Virtually every attempt to update the style of recordings of the great blues artists has been horribly misconceived. Chuck Berry playing with the Steve Miller Band, Wolf and Muddy being forced to record with idiot hard rock bands, Otis Rush and Freddie King having to bear the weight of arrangements and production imposed on their music instead of coming out of it–none of these sessions has been worth the time, effort and money that went into them.
Only B.B. King has stood above this aesthetic debauchery. He has refused to make the choice between either a wholesale update of his style or a museum hall display of his past achievements. With the assistance of his young producer, Bill Szymczyk, he has found an attractive middle ground in which he has continued to grow artistically without giving up any of the body and soul that made his music so great in the first place. The positive results of this collaboration have been documented on his last three albums.
Live and Well and Completely Well were both adventurous albums, with the latter being the better of the two. But it was on Indianola Mississippi Seeds that the producer and the artist found their rightful groove. The sound was modern, the back-up, by the L.A. musicians who did Sweet Baby James, were equal to King in every respect, and the material, while still essentially blues, was a different sort of blues: B.B. King's blues, 1971.
"Ain't Gonna Worry My Life Anymore" summed up all the virtues of the King-Szymczyk collaboration. By my ears it contained the following: great B.B. King guitar, as smooth and as fluid as anything he has ever done; great rhythm by drummer Russ Kunkel, and as an extra bonus, a great drum break; one great piano solo by Carole King, one great string arrangement by Jimmie Haskell, great sound and mix all the way through, and a fabulous vocal. By all odds the best cut on one of last year's finest albums.
Of course, when an artist who was outstanding during one period continues to grow into other musical styles and tastes, he is inevitably subjected to criticism from people who want to keep him on some sort of historical pedestal, as if he could only maintain his integrity by playing his early masterpieces over and over, for as long as he performs. Peter Bogdanovich was recently moved to say about Orson Welles that everyone is so busy worshiping his past successes, they have forgotten the man is still alive and still creating. And so it is that we get people writing that "B.B. King is in deep trouble," that he has become sharp and slick, that he uses strings on his records, as if this was somehow in and of itself a criticism of his music. And no matter how intelligently such criticism is put, it amounts to trying to keep King in his historical place.
As B.B. himself recently put it in an interview in the LA Free Press: "There are people who think that if you're a blues singer you should always be in torn clothes, and in a little club that's smokey, and high off something before you reach the stage, and not be able to know your ABCs, and be sure you don't use anything other than a guitar and a harmonica and you play the joints the roaches and the rats are running through."
Ironically, at the same time King says this he has just released Live In Cook County Jail as if to protect himself from exactly this type of thinking. You can't get much more down than the Cook County jail. And as down as he tries to get, all this album proves is that the approach King has been following in his last three studio albums–new material in a new setting–is the right one. Because Cook County is little more than a rehash of the familiar B.B. King which, despite its great moments, has already been given definitive statement elsewhere, most memorably on Live At the Regal.
Particularly striking is the audience's failure to respond to King's efforts at recreating past successes. The raucous, good-timey atmosphere of Johnny Cash's prison albums is replaced by a deathlike detachment on the part of this crowd. King has to cajole, argue, and beg them into responding at some points.
Particularly disappointing musically is a long, long "Someday Baby." This tune was given a superb treatment on Live at the Regal. Here the dialogue portion of the song seems to drag on forever and instead of finally coming out of the talk sequence into a musical crescendo–as on the earlier version–when King finishes his rap, the song simply ends. Thud. A typical example of B.B.'s tendency to talk too much on stage. In the nine minutes this number took, he could have done three complete tunes.
The obsequious undertone to "Please Accept My Love" is even worse. I was moved the first time I heard King do this song in person and since then have found it to be a bit much. This audience didn't sound like it enjoyed being asked to accept it, at all.
Still, no King album is ever really bad. The one weakness of the three recent studio albums has been an occasional stiffness in the guitar playing. The guitar playing on Cook County is as good as the man ever plays: he is in top form from beginning to end. Another treat is the drumming by King's bandleader of 12 years, Sonny Freeman. When it comes to standard King fare, Freeman has no equal and its good to hear him on record again. Finally, the version of "The Thrill Is Gone" is so good that it makes up for any number of the album's slower moments.
Next time around I hope King gets back into the studio and picks up where Indianola Mississippi Seeds left off. In the meantime I saw him on Sesame Street this morning and he has certainly learned his ABCs. He played the best damn version of "The Alphabet Song" I've ever heard.