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BB King
A Brief History of the Blues
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BB Kings Playlist

1 Rusty Dusty Blues
2 Telephone Blues
3 Blind Love
4 Blue Shadows
5 Cant Get Enough
6 Let The Good Times Roll

The KING of the Blues

"The Blues? It's the mother of American music. That's what it is--the Source."----B.B. King

Since the late 1960s, when rock and pop audiences discovered him and his refined, majestic brand of the blues, guitarist and singer B.B. King has been the music's most successful concert artist and its most consistently recognized ambassador. He has been bestowed with more awards and honorary degrees than any other bluesman and has made the cause of preserving the blues his lifetime work. Almost singlehandedly he brought the blues out from the fringe of the American music spectrum and into its mainstream. Thanks to King, blues is now performed in the most prestigious venues and in front of audiences whose introduction to the blues often stems back to the first time they heard a B.B. King record.

King has also had a profound effect on the inner workings of rock & roll. Few, if any, bluesmen have exerted more influence on rock guitarists than King. Greats such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, along with Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all touched by King to some degree. As for blues guitarists, virtually every major stylist from the postwar period has, in some capacity, been influenced by the King style. A member of the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, B.B. King has continued to be a vital performer and prolific recording artist despite advancing age and health problems. His graciousness and articulation, especially when discussing the meaning and significance of the blues, have done much to build respect for the music and its culture.

King's guitar style is essentially a consolidation of deep Mississippi blues and jazz, coupled with strains of gospel, rock, and pop. A trained ear can detect traces of Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, and Lonnie Johnson in King's guitar solos, as well as those of jazz guitar legends Charlie Christian, Eddie Lang, and Django Reinhardt. King is the acknowledged master of the single-string guitar style and the technique called string bending, which is employed to embellish the emotional intensity of a guitar passage.

King is not a flashy or busy guitarist, yet his solos sting rather than soothe the senses. He often uses vibrato to accent notes and phrases, and he gives his guitar passages plenty of room to breathe within the context of a song's arrangement. At his best, King pushes his guitar solos to become an extension of his voice, so that the result is a practically seamless blues presentation. If there's been any criticism of King and his guitar style, it usually centers on his work being too slick and too neat. However, there is no denying the dynamics and tension that run through his best work. What King has done more than anything else is elevate the blues guitar solo to a high art. He has taken the blues guitar out of smokey clubs and funky roadhouses and relocated it to a more sophisticated setting, namely the concert stage.

Born in Mississippi, King's earliest interest in music came from the church, which is where he learned to sing gospel music. After being taught a few chords on the guitar by the minister of his church, King's interest started to extend beyond just singing. He began listening to guitar-playing bluesmen more intently and was moved by the jazz guitar work of Charlie Christian. As a young man King was a Mississippi Delta farmhand and tractor driver, working the fields during the week and playing music on weekends.

After World War II, King went to Memphis and stayed with his cousin, bluesman Bukka White, before returning to the Delta in late 1946. He did farm work for one more year before leaving it for good. In 1947, King moved to Memphis. Me had heard harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) perform on West Memphis radio station KWEM; King went to see Williamson and requested work. Williamson had him perform on his program, which led to other work for King on Memphis station WDIA, hawking an alcohol-based tonic called Pepticon and playing and singing blues songs for ten minutes every day.

In 1949, King became a full-time disc jockey on WDIA. Calling himself the Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to B.B., King got a blues and jazz education by listening to the records he spun on the air. He also gained some local fame as an on-the-air personality, which he translated into performing dates in Beale Street blues clubs. King worked with numerous musicians, including Robert Lockwood, Jr., who helped him broaden his blues view by showing him uncommon chords and jazz licks, and the Beale Streeters, an informal group of Memphis musicians ( Rosco Gordon, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Earl Forest, Johnny Ace, etc.) that were lumped together for broadcasting and advertising purposes.

King's recording career began in 1949 when he cut four sides for the Nashville-based Bullet label. None of the songs made much of an impression on black record buyers. But in 1951 he recorded at Sam Phillips's Sun studio for Modern RPM and then, later in the year, at the Memphis YMCA. One of the songs from the latter session, "Three O'Clock Blues" (116 k, 10 sec.) launched King to blues stardom. The record lodged itself in the number 1 slot on the R&B charts and stayed there for seventeen weeks. King's startling success enabled him to go on tour and play as far north as the Apollo Theater in New York City. There were three more number 1 hits: "You Know I Love You" in 1952, "Please Love Me" in 1953, and "You Upset Me Baby" in 1954, all on the RPM label.

During the early and mid- 1950s, King recorded prolifically, as he was to do throughout most of his career. Many of his best recordings were not original songs but interpretations of songs penned by other blues composers such as Lowell Fulson, who wrote "Three O'Clock Blues," as well as Memphis Slim, who wrote "Everyday I Have the Blues," which King turned into a hit in 1955. From Tampa Red, King got "Sweet Little Angel," one of his signature pieces. Kingwas able to breathe new life into these songs and others with his increasingly sculptured guitar work and his powerful vocals.

Another factor in King's success was the sound of his band and the arrangements they used. King had been greatly influenced by the big band blues sound of Count Basie and Duke Ellington and wanted it for his own band, which usually consisted of between eleven and fourteen members. Under the astute direction of West Coast arranger Maxwell Davis, who possessed a keen understanding of how to meld horns into a blues framework and give the resulting sound a sharp sense of swing, King's band had at its disposal some of the best big band blues arrangements ever created. So well crafted were they that King continued to use many of them right into the 1980s.

Throughout the 1950s King seemed to finish one tour only to begin another. In 1956, he reputedly did 342 shows. When not performing, he was recording. However, as the '60s dawned, King's popularity began to wane. Black interest in the blues began to shrink, thanks to the advent of soul and the more urban sounds of R&B, and whites were more fascinated with country bluesmen than a full-fledged blues band of the kind that King led. In 1962 King switched to the ABC/Paramount label with the hope of cultivating a new sound and attracting a new audience. It didn't work; though King's guitar work had never sounded stronger, his blues framework seemed, to some blues fans, stale. Nonetheless, in 1962, King recorded Live at the Regal, an album many blues critics contend is the greatest blues recording ever made. King's performance was classic; his guitar gushed with emotional fervor and his vocal delivery was impeccable. Yet the album's critical success did little to push King's career forward.

In the late '60s, B.B. King finally found a new and appreciative audience: rock fans. He began playing rock venues like the Fillmore (East and West) and rock festivals and opened concerts for the Rolling Stones. Although not a gritty blues guitarist, the kind that most rock fans favored, King was regarded as a blues guitar master by the rock crowd. King solidified his standing within the realm of rock and pop with the success of his version of the Roy Hawkins tune "The Thrill Is Gone" in 1970. The record made it all the way to number 15 on the pop charts (and number 3 on the R&B charts) and reignited interest in King in black music circles.

After "The Thrill Is Gone," King became an elder statesman of the blues. He carried the music through the 1970s on the whole, bad times for the blues with routinely inspiring live performances. He continued to make albums, but King's reluctance or inability to expand his sound or even probe new ideas made them only mildly interesting, except to serious blues guitar listeners and longtime King fans. During the decade King toured Europe regularly and played Las Vegas. He appeared on network television and survived the disco craze at the end of the l970s. King continued to record and perform through the 1980s, adding Atlantic City to his list of performance locales. With the passing of Muddy Waters in 1983, King was looked upon more and more as dean of the blues.

King struck a responsive note with a new generation of rock fans when he forged a friendship with Irish supergroup U2 and appeared on its acclaimed album Rattle and Hum in 1988. His guitar and vocal performance on the song "When Love Comes To Town" (116 k, 10 sec.) proved that King could still belt out the blues in grand fashion. Although King now suffers from diabetes, his concert schedule remains packed solid and he still manages to make new records. His 1991 album, There Is Always One More Time, on MCA Records, was recorded with L.A. session musicians and contained a conscious, though uneven, attempt by King to work his blues into contemporary pop.

King was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. A CD box set compilation of some of King's best work, called King of the Blues, was released in 1992.

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