“Some people have pronounced ideas about blues players as a whole. Blues musicians should be a guy my size, sitting in a chair, a broken chair, looking north, with a jug of liquor on his west side, a cap turned south and a cigarette pointing east, hanging from his lip. The rear end of his pants are worn out—not for style like the kids today. He has a guitar that has four good strings. Two of them are tied by wire so he has to have a pencil or something to keep the other strings from rattling, so he can use the good part – from the pencil to the bridge. The smoke is so thick you can cut it with a knife. And he should be half-drunk at the same time…”
That passage comes from somebody who is a vegetarian, a non-smoker and, of course, a non-drinker. That passage comes from someone who Rolling Stone once called the third greatest guitar player in the history of the world. That passage comes from none other than B.B. King.
So it’s ironic, don’t you think? A man who has become the poster-boy for all things “blues” really doesn’t fit the so-called stereotype that has attached itself to individuals who want to feel blue. It’s almost refreshing, coming from a man who has spent nearly 70 years perfecting the craft that is guitar playing. It’s even more impressive that the man himself—at the ripe, young age of 83—continues to travel to city after city, playing his guitar for anyone who will watch him perform in his truest, utter best element: A live show.
You can find one of those legendary live shows on Acrobat Music’s recent reissue of B.B. King and His Orchestra Live, a disc that chronicles a memorable January 1983 Cannes performance. And while King shared the stage that night with such jazz heroes as Dave Brubeck and Pat Metheny, it was on this legendary evening that the man born Riley B. King made a successful crossover into the often-complicated world of jazz music.
Yeah, King stays true to form on classic staples such as his up-tempo take on Memphis Slim’s “Everyday I Have the Blues” and a uniquely passionate and groovy performance of “The Thrill Is Gone”. But as the recording continues, it becomes abundantly clear that if you happened to be in the building that cold night in the early ‘80s simply to see the blues giant effortlessly waltz through his normal routine, you may have left shaking your head, marveling at how great Mr. King truly is.
Because when King tackles Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia” in such a way that leaves any listener with a lax jaw, you have to know that this wasn’t your typical evening at the theater. His guitar virtuosity shines bright like a cloudless day and his fervent vocal approach claims nothing less than brilliance. By the end of the song, as King’s vocals become less harmonious and he takes the shout/sing ratio to about 70/30, one has to think that Mr. Jordan himself was even dancing somewhere in heaven.
And while King’s performance was clearly impeccable, it would be criminal to neglect his incredible band. Their furious set only adds to the legend that was this night. Grabbing your attention from the first note of the first track, “B.B.’s Theme”, there was no putting out the flame this band starts by aggressively and technically attacking the night’s 11-minute opening effort. The fire only grows with “Why I Sing the Blues”, as an absurdly unnamed bass player absolutely shreds this track to pieces. After a short guitar intro, this instrumental is everything a B.B. King-led orchestra should be: Powerful horns, funky, ridiculously crazy bass runs and a forceful tempo that leaves absolutely nobody sitting down.
B.B. King and His Orchestra Live captures the essence of how unbelievably good King is. Considering he was old enough to simply call it a career and collect royalty checks during the time this performance took place—he was 58-years-old—one can only wonder how long he will continue to impress audiences all around the world. Luckily, though, it appears as if Mr. King has no intentions of calling it quits any time soon. And that’s a good thing. Because with performances such as this, it’s hard to believe the world of blues would be able to survive without such a timeless, brilliant mind.