For B.B. King the thrill is far from gone. On Monday, September 16, Lucille's pappy and the most influential figure in electric blues will celebrate his 88th birthday during a rare gap in touring, which he’ll start up again on October 4 with a concert in Prior Lake, Minnesota. At this point King is, for many people, the living definition of blues, and he’s certainly a walking encyclopedia of licks and lore going way back to his days as a poor orphan on a Mississippi farm in the 1930s.
In recent decades King’s albums have been starry affairs like the platinum-selling, Grammy winning collaboration with Eric Clapton Riding With the King, 2005’s birthday blues party with Billy Gibbons, Clapton, Bobby Bland, John Mayer, Roger Daltrey and Gloria Estefan called B.B King and Friends: 80, and the deeply rooted One Kind Favor, made with celebrity producer T-Bone Burnett.
Most listeners associate King with his 1970 break-though hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” but King has been making recordings since 1949 and developed most of his repertoire, vocal phrasing and licks in the first 15 years of his career.
He’s a look at 10 early King recordings that were signposts of his development during those formative years.
• “Miss Martha King”: B.B.’s first single was an ode to his wife, relying more on his soaring vocals than his stinging, vibrato drenched licks. It was cut in 1949 at Memphis radio station WDIA, where King was also a DJ. Publicity photos from this period show King embracing a single coil guitar, so he’d yet to discover his patented rich, ringing Gibson tone as well.
• “Three O’Clock Blues”: King’s first hit was cut at the Memphis WMCA and released in 1950. It represents a major leap for King. The song, while strictly adhering to a 12 bar form, shows terrific development in his playing under the influence of T-Bone Walker. King was transitioning to hollow body guitars at this point, and would soon be famously photographed onstage in a suit with short pants brandishing a Gibson Switchmaster. His solo on “Three O’Clock Blues” is terrific, blending staccato and fluid licks with a biting tone that captures the want in the line, “Please forgive me for all my sins.”
• “Please Love Me”: Recorded in Houston, Texas, in 1952 and released the next year, this shuffle starts with an Elmore James riffs and swoops into the chugging first verse as King pledges his love with the fervor of a street preacher, adding fills in response to his voice. King has never been able to play slide, but the core riff is his finger style imitation of James’s bottleneck, and his solo is squealing and passionate.
• “You Upset Me Baby”: Four years after King’s “Three O’Clock Blues” became one of the best selling records of 1951, this single reached number one on the R&B charts, giving King a second sign that his career had the potential for longevity. Nonetheless, it would take until the 1970s and “The Thrill is Gone” for King to cross over to white listeners and rock venues, and for him to reach a level where it would no longer be a struggle to keep his musical operations afloat.
• “Rock Me Baby”: This is one of King’s most enduring songs and still part of his live concerts. It was cut in 1958 in Los Angeles during his years on the Bihari Brothers’ labels Modern, Meteor, Flair and R.P.M., which also helped launch the careers of blues artists Etta James, Lowell Fulson, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. The Biharis were the West Coast’s counterparts of Chicago’s Chess Brothers, although their releases captured a decidedly more uptown sound that those cut by the defining artists of Chess Records, such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
• “How Blue Can You Get?”: This Leonard Feather composition is also a fundamental part of King’s ongoing repertoire. Recorded in 1963 shortly after King moved to ABC Records, bright horns and King’s voice dominate, but Lucille comes on strong, too, opening the song with a potent declaration that foreshadows its story of marital frustration. By this point King’s guitar and voice had developed the potent partnership that would make him an international star.
• “Don’t Answer the Door”: King’s big-blues-orchestra-with-horns sound was well established by 1966, so it was time to experiment. This song’s arrangement pares King down to a supporting trio of just organ, bass and drums. It as allows him to roam freely, providing a snapshot of the improvisational playing that was a hallmark of his live concerts until recent years.
• “Everyday (I Have the Blues)”: Swinging, uptempo and decidedly sophisticated despite its down-home message, this song also remains a staple of King’s concerts and absolutely tore down the house during the famed Live At the Regal album performance of 1964. The song was actually part of the repertoire of the acoustic Memphis string bands King heard around Beale Street during his youth, so King’s arrangement is a great example of how a cutting edge artist can enliven a chestnut with a re-imagined, contemporary arrangement.
• “Sweet Sixteen (Parts I and II)”: King cut this song in Chicago in the same sessions as his also well-known “Gambler’s Blues” with the same support consisting of two horns, organ, bass and drums. King’s buttery lead guitar and high keening voice take the lead here, blending for a virtuoso performance.
• “Please Accept My Love”: This tune from 1968 is an anomaly. The 1950s doo-wop arrangement was an anachronism and King never really stretches out on guitar, but the song is among the first produced for King by Bill Szymczyk, who would take King to his first crossover hit with the absolutely contemporary sounding “The Thrill is Gone” just a year later.