In 1969, after twenty years of making records, singer-guitarist B.B. King — a tractor driver’s son, born into the crushing poverty and labor of sharecropping life in Itta Bena, Mississippi — achieved household-name fame with the howling despair and stinging guitar of his Top Twenty pop single “The Thrill Is Gone.” But the forty recordings in this two-CD set were the foundation of that breakthrough.
A nonstop run of R&B-chart hits for the RPM/Modern label in the Fifties and early Sixties had already made King a top-selling bluesman and one of black America’s best-loved stars. Fourteen of the tracks on Original Greatest Hits were Top Ten R&B smashes. Four of those were Number Ones (the first, 1951’s “3 O’Clock Blues,” was cut in Memphis in a blacks-only YMCA). More important, on those records, many of which he composed himself, King pursued and perfected a primal sophistication — a blend of big-city flash and Deep South realism — that is now synonymous with urban electric blues. King was never less than a gentleman from the beginning: He wrote “Miss Martha King,” his 1949 debut on the Bullet label (included here), in honor of his wife. But the electrifying constant in King’s early work — from the titanic swing of 1953’s “Please Love Me” and the confrontational strut of 1954’s “You Upset Me, Baby,” all the way through to his definitive crackling 1964 treatment of the blues standard “Rock Me Baby” — was the native grit he wore over the snug-tuxedo fit of the brass charts and urban-tomcat prowl of his rhythm sections. He pushed his high-pitched growl to the limits of manly pride and patience in “Downhearted (How Blue Can You Get?)” and punctuated songs such as “Sweet Little Angel” and “Sweet Sixteen” with spikes of metallic-treble guitar. At eighty, King is now the undisputed, justly rewarded king of the blues. This is how he took the throne.