I suppose I knew it was coming, but I can’t really imagine a world without B.B. King (1925-2015) in it. We all know he was one of the great voices on the blues guitar, but he was much more than that. As a singer, songwriter, bandleader and pioneer for enduring success with non-commercial black music he made a huge mark and his guitar playing far transcends the blues, as can be heard in the generations of R&B, blues and rock guitar players who have adapted his style. In the interest of expediency, there are fewer discographical notes and less commentary than usual, I just wanted to highlight 10 of the performances that have most impacted me.
1 ) “Lucille”
This 10 minute tour de force of slow-tempo, wailing blues says all that needs to be said
2 ) “The Thrill Is Gone”
Of course – the song perhaps most associated with B.B. King – he performed this one so often, always embodying the pathos of the blues and always with searing lead guitar.
3 ) “Sweet Little Angel”
This is one of B.B.’s first singles, presenting him in a fairly standard 1950s blues combo setting, and at that he hits it out of the park with his singing and playing.
4 ) “Caldonia”
B.B. had a real knack for up-tempo “jump blues,” and my favorite example of that is this swinging interpretation of a classic Louis Jordan song. It’s hard to top Louis Jordan’s singing, but the way B.B. wails this one sure comes close.
5 ) “When Love Comes to Town” (by U2)
The blues purist in me cringes a little here, but when I was 14 (and already a blues fan) it made me so happy every time this track from Rattle and Hum came on the radio and I got to exalt at all the pop and rock music fans who were getting a dose of super-melodic, vibrato-drenched B.B. without even knowing it. Call it the early days of my subversive life . . .
6 ) “I Don’t Want You Cuttin’ Off Your Hair”
The lyrics here are perhaps a bit dated, but the song provides some classic slow, soulful B.B. singing and characteristically intense guitar work.
7 ) “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”
Again, somewhat dated lyrics on this one (the old trope of “I’m paying the bills, so obey me”) but if we take it as a product of its time we can focus instead on the infectiously swinging groove and soulful performance. This one actually made it onto rock radio when I was a teenager, albeit in a cover version by Pat Benatar.
8 ) “Hummingbird”
This slyly funky 1970 version of a sentimental Leon Russell tune offers pretty conclusive proof that if B.B. had wanted to cross all the way over from the blues, he had the wherewithal to do it.
9 ) “Precious Lord”
Though far less credited than Ray Charles or Sam Cooke for embodying the hazy distinction between blues and gospel, B.B. showed (in a strangely out of print recording of spirituals) that he could draw authoritatively from both of these overlapping wells.
10 ) “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”
Rather than a guitar feature, this short tune is a lighthearted-yet-tragic tale of marginalization that he delivers perfectly.