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B.B. King’s 10 Greatest Songs

In honor of the blues icon, the best songs from a career that spawned 75 R&B hits

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

B.B. King was a lot more than a Gibson guitar and some killer licks. For decades, he was one of the biggest stars of black radio, releasing 75 hit R&B singles between 1951 and 1992. King carried the flag for Memphis blues his entire career, but he also paid attention to popular music as it evolved around him. His best records expanded what blues could be, drawing in the sounds of R&B, soul and funk. King's voice, and the lacerating solos he played on the guitars he named "Lucille," were constants, but everything around them changed. These 10 songs, all of them hits in their time, are a taste of the breadth of his art. (Also see King's five greatest live performances and our definitive 1998 profile, On the Bus With B.B. King.)

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

“Sweet Sixteen” (1960)

After he began favoring softer pop ballads in the late Fifties in an attempt to broaden his audience, King's career as an R&B hitmaker stalled — not one of his singles charted in 1959. But he got back to what he did best with "Sweet Sixteen," a Big Joe Turner number that King stripped of its punchy brass. King echoes each vocal plaint here with a terse guitar commentary, verse after verse building slowly to a fierce simmer that's all the more powerful because it never boils over into catharsis.

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

“Don’t Answer the Door” (1966)

By the mid-Sixties, King had arrived at his mature guitar style, characterized by bursts of sharp, precise phrases subtly inflected with the left-hand vibrato that you can hear showcased on this particularly moody hit. As an organ broods in the background, shifting from one chord to the next like tectonic plates, King howls insistently that his woman stay locked up in their home throughout the day, away from her family. He never reveals the source of his lyrics' possessive fury.

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

“Why I Sing the Blues” (1969)

The climax of King's 1969 album Live & Well — recorded with a studio band including Al Kooper on piano — is an understated but furious catalogue of the indignities of Black American history, from the Middle Passage to urban poverty, with an extra verse in which King (then in his early forties) laments how old he's getting. It's also got a more contemporary groove than many of his singles at the time: His old label, Kent Records, which he'd left in 1962, continued to score hits with their stockpile of his recordings as late as 1971.

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

“The Thrill Is Gone” (1970)

King's biggest pop hit drastically reworked Roy Hawkins' 1951 original recording, edging the plaint of a wronged man past heartbroken rage toward a vengeful chill. As produced by Bill Szymczyk, who would soon work with the Eagles on their biggest Seventies records, the groove is sleek and controlled and the strings restrained enough to add drama and tension, as well as a low-end melodic counterpoint. King's guitar work is at its most wide-ranging — he pinches notes with an icy dismissive precision, then expands lyrically into subtle variations on the vocal melody.

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

“Chains and Things” (1970)

After the success of "The Thrill Is Gone," King started experimenting more frequently with pop- and rock-inspired arrangements. The most successful of the six singles released from 1970's crossover hit Indianola Mississipi Seeds is a slow, regretful song whose most distinctive bluer-than-blue phrase came from a mistake. King, he later explained, "hit the wrong note and worked my way out of it. . .We got the arranger to have the strings follow it." The haunting electric piano riff that underscores the song is played by none other than Carole King.

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

“To Know You Is to Love You” (1973)

Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright co-wrote the slow-building, eight-and-a-half-minute title track of King's 1973 album, on which he was backed up by the Philadelphia-based studio musicians — including drummer Earl Young and guitarist Norman Harris — who were beginning to create the sound of disco. The bubbling funk that resulted was far from the straight-ahead blues King was (mostly) still playing on stage, but it stretched his art much further in the direction that "The Thrill Is Gone" had opened up, and even got him onto Soul Train.

B.B. King

NEW YORK - 1969 Blues legend B. B. King performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Walter Iooss Jr/Getty

“Never Make a Move Too Soon” (1978)

Jazz-fusion band the Crusaders backed King up for his 1978 album Midnight Believer. Adapted from an instrumental that the Crusaders had recorded years earlier as "Greasy Spoon," "Never Make a Move Too Soon" was modernized with a sly, precise lyric about relationship strategies and a souped-up, party-time arrangement that recalls Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." It became a Top 20 R&B hit and a bit of a standard, covered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Toni Tennille. King later re-recorded it as a duet with Roger Daltrey.

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