B.B. King ‘The Blues plus ‘Blues in My Heart’ (Hoodoo) 4/5

bb-kingThe thrill may have gone with his recent passing, but the music will certainly live on and, in the case of Riley B. King, his status as The great populariser of the electric blues in the second half of the twentieth century is likely to go undiminished for many decades, if not remain eternal.
This double bill of early career albums on the Crown label from 1958 (actually grouping together 45 from 1951 to 1958) and 1961 plus bonus tracks for unbeatable value for money at seventy-nine minutes, and serves as a useful introduction to his late 1950s period when 45s were ubiquitous on the juke boxes and R & B was the new hip. This is reflected in B.B. King’s approach here which betrays a strong influence of his idol Louis Jordan as well as the jazz-tinged guitar licks of T-Bone Walker. King would later combine the two elements in a big band setting during the 1960s and this would culminate in the seminal ‘Live at the Regal’ from 1965 which remains a definitive B.B. King statement and a contender for his greatest ever live album alongside ‘Live at Cook County Jail’. Later on his career, B.B. King would on occasion revisit his formative influences as on the 1999 album, ‘Let the Good Times Roll’, which was merely a pretext to pay homage once again to Louis Jordan. Already in 1958 a poll of some three hundred record dealers had voted the singer ‘King of the Blues’ and his panoramic vision of how the blues could be updated and take on board external musical influences was a major factor in separating him from the rest.

The then in-vogue use of Latin percussion adds a welcome touch of exoticism on some numbers, no more so than on the R & B flavoured, ‘Don’t you want a man like me’, with an Earl Bostic style saxophone solo of distinction. Likewise a Latin drumbeat predominates on ‘Ruby Lee’ with baritone saxophone and horns fighting out the brass honours. B.B. certainly perfected this orchestrated sound like no other bluesman. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is the sheer sensitivity and tenderness of the lyrics that the leader was capable of conjuring out of his songwriter hat and this is wonderfully exemplified on ‘Your letter ‘ which must be a candidate for the subtlest of messages coming from the heart and B.B. King had an extra kind heart to match the size of his frame and a deep social conscience with which to counter prejudice. Just re-read: ‘[Your letter] Reached me early this morning and I read every word you had to say’ to illustrate that men could be equally sensitive to the concerns and fears of their other half. Several numbers are pitched at a gentle pace and this enables the listener to focus on the meaning of the lyrics as well as enjoy the instrumentation. An extended guitar solo features on ‘Troubles, troubles, troubles’ while the Hammond organ-led ‘Troubles don’t last’ builds up in intensity. Especially convincing is the piano undercurrent on ‘Past day’, a candidate for the CDs strongest number. B.B.’s genius for sensing a hit single with R & B jive, the neatest of guitar licks and call and response horns plus some boogie woogie piano works an absolute treat on ‘Early in the morning’. It is true to say that none of the songs showcased here became major successes for B.B. King in the manner that say, ‘You upset me baby’, ‘Ten long years’, ‘Sweet little angel’ or ‘Sweet sixteen’ ever did. That said, they still form a cohesive set of songs and are an invaluable part of understanding what made B.B. King the musician that he was and that invariably included a large dose of self-deprecating humour which he regularly exploited in order to chronicle the trials and tribulations of human beings falling in and out of love. For that quality alone we owe him a great debt of gratitude. Throughout the re-mastered recordings here is both clarity and depth which enhances the listen experience no end and, as with previous re-issues, Hoodoo have done a fine job of cramming in as many photos and cover/labels as possible with full recording details.

B.B. King would hit the jackpot in 1969 when he released the single, ‘The thrill has gone’, which crossed over into the pop charts at a time when musical segregation on the airwaves was still rife and the civil rights movement was in full flow. He had finally made it into a mainstream audience the colour of which would change dramatically over the subsequent years. B.B. King had gone international.

Tim Stenhouse