Many historic blues players from the Delta had a reputation for being lone wolves – wandering types like Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson. But not B.B. King, who turns 86 this Friday, September 16.
King’s big sound, his endless touring and even the dimensions of his orchestra trumpet the gregariousness that’s long been part of his winning personality. And there’s his willingness to share the stage and the studio with a list of collaborators that includes such fellow Gibson guitar legends as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and John Lee Hooker.
Of course, King’s longest collaboration has been with his guitar named “Lucille.” Today, the Gibson B.B. King Lucille model is a gorgeous ebony queen with gold hardware bearing King’s name on its headstock. But over the years, there have been many Lucilles, including an actual woman whose name King took for his guitar.
The Lucille saga begins with her in the winter of 1949, when King was playing a dance in Twist, Arkansas. A fight broke out and the burning barrel of kerosene that was used to heat the room spilled, spreading its flaming contents. Panic ensued as the fire began to cover the floor. Everybody, including King, fled. Once outside, he realized he’d left his prized guitar, a $30 Gibson acoustic, and returned to retrieve it.
The next day King learned two people had died in the blaze, and that the fight triggering the conflagration was over a woman named Lucille. He renamed his Gibson after her that day, as a reminder to never do anything as stupid as fight over a woman or enter a burning building again.
King switched to electric guitar and began his recording career that same year, cutting his first single “Miss Martha King” for Nashville-based Bullet Records. At that point, he played another solidbody electric, but by the early ’50s he was a Gibson man for life. During that era he was photographed with a Top and a hollowbody Gibson L-5CES, and when semi-hollowbody ES-series Gibson guitars hit the market, he switched to those to achieve greater volume at the fore of his orchestra. Since then, Lucille has always been an ES-model or, with the arrival of the Gibson and Epiphone Lucilles, a high-flying variation on the ES-355.
King and Lucille are such a durable and striking pair that it’s sometimes easy to forget his history of human collaborators, but his knack for trading licks and vocal tics with other world-class singers and guitarists has yielded some magnificent results. Here’s a rundown of 10 essential King collaborations:
10. Riding With the King, with Eric Clapton
The June-2000-released mix-it-up with Slowhand on all tracks is not only a gem in King’s crown of recordings but a superlative roots album by any score. The title track teams the British Les Paul and SG legend with King and a tune written by John Hiatt. It’s also King’s first and only double-platinum album, and the second time he and Clapton recorded together. They first jammed in 1967, when Clapton was still in Cream, and 30 years later played initially in the studio on King’s Deuces Wild duets album. Riding With the King, however, is a more free-spirited affair, favoring contemporary material.
9. “The Thrill Is Gone,” Bill Szymczyk
Not all of King’s great collaborations are with fellow recording artists. It was producer Szymczyk’s idea to call in a string section to play on King’s break-trough hit from his 1970 album Completely Well. And those strings elevated the song to an elegant new level. In fact, King had cut the track and left the studio for bed when Szymczyk’s brainstorm struck, so Szymczyk called in the strings and crossed his fingers, hoping King would dig the new sound when he returned the next day. He did, and the tune opened up a new chapter in King’s career.
8.“When Love Comes To Town,” U2
This 1988 hit is a jubilant sparring match between King, Bono and The Edge, boasting one of King’s most powerful vocal performances. Although the song celebrates Bono’s acceptance of Christianity, the core message in its lyrics and tenor transcend any specific religion and speaks to the human capacity for open-heartedness.
7. Together for the First Time…Live, Bobby “Blue” Bland
An exceptional example of King’s live jamming skills, the guitarist and his fellow soul-blues dynamo, singer Bobby Bland, are clearly winging it on this 1974 set, yet their interplay is seamless and joyful as they trade vocals on classics like King’s “3 O’Clock in the Morning” and Bland’s “Don’t Cry No More.” And King is at the height of his powers, make Lucille laugh, cry and moan every step of the way.
6. One Kind Favor, T-Bone Burnett
King’s best late career album is this 2008 collaboration with über-producer T-Bone Burnett. While it revisits old songs – including a moving take on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” – it wraps King in a new, bottom-heavy sound guided by Burnett’s double-drums and double-bass strategy.
5. “Something You Got,” Koko Taylor
King united with a gaggle of old friends on 1993’s Blues Summit. The most upbeat pairing is King and Taylor, the late Chicago blues belter who was the feminine side’s answer to Howlin’ Wolf. This song about romantic magnetism ups the energy on Joe Jones’ original version.
4. “You Shook Me,” John Lee Hooker
Also from Blues Summit, King and Hooker are a study in well-suited contrasts performing this Willie Dixon-penned classic that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant made into a signature performance for Led Zeppelin. Hooker’s perambulating vocals blur the song’s structural lines and his guitar riffs slash like lighting strikes as King’s well-developed and personalized formalism colors within the lines, maintaining focus.
3. In London, Peter Green, etc.
King said the only guitar player who ever made him nervous was Peter Green, but he sounds relaxed as a pussycat in the sun on this session which features the early Fleetwood Mac guitar legend as well as Brit all-stars Ringo Starr, Gary Wright, Alexis Corner, Steve Marriott, Klaus Voorman and American ringers Jim Gordon, Bobby Keys, Jim Keltner and Dr. John. Recorded just a year after “The Thrill is Gone,” In London finds King at the top of his game, passing the torch to another generation – as he still does today.
2. “Ain’t Nobody Home,” Daryl Hall
This track from another of King’s duets albums, 2005’s B.B. King and Friends: 80, puts this great Jerry Ragovoy number that was first cut by Howard Tate to the fore. It’s not only a tribute to King’s unflagging abilities as a song interpreter, it’s a reminder that Daryl Hall is one of the greatest voices in American soul music.
1. “Standing Outside a Phone Booth With Money in My Hand,” Primitive Radio Gods
One-hit-wonder alternative rock group Primitive Radio Gods owes their 1996 Top 10 success to a sample from King’s 1964 performance of “How Blue Can You Get.” What’s striking is how compelling King’s driven vocal performance makes the simple lines “I’ve been downhearted, baby/Every since the day we met.” And that’s no typo. King lays the juice on “every,” pronouncing “ever” with just the right Mississippi dialect.