B.B. King, who died Thursday night at age 89, was a famous blues star in an age that had mostly forgotten about the blues. But King’s talent was too large to remain confined in a niche music genre. He influenced countless guitarists of all styles, who still recycle his licks in bands all over the world. And let’s not forget his extraordinary voice—King possessed one of the finest blues/R&B voices of modern times, and could have been a star solely on the basis of his singing skills. Above all, B.B. King was a tireless road warrior, bringing the blues to audiences all over the world, and sometimes playing more than 200 gigs during the course of a year.
But many listeners nowadays have never heard his music. Blues music doesn’t get much radio airplay, and even a venerated king of the genre rarely appears on TV or generates impressive YouTube metrics. So here’s a quick tour of eight of my favorite B.B. King tracks.
(1) “Every Day I Have the Blues”Live at the Regal
If you haven’t heard B.B. King before, his live recording on November 21, 1964 at Chicago’s Regal Theater is the place to start. The whole album is electrifying, and will show you why this artist packed concert halls all over the world even as the blues faded from mainstream culture. Check out the opening track “Every Day I Have the Blues” and feel the excitement surging through the audience.
(2) “How Blue Can You Get”Live in Cook County Jail
This song was a staple of King’s concerts, and his version at Cook County is riveting. Here he wins over a tough audience that was certain it already knew how blue things could get. This album reached the top of the Billboard R&B chart and stayed there for three weeks in 1971, beating out Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, and a host of other soul legends.
(3) “Three O’Clock Blues”Singin’ the Blues
This track, which topped the R&B charts at the end of 1951, turned B.B. King into a national star. The song follows a standard 12-bar blues form, but sounds more like a lonesome love ballad. In his early days, King specialized in melancholy songs of this sort, and few have ever matched his skills at slow tearjerker blues.
(4) “Never Make Your Move Too Soon”Midnight Believer
I don’t know why Midnight Believer isn’t better known. This 1978 album featured King alongside the hot jazz-fusion band The Crusaders, and the partnership was magical. This very funky song should have been a radio hit.
(5) “Paying the Cost to be the Boss”Deuces Wild
What would have happened if B.B. King had played with the Rolling Stones? You don’t need to imagine it, you can actually hear it. This track from the 1997 album Deuces Wild is a delight, especially for the vocal give-and-take between King and Mick Jagger.
(6) “The Thrill is Gone”Completely Well
“The Thrill is Gone” was a surprise AM radio hit in 1970. This minor blues sounded very much up-to-date, and few listeners realized that the tune had been introduced by Roy Hawkins back in 1951. King’s rendition is the definitive version, but also give credit to producer Bill Szymczyk, who added a subtle string arrangement that helped propel the track to crossover success.
(7) “Let the Good Times Roll”Bobby Bland and B. B. King Together Again…Live
The name B.B. King is almost synonymous with the blues, but this artist could have been a soul or R&B star, or even a king of rock ’n’ roll. Here he joins Bobby Bland in a spirited rendition of the early rock ’n’ roll hit “Let the Good Times Roll” that shows just how fine King was with this kind of material.
(8) “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”One Kind Favor
This track from the 2008 album One Kind Favor show B.B. King digging way, way back. King was born in 1925, and this song was original recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927. But if you are expecting a respectful arrangement of a traditional blues, think again. Even in his 80s, B.B. King was updating the old songs, and bringing his audience to new places.