When producer T Bone Burnett first met with B.B. King, he presented the blues legend with a simple mission statement: "I'd like for you to go back to the Fifties and do some of the stuff as you did it then." At 82, King wondered whether he could really re-create what he calls "the B.B. King that was" on a new album. "My voice is nothing like it was, and maybe my playing isn't like it was," he says. "But I believed that we could do something different than what I've been doing recently and not worry about sounding contemporary. Times have changed so much, music has changed so much, but those old records still sound pretty good."
As it turns out, One Kind Favor recaptures much of the spirit and sound of King's early recordings, complete with rich horn-section blasts, vintage-style tube distortion on the vocals and boogie-woogie piano courtesy of Dr. John. As on King's Fifties records, he played live in the studio with the band, which included Eric Clapton sideman Nathan East on stand-up bass and session vet Jim Keltner on drums. Despite the all-star backing, King's lion's-roar vocals and stinging lead guitar are way up front — Burnett's main direction to King was "play a little more."
Burnett is as much a music curator as he is a producer, picking songs for films and albums alike, from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand. For King's album, Burnett found blues oldies ranging from the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sitting on Top of the World" to Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years." He went through nearly 200 possibilities, digging deep into King's influences, such as Forties guitarist T-Bone Walker and jazz-blues virtuoso Lonnie Johnson. "We went back to the early part of the last century to find songs that he used to do in the Fifties," says Burnett. "We looked at a lot of the stuff he loved when he was growing up."
While the album took its title from the chorus of its bleak opening track — Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" — King says making it was "a ball." "There were no egos, and when we sat down, it started to come together like we had been playing for years," says King. "I was sad when the project was over."
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