Buyer's guide: how to buy the best of BB King
During a long career, BB King recorded some of the most important blues albums of all time – and its greatest treasure
At the time of his death in May 2015, the man born Riley B King in mid-20s Mississippi was the undisputed King Of The Blues. The ‘Blues Boy’ survived brutal racism, extreme poverty and even a brief association with U2 to endure as the ambassador for a style of music that has defied being written off countless times.
Stylistically, King’s first few albums were heavily indebted to his idol T-Bone Walker, but by the early 60s he was his own man, and a powerful influence on a gang of white kids in London that included Peter Green, future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and those two’s predecessor in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton. “If you’re not familiar with his work,” said Clapton, “I would encourage you to go out and find an album called Live At The Regal, which is where it all really started for me as a young player.”
Released in 1965, Live At The Regal, the first of King’s masterpieces, finds an artist in complete control of his audience. While many blues performers were backtracking on their careers to satisfy a new white Delta blues-obsessed audience, King gave his predominantly black followers exactly what he wanted: progression. His music took on elements of jazz, funk and soul while never obscuring his first love, the blues.
When he did cross over to a young white rock audience at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium on June 6, 1968, it was on his own terms. At a time when his contemporaries Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were talked into cutting career-low psychedelic shit to pander to the hippies [Electric Mud in ’68 and The Howlin’ Wolf Album in ’69 respectively], King went in the opposite direction. With The Thrill Is Gone, from his ’69 album Completely Well, he recorded a new, sophisticated blues, augmented with orchestral strings.
Even in his dotage, BB King maintained a punishing touring schedule. No one, to paraphrase one of his classics, paid a higher cost to be the boss, and despite his wealth, he feared slowing down: “If we don’t work, how we gonna eat?”
That work ethic, forged in the poverty he experienced as a child, is there in his discography too. When he released Completely Well in 1969, he was already on his 17th studio record.
BB King's classic albums
Live At The Regal - ABC 1965
BB King and his band had been playing well over 300 dates a year since the mid-50s by the time they rolled up at the Regal Theater in Chicago on November 21, 1964, to play the show that was recorded for this album.
What makes this peerless record so special is King’s electric interaction with his audience, which climaxes with the sexual innuendo of Sweet Little Angel (‘I love the way she spreads her wings’) and his ode to a two-legged heart attack, You Upset Me Baby. Rolling Stone Mick Taylor described Live At The Regal as “BB King in his prime”. No shit. It’s the greatest blues album of all time.
Indianola Mississippi Seeds - ABC 1970
Produced by proof-reader’s nightmare Bill Szymczyk, Indianola Mississippi Seeds was named after the town nearest to BB’s birthplace, and the place where he first started playing blues on Church Street.
Kicking off with a short juke-joint rendition of Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, the album soon reveals itself as King’s finest studio record, with the brooding blues of Y_ou’re Still My Woman_, the gospel-fuelled Until I’m Dead And Cold and the epic Chains And Things. Its predecessor Completely Well is the critics’ favourite, but BB himself claimed that Indianola Mississippi Seeds was his greatest work.