“B.B. may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever. And there’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”
President Barack Obama.
After weeks of speculation over his health, his estate and family feuds, the inevitable finally happened last night as B.B. King sadly passed away at the age of 89. Despite this inevitability it is still a shock, and more importantly, it is an incredibly huge loss to the music world. Born in Mississippi to sharecroppers Albert and Nora King, B.B. King climbed his way out of poverty and fought the racist social structures of the United States to become one a global icon, a symbol of the blues and of African-American success.
Hitting the big time in 1952 with ‘3 O’Clock Blues’, he would go on to score numerous blues hits such as ‘How Blue Can You Get’, ‘Rock Me Baby’, and, of course, ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. The latter was B.B. King’s biggest hit; released in 1970, it became his signature track, winning him a Grammy Award. Hits would be less forthcoming after 1970, but Mr King still released some brilliant music – his last album One Kind Favor, released in 2009, also won a Grammy.
For me, B.B. King is one of the greatest and one of my favourite artists. Back in 2011 it was announced that he would be touring the UK, taking in Glastonbury as well as the Royal Albert Hall. I was just about to start university when I went to see Mr King on my own in London, missing my school’s leavers prom in the process. That turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made: for about two hours London was bathed in blues from Mr King, his excellent and well-turned out band, and from some very special guests. I spent that summer listening non-stop to B.B. King records – I had the privilege of travelling to Chicago later that summer too, and spent an inordinate amount of time (and money) hunting down his best-known works. Since then B.B. King and Lucille have always been there.
But now of course, he is gone. Thankfully I have the memories of that night in London, and of course we can all share in the wonderful music that he provided us with all those years. Normally at TFSR we choose our favourite records by an artist who has sadly passed, and whilst B.B. King recorded some of the best songs ever produced his live performances were arguably better. So, join us as we remember the King of the Blues through some of our favourite performances.
‘Rock Me Baby’ – Feat. Eric Clapton & George Benson
Eric Clapton is a disciple of B.B. King – just look at his heartfelt video he posted today – and he’s at his best here performing for Mr King, who appears to be thoroughly enjoying this rendition. George Benson then joins in, with his jazzier guitar licks and smoother voice, providing a stark contrast to Clapton’s gritter vocals. We had an album of Clapton and King recordings; just imagine how good a Benson-King collaboration would have been.
‘The Thrill is Gone’ – Live in Zaire, 1974
This is one of the best performances we’ve ever found of ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. Recorded as part of the Zaire ’94 concert that took place ahead of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman (and documented in the great 2008 Soul Power film), B.B. King is at his best here – his vocals are powerful, Lucille sounds great, and the band are superb.
‘Live in Cook County Jail’ – 1970
Now admittedly this is a live album, but it’s worth listening to the whole thing; sure, Live at the Regal is great and many point to it as his seminal recording, but this performance for us seems a little more polished and little better. It’s an interesting concept allowing such a star such as B.B. King into a prison to perform for convicted criminals, but then again, those men surely had the blues more than most. B.B. King treats the audience to a forty-minute set of tracks such as ‘Every Day I Have The Blues’, a brilliant – if not the best version – of ‘How Blue Can You Get’, ‘Sweet Sixteen’, and of course ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. Take forty minutes out of your day, you will not be disappointed.
‘It’s My Own Fault’ – Feat. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Live on Soul Train 1975
B.B. King found a great recording partner in the famed blues singer Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, and the two put out two great records together in the seventies. This performance, whilst being exceptional, is equally very interesting: Soul Train, at the time, was used by the soul acts of the day to promote their latest music to a fairly young audience, and most recordings were lip-synced too. Thus, having two blues singers performing live seems a bit of an oddity. But it works, the chemistry between the two is brilliant and Lucille sounds sweet accompanying Bland’s unique vocals.
‘I’ll Survive’ – Live By Request, 2003
Live by Request is a television show in America (or at least, was) in which big artists perform hits requested in by members of the audience who can call into the show – indeed, the idea itself was devised by none other than Tony Bennett. B.B. King took to the stage in 2003; by this time he was performing sitting down, but he still had the voice and guitar chops necessary to entertain. On this song – recorded back in his career, but resurrected on the excellent Blues on the Bayou album – B.B King drenches the lyrics with heart wrenching emotion, the band playing their blues to perfection, with the horns being particularly brilliant on this one. For us, this is one of the best Mr King ever recorded.
‘Stay Around A Little Longer’ – With Buddy Guy, 2010.
Again, this is actually from an album but we think it deserves to be here. Taken from Buddy Guy’s excellent Living Proof album, the song finds the two old friends in a reflective and poignant mood. The lyrics tell both their stories of playing the blues, and how grateful they are to have achieved success. As the lyric goes, ‘I’ll never stop, playing these blues’ – and B.B King never did.
‘The Thrill Is Gone’ – Feat. Slash, Ronnie Woods, Mick Hucknall, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, 2011
Back to that night in the summer of 2011, and here’s a clip from that show. To be honest it was an odd show, B.B King was being recorded for a video and there were to be unannounced special guests – yet he seemed a bit off key, as if no one had really explained the evening’s proceedings. That said, he was still on form, telling jokes and playing the blues – albeit a little slower than usual. Then Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi joined him on stage for what seemed like an eternity on ‘Rock Me Baby’. Derek Trucks pulled out some fine blues guitar, which Mr King semmed excited to hear him play. Half an hour later or so the big guns came out: first Slash, then Ronnie Woods and, for some reason, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. The group jammed for about three-quarters of an hour, ending naturally on ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. It was an incredible finale to what turned out to be B.B King’s last UK performance, and I’m so glad that I can say – from now until I die – that I had the pleasure of seeing the world famous King of the Blues live.