almost like the opening of a concerto, the band played first without King, running through two numbers without the soloist. The band consisted of a baritone sax, tenor sax, two trumpets, a second guitarist and a rhythm section. After the second number, the soloist himself came onto the stage and walked over to a chair and sat down. King's famous guitar, Lucille, was brought over, and he plugged in. He played the gig seated, and this also provided a good opportunity for him to talk to the crowd a lot. His comments were occasionally revealing, providing a 20th Century history lesson as well as large quantities of his classic humor.
After his second tune, he asked the crowd to applaud a sideman; "Make him happy," said King. "Make him happy" was repeated more than once during the night, among his frequent banter and jokes. "The first two numbers featured our guitarist, Charlie Dennis," he said. The rest of the band pretended to get upset that he had left them out. "Give it up for the bassist. He was in it, too!" he added to quiet them down. He made a lot of being 81. He added, "And if I'm lucky enough to survive another week, I'll be 82."
King began his history lesson. "I'm from the Delta, Mississippi. I've never been in the 'hood. I was out in the boondocks. I never saw an electric light in a house until I was 16. It was like going to the county fair!" he said. "My town had the railway line going right down the middle," he continued, introducing the topic of segregation in the South before World War II. Whites were on one side of the railway line; African Americans on the other. When his family went into town on a Saturday night, both sides would stare warily at each other. He spoke about how he dared to drink water from the white peoples' water fountain, thinking it must have been special. "The white water didn't taste any better than the black water!" he said. He concluded by saying, "I want to thank God for making the world a better place now."
Songs played included the highlight, "I'm A Blues Man (But I'm A Good Man)," with its Ray Charles-like major and minor chord progressions and his U2-written '80s hit, "When Love Comes To Town." Then it was time for some more joking around. King described a bit more about himself, concluding with the punchline, "maybe some ladies might want to know more!" This contrasted with his earlier related lament "But now I can't bust an egg." He introduced more of the band with the words, "and Walter King on the big bass sax." Even King's words here, "big bass sax," seemed to indicate the importance he attaches to a deep, broad sound.
"I'm A Blues Man":
Here is King playing "All Over Again" in Atlanta in 2008:
More jokes about his age followed, and also stories about the South in the '30s and '40s. The final number to showcase King's rich tones was, inevitably, the Grammy-winning "The Thrill Is Gone." It was the climax to a brilliant gig, with vivid picture painting in words as well as in music. With his forceful and evocative performance, the thrill certainly hasn't gone for B.B. King. His personality and passion are a beacon for any musician, or even non-musician, to emulate.
Meanwhile, out the back of stage itself there were the CD and memorabilia stores. You just had to buy the mock car license plate that read "B.B. King, King Of The Blues, Worldwide."
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