Many tributes have been written about BB King since his passing on May 14th. I can’t possibly match the eloquent tributes to the man who came to symbolize the blues to audiences worldwide. But I can talk about his records that I like the most. Of all the time BB King recorded and played for live audiences, my favorite era of his music is bookended by two live albums – Live at the Regal (1965) and Live in Cook County Jail (1971). Live at the Regal has been cited by many critics as BB’s best live album, and one of the best live albums by anybody. It has the songs Sweet Little Angel, It’s My Own Fault, and How Blue Can You Get?, the same three songs recorded as a medley by a group called The Hourglass. For those who know your music history, The Hourglass was a forerunner to the Allman Brothers Band. At the time they were under contract to Liberty Records, who allowed them to record only songs picked by the record company. The band didn’t like the material Liberty provided them. They booked studio time and recorded their BB King Medley, the result of which can be found on the first Duane Allman anthology as well as the ABB’s box set Dreams. It was an important milestone for what became the Allman Brothers Band, but I digress. My point here is the influence BB King had on two white kids from Daytona Beach, Florida.
Confessin’ the Blues (1966), Blues on Top of Blues (1968) and Lucille (1968) each have the same horn-laden, big-band blues sound. It’s all good stuff, but the horns get in the way of hearing BB wail on Lucille. That having been said, there is the title track to Lucille is a ten-minute guitar track that tells the story of what his guitar means to him, and how his guitar got its name. When BB isn’t telling the story of his life, he lets Lucille “sing.” The only music Lucille likes to play is the blues. The funny thing about Lucille is the cover. From 1959 until his death, Lucille was a Gibson ES-355, but the guitar on the cover is a Gibson Les Paul. But I quibble…the music contained therein is great.
Joel Selvin used to be the pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Recently he published a story about “a night at the Fillmore changed B.B. King’s career forever.” The night in question was in February 1967. He had played the Fillmore West several times before this night, but when he stepped out on stage that evening he saw something he’d never seen before – a roomful of white hippies. BB King had played to exclusively black audiences [older black audiences at that] until this show. Selvin described BB’s career at that time as “in decline” because the music he played [the blues] was a reminder to black audiences of the bad times and of Jim Crow. Soul music was now the sound of the black community. But the hippies liked the blues, and they liked them hard. They had taken to Albert King’s guitar-driven blues, and they liked what they heard from BB King as well. The record company took notice of the “new” demographic to whom BB King appealed.
In 1969, BB’s record label pared him with producer Bill Szymczyk, who later went on to work with the likes of The James Gang, Joe Walsh, The Eagles and The Who. The two did four albums together, the first of which was Live & Well (1969). Half the album was recorded live with his road band [“Live”], the other half was recorded in the studio [“Well”]. For the studio cuts, Szymczyk brought in studio musicians like Hugh McCracken, Paul Harris and Al Kooper. The horns are still there, but they aren’t as prominent as they were on the preceding three studio albums. Lucille and BB’s voice are brought to the fore, and the white studio guys could actually play the blues. The blues feel is there. There was a harder edge to the music. The highlight for me on Live & Well is the closer Why I Sing The Blues, which clocks in at 8:37. Short songs from BB King are ok, but I like to hear him stretch out and play.
Completely Well (1969) was an all-studio record. With the exception of Al Kooper, the same studio musicians that played on the “Well” side of Live & Well are also present on Completely Well. Producer Szymczyk strikes the same balance between horns, Lucille and BB’s voice on the first side of Completely Well as he did on Live & Well. The other side of the LP is another story. On this side, BB gets to cut loose on Lucille like I’ve never heard him before. BB and company revisit a couple of songs BB recorded in the 1950s – Confessin’ the Blues and Cryin’ Won’t Help You Now. These newer versions are more loose, and they sound more raw and angry. Cryin’ Won’t Help You Now turns into a studio jam and clocks in at over twice the length of the original (6:27). BB and the other musicians weren’t ready to quit, so the jam continued on You’re Mean for an additional ten minutes. At the end of the jam you can hear BB say “damn, whatcha y’all tryin’ to do, kill me?” This was a blues-meets-rock aesthetic to which BB King was more than able to tackle. The last song is The Thrill Is Gone. This is the song that will be forever connected with BB King, even though he didn’t write it. The song was written by blues musician Roy Hawkins in 1951, and it was a hit for him that same year. Bill Szymczyk got BB to record it. When BB first heard the result, he wasn’t too sure if he liked it. Then Szymczyk recorded that magnificent string arrangement and put it on the record. BB liked it after that – a classic was born. The string arrangement for The Thrill Is Gone was a first for BB King. The song is BB King’s biggest hit, and also served as a blueprint for the follow-up album to Completely Well.
Indianola Mississippi Seeds (1970) was that follow-up. It’s the one with the watermelon that’s made to look like a guitar. The music contained therein sounds like The Thrill Is Gone. For this album, producer Szymczyk dispensed with the horns all together and added string arrangements to most of the songs. The results are very good. The strings are present without getting in the way of the musicians. Live & Well and Completely Well were recorded in New York. Indianola Mississippi Seeds was recorded in Los Angeles, and with a change of scenery came a change of studio musicians. Szymczyk used a different crew of studio musicians, including Joe Walsh on rhythm guitar, Leon Russell and Carole King (yes, that Carole King, the great songwriter who produced Tapestry the following year.). With Carole King on electric piano (and the ever-present strings), the true follow-up to The Thrill Is Gone single is a song called Chains & Things. Both songs are minor-chord blues and sound similar in their arrangements, but they’re different enough from one another to dismiss any notion that Chains & Things is simply a Thrill Is Gone knock-off. Chains & Things stands on its own merits. Leon Russell contributed his own Hummingbird to the proceedings, and did his own string and “angelic choir” arrangements for the songs. Merry Clayton and Clydie King were part of the angelic chorus that closes out the song and the album.
As good as Live at the Regal is [and it’s very, very good], I actually prefer Live at Cook County Jail. The music contained therein is as good as its Regal predecessor. The blues is what Keith Richards call “adult music.” Given this description, the screaming girls that reminds one of Beatlemania somewhat detract from the Regal show. Both BB and Lucille are in fine voice. There is one drawback to Cook County Jail – BB talks too much. Maybe the captive audience didn’t want to interact with BB, hence the excess chatter from BB. With all the time spent talking to the inmates, two or three more songs could have been squeezed out of this show. The live version of The Thrill Is Gone makes up for it. This isn’t Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, but then again the music doesn’t lend itself to that kind of rowdiness.
Confessin’ the Blues, Blues on Top of Blues and Lucille are nice to have. They’re nice, and they’re polite. But for my money Live & Well, Completely Well, Indianola Mississippi Seeds, Live in Cook County Jail and Live at the Regal are essential BB King listening.
RIP BB King.