Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to B.B. King
As the calls for rock and roll’s funeral seem evermore deafening, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever musicians and artists. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of B.B. King.
As we aim to offer up a little insight into the rock icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks that offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend, with B.B. King there’s not just a lot of music but a lot of legend too.
The guitarist and blues singer is one of the genres undying headline names and has remained as such for not only his powerful playing and poignant delivery but his tenderness and compassion for his audience. 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 which ran through most of music. It allowed him to expand his sound into soul and funk whenever the time came.
Frankly, we could have put any six songs down in the list below and been happy that it would encourage you to listen to more of B.B. King. Instead, we picked dour favourites and the six definitive songs to tell B.B. King’s musical story.
Six definitive songs of B.B. King:
‘Three O’Clock Blues’ (1951)
Whie lthis wasn’t King’s first single, that was eight release prior, but when the first notes of King’s cover of Lowell Fulson’s ‘Three O’Clock Blues’ hit the airwaves it’s clear he was a star. This was the song that launched his career and became his first and biggest success, taking the top spot of the R&B chart for five weeks.
The single’s sound leaves a lot to be desired, especially by today’s standards. King’s vocal and guitar is far louder than everything else on the record. But it does nothing to dampen the enjoyable release as he set the tone of his career with a rich sound and a conversation between his voice and his guitar.
‘Every Day I Have The Blues’ (1955)
When B.B. King recorded ‘Every Day I Have The Blues’ he struggled to match the rival recording released in the same year by Joe Williams and the Count Basie Orchestra. But as King would attest to, longevity is all that matters in rock and by playing the song as a regular opener of his sets well into the seventies, the blues standard was seen as one of his own.
Originating with the Sparks brothers in the thirties and later formed by Memphis Slim’s ‘Nobody Loves Me’ in 1949, King’s version is perfectly complimented by arrangement from Maxwell Davis whose ear for horns makes the song sing. Still, call us picky but we prefer King’s live version of the track live at Nick’s in 1983.
‘Why I Sing The Blues’ (1969)
At the final crescendo of King’s iconic album Live & Well is perhaps one of our favourite King songs, ‘Why I Sing The Blues’. The album is a bonafide smash and should be the first port of call when finishing this list, the talent of Al Kooper on piano adding an extra helping of class to proceedings. The song is a determined description of atrocities from Black American history delivered with gusto and a refusal to be defeated.
That refusal comes as King laments his ageing body in a verse, perhaps a touch deterred by the fact he can’t be as active in the fight. The song is imbued with a groove befitting the ending of the decade and highlighted that despite his own summation that he was peering over the hill (he was in his early forties), King was still as potent as ever.
‘The Thrill Is Gone’ (1970)
To prove that potency, the following year, King released perhaps his biggest pop hit of them all, the reworked version of Roy Hawkins’ 1951 song ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. Not only is the song a devastatingly slick piece of production, thanks in no small part to producer Bill Szymczyk, but also features some of King’s finest guitar work as he effortlessly glides between styles and genres.
Being able to do so means the new chilling undertone of the track can be willfully enacted. 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 which sees guitar and vocal become a part of the same dialogue and chat endlessly away.
‘To Know You Is To Love You’ (1973)
When you have Stevie Wonder on the song as a co-writer then you can be quite certain it will be one of the shining moments of your career. That can be said of ‘To Know You Is To Love You’, a song which not only featured the young Wonder but Syreeta Wright too. It’s far from a pop track though and at eight and a half minutes is an ample title track for King’s album.
King used a Philadelphia based band, which included Earl Young and Norman Harris, for the song and you can hear the beginning of what would become the sound of disco in their production. The song once again opened up some more channels for King and despite still playing largely blues while on stage, it allowed him another shot at a mainstream audience. Hell, it even got him on Soul Train.
‘Never Make a Move Too Soon’
One track that perhaps signifies the end of King’s contribution to the studio is the 1978 album Midnight Believer but he made sure he went out with a bang. Backed by a more than admirable jazz-fusion band called the Crusaders, King was allowed to focus on his own work within the group. One shining moment on the album was the adaptation of the Crusaders’ earlier tune ‘Greasy Spoon’ which became ‘Never Make a Move Too Soon’.
The song was updated and delivered with a little more precision and more lyrical intent and given the spin of rock and roll that only King could imbue. A big band arrangement set on sending the audience who hears it into delirium. The song has been covered by a host of acts including Bonnie Raitt and was even re-recorded by King later as a duet with Roger Daltrey.