On Thursday, May 14, the music world was rocked by an unconscionable tragedy. B.B. King, perhaps the greatest bluesman of all time and certainly of much of the 20th century, had finally succumbed to illness and passed away at the age of 89. As I’ve written in a previous blog, B.B. King wasn’t so much a musician as he simply was music, the embodiment of the soul of melody. Born on September 16, 1925 in Mississippi, the home of the Delta blues, he grew up to be one of the most legendary singers and guitarists in American popular music. His guitar playing is instantly recognizable, the way you know the presence of your father or your sister when they walk into the room without you having even to look. His voice was equally incomparable, seeming to reach down into the very depths of his soul as if whole salvation depended on it. There are only a handful of figures in the lore of popular music that can compare to the kind of influence King had – Robert Johnson in the blues, Bird and Miles in jazz, The Beatles in Dylan in rock. The blues will never be the same without him, and yet the hope is that his music will be immortal, influencing future generations of excellent bluesman for decades and even centuries to come. In honor of this fallen star, the Joe Bonamassa Official Blog in conjunction with the Keeping The Blues Alive Blog wanted to write a retrospective of some of his greatest pieces of music, from the earliest to the most recent times in his career. Jeff from KTBA and myself each picked 10 songs have that touched us in some way and provide insight into the man’s nonpareil brand of blues.
1. 3 O’Clock Blues – As a fellow insomniac, I sure can relate to Mr. B.B. King on this one. “It’s 3 O’Clock in the morning / can’t even close my eyes” he laments. Of course, in his case, it’s cause he can’t find his baby. 3 O’Clock Blues was B.B. King’s first hit and the song that really launched his success in the blues biz. Already, you can hear the deep feeling and expression in B.B.’s guitar playing as he sings the blues on his axe. The song itself is a slow 12 bar blues coming in at 65 bpm, almost a mournful dirge, with even suicidal tendencies creeping into the end of the song. It was one of the top selling R&B records of 1952, hitting the top of the R&B charts for 5 weeks. It became a standard part of B.B. King’s repertoire and is an early hint at how much of a legend the man would grow to be.
2. Everyday I Have the Blues – Originally a Pinetop and Milton Sparks tune, “Everyday I Have the Blues” was another standard piece in B.B.’s repertoire and it’s a gem. King recorded it in 1955 and gave major credit for its success to arranger Maxwell Davis’s subtle orchestration of the tune. It reached #8 on the R&B charts but probably should have gone higher. Punctuated by smooth interplay by the brassy horn arrangements and King’s T-Bone Walker influenced guitar licks, King ably conveys how hard it must be to have the blues, like, every day. But when nobody loves you and nobody seems to care, that’s the situation that you find yourself in, and nobody could convey such sentiments better than Mr. King.
3. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean – A Blind Lemon Jefferson song from 1927 that is exquisitely done by B.B. King. The recording done by King leave plenty of space as if for a ghost to inhabit, and yet still manages to captivate with its hypnotic rhythms in the bass and drum and perfectly aerated piano playing that never oversteps the subtle, distinctive riffing of Mr. King on Lucille. Haunting but magnetic, the track is from One Kind Favor, King’s last studio album, masterfully produced by the great T-Bone Burnett with his signature, spare fingerprint clearly left but not obtrusive.
4. Night Life / Please Send Me Someone To Love – Perhaps because when Willie Nelson wrote and originally recorded “Night Life” he was still projecting the clean cut image of the Nashville Sound rather than that of the country he would later become, there’s a certain sweetness to Willie’s performance that seems to belie the lyrics to the song. Not so in the case of the B,B King version, whose scratchy, emotional blues shouting sounds like the essence of after hours partying, too many glass of whiskey, a few cartons of cigarettes, and the presence of women that might lead to trouble. In this instance, the night really is no good life, but it may very well be the fun life. Oh yeah, and there’s a guy named Joe Bonamassa who plays on this one with him too!
5. How Blue Can You Get – To me, this is the quintessential blues song, and as B.B. King performs it, he’s the quintessential blues musician. Some will argue that Robert Johnson is the genre in its purest, most distilled form; others might say it’s Muddy or Wolf; even Stevie Ray Vaughan might come up in the conversation. But when I think of the blues, I think of this performance first. “I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met” he sings with the angst of a million men who have been made miserable by their women. After all, a blues musician can’t ever really be satisfied – if she’s there, she’s driving him crazy, and if she’s gone, well, he’s so lonely baby. But that’s part of the blues – the perennial dissatisfaction of the soul of a man (or a woman). In terms of the music, it’s slow rambles down the street at its own good pace, and B.B.’s guitar cries and hollers with limitless gloom. How blue can you get? This is it, baby.
– Brian R.