These two faultless discs span the recording career of the most popular and innovative urban bluesman of the past two decades. The man, of course, is Riley “Blues Boy” King and the albums speak for themselves — the Kent consists of 12 of B.B.’s earliest recordings for the RPM label, primitively produced by Sam Phillips of Sun record fame and Joe Bihari, while the ABC-Paramount is B.B. in the Seventies, still going country strong with soulful help from the likes of Leon Russell, Carole King, Merry Clayton and Clydie King.
Two albums of city blues by one of the most oft-copied guitarists and vocalists the blues world has seen — only Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker have had successful careers as long as B.B. But none of them has developed and attuned his music to the times while not sacrificing his individuality quite the way King has: B.B. codified the guitar styles of T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, Elmore James and Lowell Fulson with a refinement of the then-popular Roy Brown’s crying falsetto vocal style into something all his own, and has been moving on ever since.
What B.B. spawned in the late Forties and early Fifties for the small Los Angeles-based label is all present on the Kent disc. From the sax and vibraphone punctured “I Gotta Find My Baby” through the moody “B.B. Blues” (on which Ike Turner plays piano, incidentally) and the uproarious saxstung “She’s Dynamite” on down to the straining amplified guitar solos on “Everything I Do Is Wrong,” the listener is initiated into King’s early period. As Barry Hansen’s excellent liner notes point out, B.B.’s guitar formula also jumps off from the jazz styles of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. From them he borrowed the freedom to improvise, vocally as well as instrumentally, over a restrained backup band. The results were, and thumpingly are, primitive, with the sweat of the juke joints hanging over them. The best of it includes drawn-out vocals and improvisational guitar work on “My Own Fault Darling” and “The Other Night Blues.”
And then, right on down to Indianola, which begins perfectly with B.B. singing and playing down-home piano on the terse “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother.” “You’re Still My Woman” is a slow, reflective tune featuring B.B.’s guitar and vocal played against an intelligent string arrangement, comparable to the role of the horns on his early records. Particularly exciting are the pianists: the more melodic Carole King and the percussive Leon Russell. With Russell he tends to leash out full-blown (notice how a rhythm guitar is added to these cuts for a more intense riffing fervor) and up-tempo on “Ask Me No Questions,” “King Special” and the single “Hummingbird.” With Carole King B.B. relaxes more and involves himself in spasms of single-note guitarwork paced with monologue-type vocals that, for me, are the highlights of the album. “You’re Still My Woman” and “Chains and Things” stun with their blues lyricism and melodic colorations.
Nothing is over-done on this album (a problem with some of his recent discs) — from the choice of material to the arrangements and production, B.B. is surrounded with people sensitive to his genius at work. The album displays the vital and ever-developing nature of this man King, who has been playing and wailing the blues for more than 20 of his 45 years. Success at times was slim and often illusory, but the “sound” that was B.B. King never altered, as these two releases more than illustrate.