B.B. King celebrates 60 years of singing the blues.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Nineteen eighty seven was a big year for B.B. King. In January, he was among the second group of musicians to be inducted into the then-new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a recognition of his place as one of the music’s most significant pioneers. In February, he won a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, making him the first blues artist to be so honored.
That double win was a pretty stunning feat, never done before or since, but nobody was surprised. B.B. King had already been a force of nature in American culture for 30 years. His ferocious voice and searing guitar were the very definition of the blues, and the rock-and-roll world had adopted him as a godfather two decades earlier, when he opened for the Rolling Stones on their national tour and nearly blew them off the stage. Even today it seems like little more than a pretty cool coincidence that he would be honored simultaneously as a master of two universes.
But here’s something remarkable: In the 20 years since he was declared a living legend, B.B. King has hardly slowed down. The high-points of the second half of his career – the work he has done since he hit retirement age – would by themselves be enough to make him a hero.
That might have been predictable in 1987. While he was being honored by the The Recording Academy for his past work, his brand-new record, My Guitar Sings the Blues, won a Grammy of its own as the Best Traditional Blues Album of the year.
He topped that immediately. In 1988, King joined the band U2 on the single “When Love Comes to Town,” which went to Number 2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts – no mean feat for a 63-year-old bluesman.
King recorded three live albums between 1991 and 1994 – Live at San Quentin, Live at the Apollo, and Blues Summit, all three of which won Grammy Awards. He was, however, taking a break from the recording studio. He focused instead on his live show, which, then as now, was a big-band spectacle that showcased his enormous range. Throughout the 1990s, he toured relentlessly, playing 300 dates a year in big and small venues, from nightclubs to sports arenas to Las Vegas hotels.
In 2000, King decided to return to the studio. To make Blues on the Bayou, he brought his touring band – guys he’d been playing with for 10 years – to the little dockside town of Maurice, Louisiana, near Lafayette, in the heart of Bayou country. He produced the album himself, wrote several new songs, dusted off some old gems, did most of the arranging and showed that he was still one of the best guitarists alive. It’s a masterful piece of work, and earned him another Grammy.
The following year, Eric Clapton invited King to join him for a collaborative album. This was a project Clapton had been dreaming about for years, and the result, Riding with the King, was even better than fans might have expected from the two giants. The album was met with huge critical acclaim – widely considered a breakthrough for King and Clapton’s best work in years. It was also a huge commercial success, going double-platinum after debuting at Number 3 on the charts. Not surprisingly, it won King another Grammy. As did 2003’s A Christmas Celebration of Hope, and 2005’s B.B. King & Friends: 80, a birthday celebration featuring duets with a rather unlikely collection of stars, from Roger Daltrey to John Mayer.
To recap: seven Grammys, a dozen groundbreaking artistic successes; more than 5,000 live shows – all after being honored for a lifetime of achievement.
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While 1987 was a watershed year for B.B. King, it wasn’t his biggest. For many people, the B.B. King story began in 1969, when “The Thrill Is Gone” became the first blues song to blow up on the pop charts. For the first time, the black man’s blues, sung in a black man’s voice, was heard on mainstream radio stations. Suddenly B.B. King was a star.
Of course, in the blues world, he was already a big star. By that time, he’d had more than 40 songs on the R&B charts. He’d scored 14 Top Ten hits between 1947 and 1969. The first of his songs to reach Number One on the Black charts, “3 O’clock Blues,” came out in 1951. His success grew with the release of songs like “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “When My Heart Beats like a Hammer,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Sweet Little Angel” – all of which still sound shockingly good.
Long before he became a pop star and a household name, B.B. King was the King of the Blues. The critic David Fricke, reviewing Original Greatest Hits, explains how he earned his crown:
“King pursued and perfected a primal sophistication – a blend of big-city flash and Deep South realism – that is now synonymous with urban electric blues. But the electrifying constant in King’s early work – from the titanic swing of 1953’s “Please Love Me” and the confrontational strut of 1954’s “You Upset Me, Baby,” all the way through to his definitive crackling 1964 treatment of the blues standard “Rock Me Baby” – was the native grit he wore over the snug tuxedo fit of the brass charts and urban tomcat prowl of his rhythm sections.”
That pungent description of King’s power as a performer might also explain why it took 30 years for him to crack the pop charts. It’s easy to imagine that for most of his early career in the ‘50s and ‘60s, America was not ready for the confrontational strut, native grit or (especially) the tomcat prowl of a big black man with a loud guitar and a hoarse shout.
By 1969, things had probably changed just enough to make room for a black man’s blues in mainstream America. At the same time, with “The Thrill Is Gone,” B.B. King had reinvented the blues. The stinging guitar licks and soulful vocals are intact, but they float on a soothing bed of strings. The structure is indeed classic blues, but with a sophistication never heard in Memphis or Chicago. We hear the plaintive sorrow, bitter resignation and fierce anger of the lyric, but it sounds more like a seduction than a challenge.
In the late ‘40s, B.B. King took the music he grew up with, as a truck-driver’s son in Indianola, Mississippi, pumped it through his amplifiers, and helped create a brand new sound. In the late ‘60s, he did that again, playing complex arrangements with jazz-trained big-city musicians – still playing the blues.
When he shows up at the Golden State this week, that’s what he will bring. He’ll bring a killer band. Of course he’ll bring Lucille (the most famous guitar in history). He’s 82 years old, diabetic and overweight. His fingers are halfway crippled and he can’t stand up for long. But he’s still got the blues.
B.B. KING performs Thursday, Oct. 25, 8pm, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $85-$175. 372-4555.