Bluesman Continues To Deliver Albums, Concerts
The sound of his voice fills the hall. It’s equal parts roar, gut wail and church organ. It rings and reverberates around the room. And despite more than 70 years of living the blues, B.B. King’s voice is crystalline.
And though King’s recent concert with the Minnesota Orchestra was one of a dozen shows that he’s playing around the country, he’s still proving nightly why he’s billed as the “king of the blues.”
It is a journey that began a long time ago.
Born in Indianola, Miss., in 1925, Riley B. King grew up among the cotton fields, and worked there for a time when he was older.
In 1947, King made his way to Memphis in hopes of making a career in music. While working as a disc jockey at a local radio station, King earned the nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which was eventually shortened to B.B.
After becoming a local blues hit, King hit the road and never really left it.
Along the way, he became the leading spokesman for the blues, and revolutionized blues guitar with the single-string, ringing sound that he produced with vibrato. His playing influenced a generation of rock guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson and countless others.
King scored countless hits with the funky “Hummingbird” and slow-burning songs like “Sweet Sixteen,” “How Blue Can You Get” and “Nobody Loves Me but My Mother” (which contains some of the greatest lyrics of the 20th century: “Nobody loves me but my mother/ And she could be jiving too”).
In the late ’60s, King recorded his biggest record and trademark, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Allegedly inspired by the disintegration of his second marriage, the tune deals with love — around which which most of King’s songs center -? but it’s honest and never sappy. An unpleasant aspect of love is laid out bare and that, in part, is why the song radiated with the public. Of course, the soul in King’s singing didn’t hurt either.
The song’s success capped a decade that, thanks to bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones and the psychedelic groups of Haight-Ashbury, had spurned a blues revival in the counterculture. Now King and his colleagues like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were playing to white audiences as well as black ones. These bluesmen were considered elder statesmen to the rock bands of the day.
In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, King picked up countless awards and continued to record albums. His last big hit was “When Love Comes to Town,” a collaboration with U2. But most of all, he stayed on the road.
For those who thought the idea of being a musical road warrior began with the Grateful Dead, King’s year-round concert schedule was simply staying with the tradition of the blues. Before platinum albums and record company advances, blues musicians earned a living traveling and playing.
And despite more than 50 years of road living, King is still singing the blues loud and clear.
As the Minneapolis show began, it was like being transported to another world.
His four-piece backing band and four-man horn section were all decked out in identical gray and back tuxedos. The band was tight and their music was part ritual and part iron-heel discipline. Each time King addressed one of them, there was a courteous bow, as if to recognize his regal stature in the blues.
Taking the stage amid much fanfare, King proceeded to take a seat.
“I’m 74 and I can sit down if I want to,” he said later.
Adorned in a tux and holding his trademark Gibson guitar, Lucille, he looked good. He’s still portly; his hair is cut close and is mostly white except for a splotch of gray in the front.
The show kicked off with a bullet-train version of “Let the Good Times Roll.” With horn blasts and organ lines tumbling over the driving melody, you could hear King shouting like a carnival barker.
The song is the title track of King’s 1999 tribute album to “jump-blues” pioneer Louis Jordan. King said during the show that Jordan was one of the greatest entertainers he had ever seen and he wanted to record an album of Jordan’s music to introduce it to a new generation.
Another song from the album, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” is perfect for him; it’s as if he and the song are both cut from the same cloth.
Each song began and ended with a drum lick from King’s drummer, Calep Emphrey Jr. The man didn’t so much keep the beat as hammer it into the floor and whip it into shape. Every time he slammed on the snare drum, the melody seemed to quiver and ripple.
What’s most interesting is King’s use of his voice and guitar. They are rarely in action together; it’s one or the other. His guitar playing is slow and deliberate, almost gentlemanly. Though quintessentially bluesy, there’s a bit of country and gospel in there too.
And his vocals almost mirror his guitar playing in tone and expressiveness. As he howls into the microphone, he takes the same approach as with his guitar: Say only say what you must, and make it count.
The song “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town” elicited a story about working in the cotton fields and an explanation about the line in the song referring to the “ice man.” The ice man was the man who delivered blocks of ice to the workers’ homes to be used in their refrigerators. (For the point, think about the milkman and a lonely housewife.)
The song itself was a slow stroll through another tale of dying love, which perfectly segued into “How Blue Can You Get.” The change was seamless, except for how King signaled the band with his hand.
The uptempo “Bad Case of Love” was like a minefield of horn blasts and thumping bass, and following King?s tender vocal lines was the only way out.
And of course, he played a swinging version of “The Thrill Is Gone.” Though the band played the melody a bit quicker, King still led them, playing the song’s spiraling guitar figure.
As the show drew to a close, King stood up for the first time, removed Lucille, kissed it and handed it off to an attending band member.
Then, in the most surreal moment of the night, King moved to the lip of the stage, almost as if in a trance, and reached into his pockets. Two of King’s employees, wearing usher-type apparel, quickly appeared at his side, and they too began to dig into their pockets. They began to hand King guitar picks, and he threw them into the crowd like a bishop throwing holy water. People rushed to the stage and began quibbling to get autographs, which King signed.
It was the most obviously rehearsed move of the night, and despite the wonderful intentions, it came off looking like an ego boost on the way out the door. The blank look on King’s face really said it all.
Looking at the future, it seems that King’s content to continue as he has. He has a full list of concerts ahead of him across the U.S.
This week, King has a new album coming out, “Makin’ Love Is Good for You.” In June, King will release yet another record with Eric Clapton, titled “Ridin’ With the King.”
When he started out, it seems doubtful that King aspired to become the “king of the blues.” Think of the other claimants to the titles: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin? Wolf.
But after 50 years of albums and concerts — as well as his guitar playing and singing — that title might be right, and he’s intent on proving it.
For More Info:
- The Official B.B. King Web site
- MCA Record’s B.B. King page
- Hats off to the Blues Master Mr. B.B. King
- B.B. King’s Worldblues Web Site
- B.B. King Information
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.