The title tune alone is worth the price of admission. Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright composed it. Stevie plays electric piano, B.B. turns in a powerful vocal performance that is ably supported by his crackling guitar, and the incomparable Sigma Sound rhythm section—the musicians who back Billy Paul, the O’Jays, the Intruders, and the Stylistics—contributes a hefty punch. The tempo and the minor mode have a superficial resemblance to “The Thrill Is Gone,” but structurally “To Know You Is to Love You” isn’t a blues. In fact, only one of this album’s eight tunes is a standard 12-bar blues.
A few blues purists may choose to carp about B.B., “abandoning” the idiom that nurtured him, but most listeners will probably feel relieved. The blues was born as an antidote to cultural and economic slavery, but it has become so standardized over the years that even artists of B.B.’s caliber have been having trouble breathing fresh life into it. The pat stage routines of man/woman raps, stylized lyrics and quicksilver guitar in the 12-bar form which B.B. has been turning out since Live at the Regal were themselves becoming a kind of slavery. Dave Crawford, who produced this album, has taken B.B. further into contemporary “sweet soul” territory than ever, and in several cases the results are spectacular.
B.’s singing and playing sound remarkably apt in this context. “I Like to Live the Love,” which could have been another dull blues number about respect and other worthy but overdone song subjects, is an up-tempo, Philadelphia groove with a memorable hook and a superb set of interlocking guitar parts by B.B. and the Philly men—in this case, probably Norman Harris and Roland Chambers. “Who Are You” has a raw, almost country-and-western flavor to its melody line but it’s done up urban-eastern. The King’s deft, accurate guitar punctuations are somewhat reminiscent of the work of Albert Collins. “Love” begins with a guitar/voice unison, Mississippi Delta style; the tune is a structural cousin of “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” The Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” has never been one of my favorite songs, but a four-note, repetitive unison rock line lends it urgency and, as throughout, B.B.’s guitar is slicing and hot.
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The hero of the album is drummer Earl Young, whose forceful precision sometimes gets buried in the more heavily orchestrated Gamble-Huff productions. Here, the instrumentation is basically rhythm section plus horns and Earl is able to shine. On “To Know You Is to Love You” he plays a series of duets with B.B. The first duet is for drums and voice, the second for drums and guitar, and both break up the hypnotic flow of the tune before familiarity can set in. On the second break Young voices his snare with Larry Washington’s conga while B.B. eases those rounded, globular notes and stinging runs out, over and around the percussion. Then Young suddenly crashes back in, flying high; the effect is exhilarating.
If B.B. was looking to make a smooth transition from blues to a more commercially viable, blues-based idiom, he has succeeded admirably. There are several possible singles here. But most important, there is some fine, committed playing and singing, with none of the mechanical formulas and exaggerated mannerisms that have plagued much of the King’s recent recorded work.