In the popular, post-rock history of music, before 1955, most white listeners wallowed in a sugary wasteland of Tin Pan Alley professionalism until either “Rock Around the Clock” or Elvis Presley (depending on whom you ask) set them on their ears. According to no less an authority as AC/DC (with a nod to Chuck Berry), “The white man had the schmaltz / The black man had the blues / No one knew what they was gonna do / Until Tchaikovsky had the news.”
Certainly, there is at least some validity to the notion of opposing camps, the notion that, before 1955, poorer, independent artists toiled in the commercial underground against the polished product of classically trained songwriters and their professional crooners. Woody Guthrie (who was not classically trained and even less a professional vocalist; moreover Guthrie was the idol of a young Bob Dylan) openly scorned the professional pop confections of songwriters like Irving Berlin. Frank Sinatra despised Elvis Presley, both as a musician and as a person. Pianist Oscar Levant said of rock that “it all has a surgical effect on me—it makes me want to cut my throat.”
Yet, there were also, on the side of the professionals, those like Tony Bennett who, as early as 1967, was flirting with the idea of recording an entire album of Beatles covers. At roughly the same time, on the side of the independents, Lonnie Johnson would confound his newfound white audiences, often college students eager for the “authenticity” of his songs, by mixing in old pop standards like Gershwin’s “Summertime” with the expected blues numbers.
Fittingly, then, Lonnie Johnson’s signature song “Tomorrow Night” is one of the 13 songs (a dozen covers, including “On My Word of Honor”, a song that King himself first made famous, and one remake) revamped by B.B. King on his latest release. The album is, by King’s own description, a collection of pop and R&B standards that he has long loved.
The album also includes King’s version of “Always on My Mind”, a song I first loved as a Pet Shop Boys’ cover. For reference, I listened again to the cover version I’m familiar with again and couldn’t help but notice the propulsive synth beat throbbing in the background. Trying to hear the Pet Shop Boys’ version again for the first time, it’s still a lovely song, but disorientingly different from the recollection of it in my head. After a while, songs we love take on a perfect polish in our minds, so that even the quirky missteps and sour notes become part of the attraction. After hearing it for the umpteenth time, Dave Davies yelping, “Fuck off!” before his solo in “All Day and All of the Night” becomes part of the song’s familiar charm; without it, the song would be incomplete. Familiar songs create in our heads their own private aesthetics about what defines beauty.
King wants to make the songs he covers here sound as lovely to the first-time listener as they sound to him, a soulful, perceptive listener who has known and loved these songs for many years. Thus, the tempos are gentle, the bumblebee-sting blues notes of Lucille are largely missing or mixed into the background, and there is even orchestration to smooth over the rough textures of his voice.
Unfortunately, there is no easy cheat by which that familiar intimacy between song and listener can be arrived at without repeated listenings over a long period of time. Regardless of how great a new song can be, it takes time before they can stand alongside familiar songs. While we may recognize a great riff or lyric the first time we hear it, we need to live with it a while before we can really love it as much as a personal favorite we’ve heard countless times before.
King’s voice and persona, warm and sweet by blues standards, is still too rough and tumble by orchestral standards, where gentle horns and piano rolls play better to subtle turns of phrasing than King’s earthy singing. Though the intention may be to make these favorite standards accessible to the novice, the orchestration usually does little more than point up the physiological limits of King’s voice, his inability to match up the precision of their gentle melodies. Likewise, the strings and brass cannot match King’s rough, raw power when, as in “On My Word of Honor”, he lays into the words and unleashes the still-formidable voice he usually holds in reserve.
Yet, among all the honorable, likable, vaguely disappointing numbers, there is one song, King’s own “Neighborhood Affair”, that provides a startling reminder that B.B. King is not simply a blues icon, not simply the affable symbol of a music that even non-fans can identify. He is, first and foremost, a great artist, one who writes songs great enough to thrive within a new context. Given orchestration, the song becomes pleasingly delicate, its narration of an ended love affair gaining the literate nuance of pop by masters like Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Given orchestration, I could imagine it being done effectively by Tony Bennett. Unfortunately, though, given that same orchestration, I would rather hear the song done by Tony Bennett than B.B. King.