B.B. King‘s place in music history is indisputable, but his rise to prominence is a textbook example of someone seemingly in the right place at the right time. King’s talent is there for all to see, but how would things have turned out if he hadn’t had Bukka White for a cousin and guitar tutor, or if he hadn’t fled to Memphis from Mississippi after wrecking his boss’s tractor, or if he hadn’t been able to land a gig on Memphis’ pioneering all-black radio station WDIA? It seems a pretty safe bet that King would have found his way in any event, just like cream rising to the top, but he’s walked an interesting road since his Mississippi childhood and his early radio days as “the Peptikon Boy” (named after a sponsoring alcoholic elixir), on through his massive chart-topping crossover success in 1969 with “The Thrill Is Gone” and his recent Grammys.
Blues Kingpins (part of a series that includes similar discs by the likes of Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Fats Domino, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Blues Foundation) takes the listener right back there to the beginning, to a post-war America where country, gospel, blues, and jazz were really bubbling, and the first fragments of rock ‘n’ roll were starting to come together for the Big Bang known as Elvis Presley. B.B. King recorded his first songs in 1949, and scored his first hit in 1951—an incredibly fertile period in which blues artists could draw as much from Big Band as from the Delta and try to form something new.
1951’s “Three O’Clock Blues” kicks off Blues Kingpins and the immediate surprise comes from the song’s rawness. King’s concise lead guitar style is already well in place, but it has more twang and snarl than is commonly associated with him. When you think of B.B. King, you immediately hear the crystal-clear strains of his later work; here, he still has one foot in the Delta and his wailing vocals are a revelation. No wonder the song was a hit. By contrast, 1952’s “You Know I Love You” is a slow burner featuring hints of Nat King Cole in King’s vocals and a nimble piano melody—no guitar to be found—with a lowslung horn sound just waiting to be unleashed on a thousand rock ‘n’ roll songs. 1953’s “Woke up This Morning” bursts forth with a shimmying rhythm that King emulates on guitar, while “Please Love Me” tears out of the gate in classic electric-blues style with smoking lead by King.
Overall, Blues Kingpins follows a chronological approach through King’s ‘50s tenure with the RPM, Kent, and Crown labels, and it provides a nice historical capsule of King’s stylistic development in those formative years. King tries on a variety of blues-based styles, from 12-bar guitar workouts to Big Band-drenched ballads. Throughout, though, you can hear him finding his voice. As a rule, his guitar playing gets more aggressive and pronounced, so that by the time he gets to his 1960 remake of Joe Turner’s “Sweet Sixteen”, all the pieces have fallen into place for blues guitarists over the next forty years to copy. Vocally, he gets stronger and stronger with each year, slowly gaining some of the barrel-chested tenor that would become his trademark. In short, Blues Kingpins shows us B.B. King becoming B.B. King.
This material for the Modern family of labels has come and gone out of print repeatedly over the years, with a variety of compilations doing varying degrees of justice to these seminal years in King’s career. For a full appreciation of his talent, these tracks are every bit as essential as the ones he later made for the MCA/Universal labels. Also, at 18 cuts spanning roughly ten years, it provides an excellent overview of a time when King was maturing amidst the musical upheaval of rock ‘n’ roll, which affected everything in its path. Blues Kingpins shows King never losing his way, and getting stronger with each passing year. These are vintage recordings, with no mention in the label notes of remastering (and a few of the really early cuts have a regrettable tendency for background instruments to fade), so you get these cuts with arguably much of the same rawness and power that they had upon their first release. King’s style is so much a part of modern blues culture, though, that hardly any of these cuts sound dated—in fact, so many of today’s blues guitarists knowingly or unknowingly owe a debt to King that a lot of what’s being released these days follows the same template as these cuts from half a century ago.