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Monday, March 29, 2010

B. B. King: Singin' The Blues


1) Please Love Me; 2) You Upset Me Baby; 3) Everyday (I Have The Blues); 4) Bad Luck; 5) Three O'Clock Blues; 6) Blind Love; 7) Woke Up This Morning; 8) You Know I Love You; 9) Sweet Little Angel; 10) Ten Long Years; 11) Did You Ever Love A Woman; 12) Crying Won't Help You.

B. B. King's singles on RPM records started flowing as early as 1949, but most of his career was LP-oriented, and so it makes sense to choose, as our point of departure, this 1956 collection that puts together the majority of his best singles from 1951 to 1955 (a more comprehensive overview of the early years can probably be found on some later anthologies, but, as far as I am able to tell, there is no single collection that puts together all of his early material).

Many of these songs were huge hits on the blues and R&B charts — but, for some reason, missed attracting white audiences, far more enthralled with the likes of Muddy Waters and Elmore James at the time. Look up the biographies of blues/R&B-enthralled British Invaders, for instance, and you will rarely see B. B. mentioned as an influence, except, perhaps, by just a few oddjobs like Eric Clapton, and only in retrospect. Reason? Too clean.

Already from the get-go, B. B. positioned himself as the king of «Blues-de-Luxe»: respectable playing for respectable gentlemen. Take a look at the album cover: with his big fat Gibson, pin-striped suit and tie, he looks like the black equi­valent of Bill Haley. The same applies to music: smooth, mid-tempo, backed by professional jazz musicians with big brassy arrangements. And, to make matters worse, the guy puts as much emphasis on his singing as he does on his playing — the most tasteless thing in blues, ever! But then, what do you really want from a guy one of who­se primary idols in life has been Frank Sinatra?

All of this easily explains why B. B. did not become a household name among white audiences until the late Sixties and particularly the early Seventies. It also explains why these early singles are not really the «milestones» they are sometimes pronounced to be. For blues lovers, 'Every Day I Have The Blues' is one of the cornerstones of the genre, but definitely not because of this original version of King's, a whopping 2:49 in length and only featuring a brief, minimalistic solo — he had to popularize it, and a dozen other big hits, in a live context to achieve this result, and he had to wait at least ten more years for it.

Singin' The Blues is no more of a milestone in the evolution of electric blues than contemporary records by the other King (Albert) — or, for that matter, earlier records by T-Bone Walker. Most of the time, B. B. plays relatively standard, predictable licks that do not differ all that much from the regular techniques of the epoch; more importantly, the compact form of the 45"-tailored ditty does not allow him the slightest opportunity to stretch out, improvise, or develop a theme.

If there is one reason to listen to these singles at all, it is the singing. Unquestionably, at this point B. B. King was the most vocally-endowed blues performer in the business (and would remain so until the emergence of a strong competitor in Freddie King), and his manner of phrasing and vo­calizing owes much more to urban semi-crooners like Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson, not to mention white lounge performers (to whom the man must have lent quite a serious ear), than to hoarse growlers from the Delta. This makes it hard to associate his music with the devil, who, as I have heard, is gravely allergic to falsetto, and prefers to make serious deals with the likes of John Lee Hooker. But, when dealing with B. B. King, it is wise to remember that blues had been alter­nately serving as a genre of lounge entertainment since the day it was born, and to try and appro­ach him from the same way one would approach Sinatra or Neil Diamond: prima facie a respec­table entertainer who will try to stir up — gracefully and cautiously to some, blandly and boringly to others — the human parts of your soul, not the animal parts.

In fact, I think I «got» this record — and B. B.'s studio style in general — when I thought of it as sort of a Clyde McPhatter album with the doo-wop harmonies and strings replaced by searing electric guitar. Many people, I think, share this dream with me: to hear Clyde McPhatter with an atmosphere of grit inside of sap. Well, you need not look further than the original versions of 'Three O'Clock Blues' or 'Did You Ever Love A Woman' to get what you want. Thumbs up; this may be «seminal» material indeed — but not for the reasons it is usually proclaimed as such.


  1. True, B.B. King made his name primarily among black audiences - who went to blues shows to be entertained, as opposed to whites, who watched bluesmen to see historical artifacts, or with the scholarly attitude of folk aficionados. His audiences turned whiter in the late 60s - mainly because his managers upped his cachet when he became a star and his old followers could not afford his shows anymore. But until then he was probably the only bluesman who still attracted large black crowds when most young urban African Americans preferred R&B and soul. Listen to the audience in "Live At The Regal" - that's not the kind of audience that "goes to a concert" (compare with Albert King's "Live Wire / Blues Power"), that's the kind of blues club audience blues performers were used to work with. (Many "rediscovered" bluesmen that worked in the folk circuit in the 60s used to say that they found it difficult to adjust to the reverent attitude of white college audiences, used as they were to measure their success in number of people dancing).

  2. I don't know about the devil being allergic to falsetto. Remember Robert Johnson was quite a fan...