What else can be said about the greatest bluesman of the last half century? That he continues to build upon a brilliant legacy as he enters his eightieth year? That his technical expertise and charisma are rivaled only by his generosity and charm? Legions of subjects have been entertained by nearly 60 years’ worth of concerts and albums, yet there are not enough accolades to bestow upon the unchallenged King of the Blues. The former Riley King has reached iconic status as a global figure, on par with Muhammad Ali and Elvis, a remarkable achievement in its own right. Despite having accomplished so much (and solidified his place in the pantheon of legendary musicians) King chooses not to rest on his laurels, continuing to enrapture fans by touring and recording alongside his faithful Lucille. For a man with such an impressive resume of stage and studio work to his credit, it seems somewhat inappropriate to honor him with a greatest hits collection—as if such an album could do anything more than approximate the magnitude of King’s career.
Since record companies are preoccupied with marketing strategies (as opposed to issuing quality product), packaging and presentation are the primary components for end sales. Thus labeling the single disc compilation B.B. King - The Ultimate Collection is a self serving corporate ploy that falls somewhere between pretentious and laughable—does anyone believe that King’s expansive catalogue can be distilled down to 21 tracks and honestly (or accurately) be deemed an “ultimate collection”?
Marketing issues aside, it is King’s fret board artistry that matters most, and the folks at Geffen have put together an attractive hodge podge of songs spanning each decade of King’s storied musical existence. From his humble beginnings as radio jingler “The Pepticon Boy”, to his high profile collaborations with U2 and Eric Clapton, King has cornered the market on impassioned blues performances. The included tracks lend an interesting perspective in terms of a sequential compare and contrast: King’s 1951 Billboard #1 hit “Three O’Clock Blues” opens the disc, followed by 10 songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s (including live versions of “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Sweet Little Angel” recorded at Chicago’s Regal Theater in 1964).
The six songs from the ‘70s offer an interesting mix of gritty blues and tenderness, punctuated by the exquisite “Ain’t Nobody Home” (recalling Isaac Hayes’ funk infused soundtrack from the original 1971 film Shaft) and “I Like to Live the Love” with its shades of vintage Sly Stone. King’s singing and playing on these tracks are testament to the effortlessness of his transition between varying blues styles, and a reminder of his creative brilliance.
With only two songs from the ‘80s and one each from the ‘90s and ‘00s, the disc is heavily weighted toward King’s earlier work, although some semblance of balance is achieved with the two significant cross-over hits “When Love Comes To Town” and “Ten Long Years” (from 1987 and 2000).
While King aficionados can debate their respective favorites on this collection (as well as notable exclusions), the disc includes a satisfactory number of popular songs and lesser known gems to make it worthwhile. Consider The Ultimate Collection more a primer than a definitive statement, and enjoy being in the King’s court for roughly 79 minutes of blues excellence.