When Eric Clapton and B.B. King first traded guitar licks, onstage during a King engagement at the Cafe Au Go Go in Manhattan in late 1967, Clapton was twenty-two, a member of Cream and already God, according to London graffiti of the time. But King, belatedly making his debut at a white New York club after two decades on the road, was a true master of his instrument and pioneer of the blues — a revolutionary stylist and dynamite entertainer to whom Clapton and his guitar-hero generation owed a great debt of musical influence and cultural instruction.
King and Clapton share equal billing on Riding With the King, their first full-length collaborative recording, but that teacher-apostle bond is still in full effect. King, at seventy-four, still sings and plays with the mannish-boy cheer and explosive pith of his hot 1950s sides for the RPM label. Clapton, now an elder statesman himself, comes to the party with the same dignified modesty and concentrated fire that distinguished his early session work for Howlin’ Wolf, Aretha Franklin and Champion Jack Dupree. In fact, as celebrity blues summits go, Riding With the King is refreshingly ham-free, a commercially astute meeting of like minds, hearts and voices. There are times, as in John Hiatt’s jaunty title number, when Clapton’s sandy aging tenor is virtually a mirror image of King’s gritty bellow.
Actually, King steals the show every time he opens his mouth, whether he’s revisiting his 1955 my-baby-done-burned-me hit “Ten Long Years” or putting a feisty sexual spin on the prosaic funk of “Marry You.” In the acoustic treatment of Maceo Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues,” Clapton testifies with gentlemanly melancholy, but King preaches triumph over adversity with buoyant optimism. And it is a rare treat to hear King picking without electricity; you hear in his lithe, spiky fills the Mississippi-country cat always lurking inside that tuxedo.
The classy restraint and mutual respect characterizing Riding With the King has a downside — the album is short on protracted fireworks. Clapton and King allow themselves only two extended guitar holidays, remakes of the vintage King singles “Three O’Clock Blues” and “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer.” Again, Clapton favors decorum, chewing up the scenery in “Three O’Clock Blues” with a steely focus. King plays even fewer actual notes but makes them sing with stabbing treble and trademark bursts of shivering tremolo. Frankly, Riding With the King could have used more showboating and less conservative corn; the version of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On! I’m Comin’ ” is a clunky mistake.
Yet there are fine, earthy pleasures here — “Help the Poor,” a song from King’s immortal 1965 album, Live at the Regal, is refitted with a slinky, “After Midnight”-style groove — and no shortage of fraternal grace. Together, Clapton and King transform the orchestrated silk and sentiment of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” into a warm, sweet song about their own enduring friendship: “I’m with you always/I’m with you rain or shine.” It is a fitting end to an album that has been thirty-three years in the making.
Makin’ Love Is Good for You is a good way to catch King in his own element — with his hardy road band, horns and all, spinning a living blues from the motley soul of electric black Chicago, urban doo-wop, New Orleans funk and swamp rock. King has always been a master interpreter; his 1970 smash “The Thrill Is Gone” was a sumptuously bleak transformation of Roy Hawkins’ 1950s recording for Modern Records. On Makin’ Love, King adds his own cocky punch to Barbara George’s 1961 Crescent City kiss-off classic “I Know.” And the way he jubilantly roars through the list of sweethearts (one for each day of the week) in the Willie Mabon shuffle “Monday Woman” is marvelous proof of King’s undiminished lust for life.
Because of his iron constitution — making an album a year and touring 200 nights besides — we often take for granted King’s art, and his life of labor and struggle. B.B. King is a colossus of the blues; we assume he’ll always be here. We should be so lucky. In his Makin’ Love cover of A.C. Reed’s “I’m in the Wrong Business,” King neatly blends spoof and truth in his heated, grainy rendering of the bitter exhaustion in the song: “I’m gonna send my guitar home/Leave these blues alone/ I’m in the wrong business.” King has had plenty of chances to quit over the last fifty years. Thank God he didn’t. Love him now, while he’s here to keep on givin’ it back.