by Daniel Garrett
B.B. King, The Ultimate Collection
Compiled and produced by Andy McKaie
Geffen Records, 2005
B.B. King & Friends, 80
Executive Producers: Gary Ashley and Andy McKaie,
and Floyd Lieberman
Geffen Records/Universal, 2005
Riley King, the Blues Boy King, known to all as B.B. King, is a natural force and a distinctive musical talent, a disciplined musician and performer who worked hard to develop his craft and for decades spent much of his life performing for audiences. B.B. King sings what we call the blues—songs of personal experience, of bad love and tough times, of brave humor and hard-won wisdom; music that, as the Blues Foundation’s Bill Dahl has written, has “a basic I-IV-V chord progression laid over a 12-bar framework” and that “is as honest a musical form as it is uplifting” (Blues.org, accessible August 2006). There are a lot of questionable assumptions about the blues, and a lot of unfortunate responses to it. For some people, it only means poverty and the rawest unrelieved suffering. I remember seeing and hearing an old African-American man playing the blues near a subway stop, and seeing and hearing a young African-American man pass him and tell him to stop playing that old mess. I think of conversations with two friends, both African-American, in the not distant past, in which they too could only associate the blues with something negative—I thought this was ignorance, and that it was confident ignorance made it all the worse. The blues is not simply about experience, or the presentation of experience—it’s about the transformation of experience into self-knowledge and into art. It is a music that affirms the seriousness of life and the value of individuality even under duress. It affirms wisdom.
B.B. King, born September 16, 1925, in the Mississippi Delta, is the king of the blues. His anthology The Ultimate Collection is as good an introduction to the blues as any: and what is notable is the fact that it gives pleasure. The songs are presented in chronological order, and in “Three O’Clock Blues,” the collection’s first song, attributed to the writing of King and Jules Bihari, King’s voice is smooth, expressive, his diction colloquial, and he quotes a few lines of other well known blues songs about forgiveness. “Please Love Me” sounds as much like early rock and roll as anything. In the uptempo blues song “You Upset Me Baby”—King actually sings you “upsets” me, making the verb plural and somehow more active—King’s phrasing is soft and confident, and at times his lines are spoken fast and at other times they erupt in long wails. (The collection’s second and third songs were also written by King with Bihari.) An influence himself, it’s interesting to consider what might be King’s influences, something that might be easier to hear when considering his earliest work: I have read that B.B. King’s influences are men such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Elmore James, but King’s intonation in “Three O’Clock Blues,” which he recorded in 1951, is very similar to that of Bessie Smith: it’s intriguing to think of men and women using a style that might be described as androgynous or universal—what’s important are the dramatic declarations, the revelations of feeling. “Please Love Me” has a rocking rhythm that reminds me of Fats Domino.
King’s early voice sounds beautiful and big, nearly operatic; though big and loud, it is also soft and round. The blues—his blues, but also most blues—staked out a place of privacy, in which personal relationships are important, and the directness of expression—the lack of falsity, the lack of pretension: the telling of truth—among people who might be thought to be intimidated by social decorum or expectations is inspiring.
By the time King recorded “Sweet Sixteen,” in 1960, King is using a rougher, more obviously masculine voice (still, not unlike Bessie Smith). “Sweet Sixteen,” written by King with Joe Josea, is a slow, full-throated blues, a complaint about an inconstant young, possibly fated love. King’s voice is low and broad, then high, almost fey: masculine assertion versus, or complemented by, male hysteria. “Everything I do is in vain,” King sings. He also mentions a brother in Korea and a sister in New Orleans, a gesture toward modernity and the world outside the song. “I wonder what in the world is going to happen to me,” he asks. The language is plain and the feeling is pain. That sounds less like a song than a confession. King says he’ll keep loving the girl despite the hurt she causes but he predicts “one day you’re gonna give a lot of money to hear someone call my name”—and he ends the song with high-voiced worried wails. King and Josea’s “Rock Me Baby” is one of King’s best known songs, and it is an erotic request in which King sings, “I want you to rock me like my back ain’t got no bone…I want you to roll me baby, like you roll a wagon wheel…” It is a request for passion and sex in a language that accepts sex as natural and equates sex and music.
“You’re so evil when I’m with you baby, but you’re jealous when we’re apart,” B.B. King sings in Jane Feather’s “How Blue Can You Get?” His complaints are hailed by horns. King sings the song so much like he wrote it that it’s a surprise to know someone else—and a woman—wrote it. There are also live versions on King’s Ultimate Collection of Paul Chatman’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” and King and Jules Taub’s “Sweet Little Angel,” with the former being given a fast treatment—which lessens its impact for me—and the latter, about a responsive and generous lover, is done with a slow, deep voice, with a sexual resonance. Live versions of songs are testaments to popularity as much as musical statements (sometimes more of the former than the later; and what’s impressive about some of King’s live performances is the centrality of his guitar playing).
There’s celebration and complaint in the blues, spirituality and sexuality, and patience and the drama of waiting and release in the lyrics and the music; and the ups and downs of love are quite present in The Ultimate Collection. Fidelity is a concern in James F. Johnson’s “Don’t Answer the Door,” which is given an instrumental introduction, followed by B.B. King’s deep-voiced warnings, in which he tells his lover not to answer the door when he’s not there, not even if it’s her sister or mother visiting. He tells her that if she’s sick, don’t call the doctor, but wait—and suffer—until he gets home. That is jealous worry turned to possessive and injurious paranoia. King’s voice is deeper and rougher than on his early songs: there’s a concentration and intensity and instead of delicacy there is, possibly, anger and pain (and exhaustion from the hard work of constant performance?). “Don’t Answer the Door” and “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss” are songs with formidable ideas and unique personal responses. B.B. King tells his woman that as long as he’s paying the bills, he’s paying the cost to be the boss—he doesn’t want to be ignored or lectured to about his behavior—in “Paying the Cost to be the Boss,” which can seem an old-fashion (patriarchal, male chauvinist) statement, except that King sounds as if a lot of outrageous talk on his lover’s part led to this declaration.
B.B. King’s legendary classic—which he did not write—is “The Thrill Is Gone,” which features blues guitar, shimmering strings, irregular drum beats, periodic horn punctuations, and is full of drama, intensity, and mystery. The song, which has both groove and mood, was written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell, and it still has great power today. It is the sound of awakening from a nightmare, and there’s in it a sense of danger and also relief.
“Nobody Loves Me But My Mother (and She Might Be Jiving Too)” begins with a moaning hum, but this short song’s dire lyric has a touch of humor: often the worst in life is balanced by the best resources in the human personality.
Music changes, and those changes touch even the most singular artists. There’s a surprising contemporary treatment given what seems a classic blues sound, moments when the music features melody and tempo changes that touch on different genres and the music is transformed into something that is nearly European-classical, in “Chains and Things,” a song about a bad dream and complaints about a woman and also a boss. The song was written by King with Dave Clark. Russ Kunkel is on drums, and Carole King is on piano. King’s voice has a soft, contemplative sound, especially at the ends of some of his line readings in which he is pained and perplexed. It’s a very attractive song. Traces of the contemporary musical world are found in Jerry Ragavoy’s “Ain’t Nobody Home,” which sounds as if it could have been recorded by Otis Redding (it’s more soul music than blues—but then King’s early songs on the anthology under consideration also reminded me of Al Green and Roberta Flack). “I Like to Live the Love (I Sing About in My Song),” written by Dave Crawford and Charles Mann, sounds like a cross between rhythm and blues and gospel, and it’s a bit overproduced. In Norbert Hooper and Will Jennings’s “Never Make a Move Too Soon,” with its rock-influenced sound, King’s voice is in front of indistinct sounds, a kind of live party sound with a simple rhythm interrupted by Wilton Felder’s sax, as King sings of traveling a lot and being involved with different women—and he tells someone that she’s made a move too soon, that she’s outwitted herself, something he tries not to do. “Better Not Look Down,” an uptempo song of advice, with a blues guitar and a rhythm that seems country-rock, and something of a pop-gospel choir, and a spoken (storytelling/rap) portion, is an oddity.
The difficulty of life, and the perversity of people, is the subject of a clearly rendered slow blues, “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere,” written by Doc Pomus and Mac Rebbenack.
B.B. King’s bluesy rock duet (“When Love Comes to Town”) with the rock band U2 is here, as is King’s “Ten Long Years,” co-written with Jules Bihari, and recorded in year 2000 with Eric Clapton on guitar and as producer. The Clapton collaboration was from an album that was King’s bestselling, Riding with the King. B.B. King’s anthologyThe Ultimate Collection closes with the King-Sam Ling composition “I’ll Survive,” which affirms survival after a relationship’s end, and in which one can hear a ballad and the blues.
All those songs form a fairly good survey of B.B. King’s blues. What’s surprising is there’s not even more of the twentieth-century in it. The difficulty of the political circumstances of African-American life has been expressed in one song B.B. King has sung: “Why I Sing the Blues,” in which the first line acknowledges, “Everybody wants to know why I sing the blues.” The second verse states, “When I first got the blues /They brought me over on a ship /Men were standing over me /And a lot more with a whip.” The third verse states, “I’ve laid in a ghetto flat /Cold and numb /I heard the rats tell the bedbugs /To give the roaches some.” The lyrics include complaints about housing, education, the lack of charity, and the universality of trouble. That song is not part of The Ultimate Collection, nor can one read—or hear—explicitly about those political circumstances in the songs in the anthology. We usually do not think of the blues as political, but that is part of its context. Discrimination attached to race—racism—is a fact, and it involves no special pleading to acknowledge that: racism is born of and defined by a history that is influential and half-known and half-understood, a history of economic exploitation and social discrimination, of ignorance and arrogance, of self-interest, of cruelty and brutality, born of a lack of empathy and positive imagination, of fear of contamination, competition, and retribution, fear of alternative authorities and values, and it exists in the repudiation of the call for reparations. Many are comfortable when no one mentions that history. Such history is not thought a crime if people do not know or acknowledge they are or have been oppressed: but I think even ignorance is a crime—a political betrayal of the state, and a moral crime of the individuals in society. Yet, being a victim does not render a person or a people innocent or holy: in fact, it’s often corrupting, embittering, limiting. There are all kinds of work, not simply acknowledgement, which are required to redeem that history. The blues is both a tool, and also evidence, of survival.
If I were to try to list people I think of as important in music, I would include Joan Armatrading, Louis Armstrong, David Bowie, Anthony Braxton, James Brown, Betty Carter, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Fela, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Green, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Lena Horne, Howlin’ Wolf, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Al Jarreau, Rickie Lee Jones, Annie Lennox, Abbey Lincoln, Miriam Makeba, Bob Marley, Wynton Marsalis, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, Thelonious Monk, David Murray, Willie Nelson, Sinead O’Connor, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Jimmy Scott, Bruce Springsteen, Sly Stone, Barbra Streisand, Cecil Taylor, Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, Sarah Vaughan, Caetano Veloso, and…Cassandra Wilson. B.B. King would have to be among them.
An aging, singular presence, a great musician, such as B.B. King doesn’t really sound as if he needs anyone—for love, or for work, even as he sings on the music anthology of duets called 80 “I need your love so bad” with an unusually bluesy Sheryl Crow (she seems to be channeling Bonnie Raitt—though I wonder who Bonnie Raitt channels?). 80 commemorates King’s year 2005 birthday. Singers such as Van Morrison and Sheryl Crow make attempts, decent attempts, to come close to King’s style—it may be a defensive measure as much as a sign of respect—but I liked Daryl Hall and John Mayer for remaining themselves: Hall and Mayer seemed youthful, charming, (musically) alive for that. Surprisingly, Elton John holds his own with King much better than Van Morrison: the former Reg Dwight brings his energy and intensity to “Rock This House” and the connection between blues and rock is seen, confirmed, extended. It is easy for anthologies of various duets to be disappointing but such a genuine effort is redeeming. This collection—80—also features Bobby Bland, Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey, and Mark Knopfler, and it affirms B.B. King’s inspiring and lasting relationship to popular music.
About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.