“We all have idols. Play like anyone you care about but try to be yourself while you’re doing so.” — B.B King
B.B. King is a name so synonymous with the guitar that to imagine a world without the seminal star is to imagine it a few notes short of a concerto. No guitarist has ever embodied the smokey slide of the blues better than King. It’s an attitude that has seen King easily take the moniker of your ‘favourite guitarist’s favourite guitarist’. If you were in any doubt, then we will just point you to the isolated guitar audio from perhaps his most famous song, ‘The Thrill Is Gone’.
The guitarist and blues singer is one of the undying headline names of the genre and has remained as such for not only his powerful playing and poignant delivery, but his tenderness and compassion for his audience too. Whether he was performing in a stadium or a state prison, B.B. gave his all to his performance, and though he was charismatic off-mic, he preferred to let his music do the talking.
Between 1951 and 1992, B.B. King was a prolific artist. The musician may have been born in Memphis, but soon enough, he was going global and released 75 hit R&B singles during his time in the spotlight, many of which proved one thing; B.B. King played the blues like no other. That’s because he knew that the blues wasn’t its own genre but a thread that ran through most of the music that hit the airwaves — it reflects humanity in that regard. It allowed King to expand his sound into soul and funk whenever the time came.
King enjoyed a storied career that provided comparative commercial success and garnered him the role of the grandaddy of guitars. Forever revered as one of the greats, it would take some decades in the business before he landed on a singular hit from which to hang his hat.
King released perhaps his biggest pop hit of them all, the reworked version of Roy Hawkins’ 1951 song ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ in 1970. Not only is the song a devastatingly slick piece of production, thanks in no small part to producer Bill Szymczyk, but it also features some of King’s finest guitar work as he effortlessly glides between styles and genres with the dancing fingers of beautiful ballet.
Being able to do so means the new chilling undertone of the track can be willfully enacted and remove itself from the shimmering joy of Hawkins’ original. King delivers his notes with a coolness that would befit a serial killer, and it works along with the narrative of the song, which sees a wronged man push himself towards murdering his lover who broke his heart. It’s another classic piece of King’s iconography that sees guitar and vocal become a part of the same dialogue and chat endlessly away. But one of the more curious ways to read the track is to listen to King’s isolated guitar.
With only one half of the conversation at hand, it may seem an impossible feat to match King’s original recording. However, there’s a gentle tenderness to his Gibson-led soliloquy that somehow feels closer to poetry than anything King ever did.