Archive: B.B. King, JJ August 1974

A 1970s perspective on 'The Man Who Paid The Cost To Be The Boss'. First published in Jazz Journal, August 1974. Author: John Stiff

B. B. KING—'The Undisputed King Of The Blues', 'The World's Greatest Blues Singer', 'The Man Who Paid The Cost To Be The Boss'—the most highly rated (and probably paid) performer in the blues field is currently at the peak of his career. He has behind him a vast set of recordings plus acknowledgements of his influence from 'superstar' white guitarists, and yet blues fanatics tend to ignore him. Perhaps because they consider him 'too professional' or a bit 'too jazzy'; but to jazz fans he is a blues artist.

A blues artist he certainly is, always has been, and B.B. himself insists that he always will be. In the words of the song Lucille—the story of his guitar—he sings 'If I could sing pop tunes like Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. I don't think I still could do it. 'Cos Lucille don't want to play nothing but the blues'. Perhaps some of his recordings have shown that Lucille can play other stuff, but she always seems more at home with the blues.

He is certainly a professional, and so he should be, having been in the business for about 26 years. But as to the criticism that he is 'too professional', this probably stems from the fact that he seems to be effortless in his guitar playing. Long runs will flow from his guitar seemingly at ease; evidence of this can be heard in the introduction to Sweet Little Angel on the Live And Well album. Because of this his playing might seem to lack feeling and guts, as opposed to, say, Buddy Guy, who appears to pull every note from the inside of his guitar.

When one, however, considers that B.B.'s main guitar influences are T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Django Reinhardt and, to a smaller degree Charlie Christian, it is hardly surprising that his solo work is easily flowing. The only one in these four of whom this would be untypical is James. However James is very evident in B.B.'s earlier work; listen to Please Love Me and Everything I Do Is Wrong for a couple of examples.

His vocal style probably comes under less criticism from the blues addicts for he has a beautiful, powerful voice in the blues shouter tradition. It seems that he also has a good voice and range for jazz singing (although this seems to have been overlooked by many jazz critics); listen to the Confessin' The Blues album where he performs a number of standards with plenty of feeling and understanding.

The man himself lists his main vocal influences as Doctor Clayton (compare voices of the two on Clayton's Moonshine Woman Blues and King's The Woman I Love—lyrically they are almost identical, which makes it easier), a gospel singer called Samuel H. McQuery (strangely, since despite early secular influences B.B. has recorded only one set of Gospel songs, B.B. King Sings Spirituals on Crown 5119) and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

So much for criticisms of King's general style; now to give a history of the man. He was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925 on a plantation between Itta Bena and Indianola in Sunflower County, Mississippi. He was the eldest of the five children of Albert and Nora King. His parents split up when he was very young and he was cared for by a neighbouring family; it was here that he obtained his first musical training in both voice and guitar—from his contact with the family's church and the local preacher's guitar. His clear, crisp, high and immediately comprehensible voice is probably the result of hymn and close harmony singing in church.

By his late teens his spiritual influences were overtaken by his liking for the blues and he is said to have been taught a good deal about blues guitar playing by Robert Jr. Lockwood, who he had seen and heard on occasions performing along with 'Sonny Boy' Rice Miller—a man whose acquaintance was to help later in his career. With the blues firmly installed in his mind, B.B. would go off at weekends to nearby towns to sing and play on the sidewalks. This gave him very useful experierience as well as some additional cash but he was forced to stop at the age of seventeen, when he joined the Army. His term of duty was deferred as he was required as a tractor driver back on the farm at Itta Bena during the war years.

When the war ended he continued where he had left off. In 1947 he decided to become a professional musician and set off for Memphis, the centre of Southern blues activity, and a chance to hit the bigtime. By the time he reached Clarksdale he was down and out, but met up with Ike Turner who looked after him for a while. Back on his feet, he continued his journey and eventually reached Memphis and began playing Beale Street. Here he met up with other young musicians and formed a band called The Beale Streeters.

The original band contained four musicians who were all to become very big in the blues and r'n'b fields, Bobby 'Blue' Bland—a performer still with a very large following in the States and now breaking into the bigger markets, Johnny Ace, the man who recorded Pledging My Love and eventually shot himself to the amazement and grief of thousands of fans, Roscoe Gordon, who was to make some very good r'n'b records but who has now faded away, and King himself.

The band was formed in 1948 but probably earned a none too good living as by 1949 the unit had split up and everyone gone separate ways. In '49 B.B. crossed the river to West Memphis and there met up again with Rice Miller, who had his own radio show with The Biscuit Boys. Miller gave him a ten minute spot on his show, but it was not long before King had his own two hour show and was fronting a small band to play in local clubs.

It was in 1949 that King made his first recordings, at the WDIA station in Memphis, where he was a full time DJ and entertainer. The recordings were made for Bullet Records of Nashville. The backing band was 'boppish' in style and included Tuff Green on bass and Phineas Newborn on piano—four sides were recorded and issued on Bullet 309 and 315. The following year he was recorded by Sam Phillips who sold the tapes to Joe Biharo, who issued them on his RPM label. (These early tracks show very much T-Bone Walker's influence).

The Biharis—Joe and Jules—were impressed enough to contract King to Modern/RPM and his first session for them in 1952 produced Three O'clock Blues which was to hit the national r'n'b charts in a big way and to start King on tours all over the States in clubs, ballrooms and theatres. From thereon the r'n'b big sellers came thick and fast; he recorded dozens of tracks in the ensuing nine years for the Biharis and was the mainstay of their RPM label. He was continually on the road with his band or in the studios with them.

Round about 1956 the bottom appeared to drop out of the blues market; rock 'n' roll was beginning to emerge and companies began to terminate blues artists' contracts. King was fortunately retained by the Biharis (indeed he was the only blues artist retained by them, even people like John Lee Hooker and Elmore James being dropped). He was probably kept on because the line-up of his band was suitable to be bent to a rock 'n' roll style—piano and saxes.

This surmise is supported by the fact that the Biharis went to town with him, and sides complete with tinkling piano, wailing saxes, girlie choruses and sweeping strings were recorded in attempts to capture some of the current market for rock and ballads. This period brought forth some of the worst King on record—material like Bim Bam, Bad Case Of Love, Shake Yours, Mashin' The Popeye and Don't Cry Any More—but the fault lies with bad material and arranging, not King. A lot of blues sides were still recorded by him, for B sides and LP fillers, and these were good King. One notable exception in this mess that became a big hit was the version of Memphis Slim's Everyday I Have The Blues, recorded in 1959 with the full Count Basie Orchestra of the time (less the leader). This is now virtually King's signature tune.

In 1961 King left the Biharis and joined ABC. There was presumably some ill-feeling around this time for it is reputed that there were long recording sessions arranged by the Biharis— sessions that went on well into the night—probably to give Modern plenty of material to draw on once King had left. Thus a long and fruitful partnership came to an end, a partnership that had brought to the world some of the finest urban blues to be recorded. It also produced some very good compositions from B.B. along with the non-existent J. Taub (this was apparently a name dreamed up by Jules Bihari), songs like Sweet Little Angel, Sweet Sixteen, My Own Fault, You Upset Me and Three O'clock Blues (although it now seems that this last item was composed by Lowell Fulson).

On March 1, 1962 B.B. King recorded his first tracks for ABC. In the main this first set was not very good, nor were the next couple of dozen items—it seemed that ABC were trying to make him a second-rate Ray Charles, without much success. However, by late 1964 ABC seemed to have dropped the Charles idea and recorded a live album of King in Chicago on November 21, 1964, the famous Live At The Regal set. Good recording, his own band and a receptive audience all helped to bring out what is generally reckoned to be the best B.B. King album recorded.

In 1965 ABC recorded King with a large unidentified band; the resulting album showcased his vocal capabilities and almost ignored his guitar (although there are one or two flashes of beautiful runs on the instrument). The album contained mainly jazz/blues standards such as Goin' To Chicago Blues, See See Rider, Wee Baby Blues and Confessin' The Blues (the title of the album) and proved that he had a very controlled, relaxed voice and a good deal of jazz understanding. A later album entitled Blues On Top Of Blues seemed to try and enter the same field with more original material, but did not reach the same standard, mainly because the new material was not up to the mark of the evergreens.

The next long player to be recorded was another live session from Chicago in 1966. This session was very good but did not reach the heights of Live At The Regal. Neither King nor his band seemed to be as relaxed as the '64 recording, except for one or two pieces like the introduction to Gambler's Blues and Don't Answer The Door. From here on King's albums are probably wider known than at any period in his career—Blues On Top Of Blues (mentioned above), His Best—The Electric (not a very apt title for while the performances are fairly good this is definitely not the best), and then an album named after his guitar Lucille.

King was then linked up with producer Bill Szymezk who seemed to have a knack of producing good King—sometimes brilliant—and teaming him up with young musicians, black and white, whose names are better known to younger people, resulting in very good sales. Out came Live And Well (the best King since Regal and debatably better), Completely Well (containing the award winning The Thrill Is Gone) and Indianola, Mississippi Seeds. This last item proved that it was possible to be commercial using strings, brass, big names, etc. but still produce good blues. These last few albums really brought B.B. King into the big names and big money.

The next album, 'Live At Cook County Jail', was the last one over which Szymezyk presided, to be replaced by two men, Ed Michel and Joe Zagarino. Now these two are undoubtedly fine record producers, but when it comes to blues they seem to be clueless—or is it that ABC don't want them to do it? The next album was an obvious one—record B.B. in London with big rock names. B.B. King In London became a plastic reality. Plastic in physical terms and also in rock generation terminology. There was a photo of B.B. outside 10, Downing Street, also one of his guitar leaning beside a road sign marked 'Abbey Road. N.W.8' and to finish it all off a list of album co-stars—all big rock names—just like Cecil B. De Mille had dreamt it. It was a very poor album; even B.B. seems halfhearted.

L.A. Midnight (reasonable) and Guess Who followed and it was becoming embarrassingly obvious that the combination of Szymezyk/King had hit a peak in good saleable blues which King/Michel/Zagarino could not. His latest album to date, To Know You Is To Love You, puts King into the Tamla Motown bag and it seems that the possibility of a new King album steeped in blues is becoming smaller. King, however, is still an absolute master of the blues in live performance. Here he is still 'The Undisputed King Of The Blues', 'The Man Who's Paid The Cost To Be The Boss'— perhaps the money made from the latterday albums can be considered Riley King's deserved financial reward for the payments he had to make to become The King.

Recommended Albums:
Kent (USA) KST 9011—B. B. King, 1949-1950
Crown (USA) CLP 5119—B. B. King Sings Spirituals
Blue Horizon (UK) 7-63216 and 7-63226—The B. B. King Story Vol. 1 & 2
Kent (USA) KST 521—The Jungle
HMV (UK) CSD 3514—Confessin' The Blues
ABC (USA) ABCS 509—Live At The Regal
Blueswav (USA) BLS-6031 Live & Well
Probe (UK) SPBA 6255—Indianola Mississippi Seeds

Photo: B.B. King at the Capital Jazz Festival, Alexandra Palace, 1979

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