Blues guitarist, instructor and Guitar World contributor Andy Aledort pays tribute to the late, great B.B. King. Below, he breaks down the legendary guitarist's 10 greatest guitar moments.
10. Why I Sing the Blues - B.B. King & Friends: A Blues Session
In 1987, B.B. assembled the top blues, R&B and rock musicians of the day for a Showtime television special that was released soon after on VHS and later reissued on DVD under various titles.
Along with consistently powerful playing and singing from B.B. on many of his classic songs such as The Thrill Is Gone and Let the Good Times Roll, the event featured inspired performances by luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Etta James and Gladys Knight, along with Phil Collins, Chaka Chan and Billy Ocean.
On this track, we get to see the once-in-a-lifetime collaboration of Eric, Stevie, Albert, Paul and B.B. trading licks and tearing it up, pushing each other to play their absolute best. Upon its release, this show was dedicated to Paul Butterfield, founder of the hugely influential Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who sadly passed away on May 4, 1987.
9. You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now - My Kind of Blues
As the opening track on B.B.’s sixth studio album, 1961’s My Kind of Blues, B.B. gets things moving with a free-time chorus of brilliant unaccompanied guitar during which he reveals his incorporation of the jazz influence of Lonnie Johnson and Johnny Moore, the brother of Nat King Cole guitarist Oscar Moore, combined with his own distinct approach to single-string soloing that is purely his own.
After another half chorus of guitar and voice, the band drops in with a slow, hard-swinging feel over which he effortlessly floats expertly executed and deeply emotional solo blues guitar lines.
8. Everyday I Have the Blues - B.B. King and Bobby Bland: Together Again…Live
Blues titans B.B. King and Bobby 'Blue' Bland, touring compatriots throughout the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, joined forces to release the stellar set Together for the First Time…Live in 1974.
As a genre, blues music was experiencing the beginnings of a long decline at the time, but strong releases such as this, and its equally powerful follow-up, 1976’s Bobby Bland and B.B. King Together Again…Live, helped to keep both artists relevant and successful.
Everyday I Have the Blues was an old blues nugget when Memphis Slim released his hugely successful version of the song in 1949, and a little later in 1955, B.B. King recorded his version, replete with a swinging horn arrangement built from B.B.’s guitar lines, and he soon viewed it as his theme song.
This slightly slower hard-swinging version places Bland as the featured vocalist as B.B. is free to add his signature stinging guitar lines throughout. This is live big-band style blues at its finest.
7. Ain’t That Just Like a Woman - Spotlight on Lucille (and The Best of B.B. King Vol. 1)
Over B.B.’s long and illustrious career, there have been many compilation albums released on a variety of labels with recordings dating from virtually every era. With his move to ABC Records in 1962 and subsequent artistic success, many of his previous Modern/Kent recordings were released or re-released in a variety of best of type packages.
Today, these compilations offer listeners the chance to hear B.B. in many different settings, and Spotlight on Lucille compiles a dozen great instrumentals, many of which are played in a swinging jazz-like style, of which this is a perfect example. Ain’t That Just Like a Woman, originally recorded as a vocal tune in 1946 by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, was a huge hit upon its release, reaching Number One on the R&B charts and Number 17 on the pop charts.
When B.B. first cut it in 1960, he presented it as a barn-burning instrumental; his unaccompanied intro solo clearly illustrates his mastery as a player and dedication to the swing-style guitar of T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian. B.B. revisited the tune, complete with vocals, for his 1999 Let the Good Times Roll album.
6. King’s Special - Indianola Mississippi Seeds
In 1969, B.B. joined forces with rock record producer Bill Szymczyk (the Eagles, Joe Walsh, Elvin Bishop) and the fruits of their collaboration were immediate, first with the incendiary Live & Well, and followed by Completely Well, which included the hit track, The Thrill Is Gone.
This, their third collaboration and released in October 1970, pushed B.B.’s sound in more of a rock direction and placed him in the company of such notable musicians as Leon Russell, Joe Walsh, Carole King, Jerry Jemmott, Hugh McCrackin and Russ Kunkel (drummer for Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jackson Browne, among others).
Indianola Mississippi Seeds is often included with Live at the Regal and Singin’ the Blues as among the top three B.B. King albums of all time. King’s Special is a five-minute instrumental played with a very early Seventies mid-tempo funk/blues/rock feel, over which B.B. stretches out with great range stylistically and emotionally.
5. Worry, Worry, Worry - Live in Cook County Jail
Even as B.B.’s blossoming success with studio albums and singles was on the steady incline, he continued his grueling road schedule, performing an average of an incredible 200–250 dates a year (in 1956 alone, B.B. performed 342 one-nighters). A great passion of his was to perform for prison inmates; by 1990 he had played at over 50 different prisons across the country.
This set, recorded at Cook County Jail in Chicago in 1971, was his first such performance to be recorded and released, and he delivers an incredible set overflowing with deep emotional power, the centerpiece of which is the nearly 10-minute Worry, Worry, Worry, replete with chorus after chorus of some of the greatest soloing B.B. ever recorded.
B.B. told me in an interview that the experience of playing for prison inmates was, “Mixed, somewhat, because each time you play, you look at the faces of these people, and you know that’s it’s very possible that you could have been there yourself.”
A year after this recording, in 1972, B.B. founded FAIRR (The Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation) with legendary criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, designed to improve the quality of life of inmates everywhere.
4. Three O’ Clock Blues - Singin’ the Blues
Also known as 3 O’Clock Blues, this song was written by blues guitarist/singer Lowell Fulson and upon its original release in 1948 kicked off a highly successful career for Fulson. B.B. King covered the song for one of his earliest singles, released in 1951 by RPM Records, and it too became a smash hit, effectively serving to launch B.B.’s career as a new blues guitar/vocal star.
Recorded on sub-standard equipment at a Memphis YMCA, the track nonetheless garnered nationwide acclaim on the strength of the interplay between B.B.’s impassioned vocals and beautifully emotive improvised guitar work.
As is his standard approach, B.B. sings a lyric of the song and then answers his vocal with a counter-balanced guitar lick, utilizing a technique soon recognized as call and response. B.B.’s version is played in the key of Bb, with a vocal and guitar style not unlike that of one of his greatest influences, T-Bone Walker, albeit with greater rhythmic freedom and his signature vibrato in evidence.
3. Rock Me Baby - The Best of B.B. King Vol. 2
Upon its release in 1964, B.B.’s original studio recording of Rock Me Baby was an immediate hit, earning recognition as his first Top 40 hit and in short order becoming a blues standard. It is one of the most covered blues songs of all time, reworked to brilliant effect by the Jimi Hendrix Experience for their timeless 1967 Monterey Pop Festival performance.
Based originally on Lil’ Son Jackson’s 1950 single, Rockin’ and Rollin’, the song’s deep roots can be traced back to Curtis Jones (1939’s Roll Me Mama), Big Bill Broonzy (1940’s Rocking Chair Blues), Arthur Crudup (1944’s Rock Me Mama) and Muddy Waters (1956’s Rock Me).
Most likely recorded for Kent Records in the late Fifties/early Sixties, the track is earmarked by a taught, rock-solid piano-driven arrangement with brilliantly succinct solo lines added by B.B.; one listen and the influence of this track on the soloing styles of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix is obvious.
King later re-recorded the song with Clapton for his excellent 1997 Deuces Wild album, and other notable artists who effectively covered the song include Otis Redding, the Animals, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Deep Purple, the Rolling Stones, Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Johnny Winter, Robin Trower and Jeff Beck.
2. The Thrill Is Gone - Completely Well
Originally released in 1951 and a Top 10 single for the song’s composer, Roy Hawkins, The Thrill Is Gone is widely regarded as B.B. King’s most recognized signature song.
When B.B. recorded his version in late 1969 for his Bluesway/ABC Records album Completely Well (a follow-up to the hugely successful Live & Well album), it represented a marked departure from his past recordings via the pop-style high production values and inclusion of a lush string arrangement.
An instant smash, the song shot to Number Three on the R&B chart and Number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, and in 1970 earned him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
It remained a staple of B.B.’s live performances throughout his long career; stellar live versions of the song can be found on Live at Cook County Jail, Bobby Bland and B.B. King Together Again…Live and Live at San Quentin. At five and a half minutes, the song is nearly twice as long as the typical singles of the day.
As a performance, B.B.’s vocals and guitar lines are nothing less than absolute perfection. In the first two bars alone - roughly 10 seconds - B.B. says more musically and evokes more emotion than most guitarists do in a lifetime.
His phrasing, vibrato, melodic sense and impassioned delivery combine to present a stunning musicality that is undeniable. For the last two minutes of the recording, B.B. offers a master class in blues soloing of the highest order.
1. Sweet Little Angel - Live at the Regal
For those unfamiliar with the work of B.B. King, Live at the Regal is a pure classic, an absolute gem and an essential cornerstone in the history of the blues.
Over the course of his nearly 70-year recording career that began with the 1949 single, Miss Martha King b/w Got the Blues, the Mississippi-born guitarist released over 80 studio albums and an incredible 150 singles. But the one album mentioned more often than any other in King’s canon is 1965’s Live at the Regal, recorded on November 21, 1964, at the Regal Theater in Chicago.
This 35-minute powerhouse live set kicks off with possibly the greatest live medley ever recorded, as B.B. segues through the hard-driving, horn-infused opener, Everyday I Have the Blues, to Sweet Little Angel, It’s My Own Fault and How Blue Can You Get?
Blues-rock titans such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks have all pointed to Live at the Regal as an album so influential that it changed their lives.
In a recent eulogy to B.B., Clapton stated, “If you are not familiar with his work, I would encourage you to go out and find an album called B.B. King: Live at the Regal, which is where it all really started for me as a young player.”
While discussing essential blues albums with Jeff Beck bassist Ronnie Wood back in 1968, Jimi Hendrix gave Ronnie a copy of Live at the Regal as a gift. Regarding this release, B.B. said, “It’s considered by some to be the best recording I’ve ever had. On that particular day in Chicago, everything came together.”
Sweet Little Angel is played in the key of Db and begins with B.B.’s timeless guitar intro, built from a combination of Db minor and major pentatonic scales. As he solos through the intro, he rides the volume control of his guitar, transitioning brilliantly from a thin, biting tone to a fuller, sustaining sound, performing lines that owe as much to his guitar influences T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian as they do to classic R&B horn figures.
His guitar solo, though only one chorus in length, is the epitome of blues perfection, as inspired improvised lines are exquisitely melodic, punctuated by his floating butterfly style vibrato.