B.B. King is, and from this vantage point it seems always has been, one who has crossed the line from "mere", though supremely talented entertainer, to National Treasure.
B.B King's guitar sound is immediately identifiable and hugely influential. The All-Music Guide is not exaggerating when they say, "A contemporary blues guitar solo without at least a couple of recognizable King-inspired bent notes is all but unimaginable." On the legendary Live at the Regal (1965), King is introduced as "The worlds greatest blues singer, the king of the blues!" and spends the rest of the album proving that this is not hyperbole.
This Anthology is arranged chronologically, but to discuss some of the more important elements of King's career I've divided my review into five segments: The classics, the new sounds, the duets, the live sets, and odds & ends.
A couple of the classic hits here make the argument for King as well as I ever could: From the opening notes of "How Blue Can You Get", recorded in 1963, we're already hearing the heart of his music that would continue to beat strong into the 1990s and beyond. B.B. sings like he's trying to dislodge the lump from his throat, and his guitar -- known to blues fans the world over as Lucille -- sings counterpoint. Two seconds into "The Thrill Is Gone", and you already know you're in for something special, even if somehow you've managed to live to a ripe young age without hearing it. Which is unlikely as it was, to date, the biggest hit of his career. The drums beat down, the keyboards strike minor, the strings somehow add a weary quality to the music that is in keeping with the resignation of the lyric, and King plays and sings exquisitely. King's playing skips stones across the heart, and his singing pours buckets of soul over any song he chooses.
One of the things that accounts for King's continued success has been that he rarely closed his ears to new sounds. The liner notes quote him saying that he looked to funk (and later rock and younger blues players) to show "how blues could adapt to modern times without losing its essence". Periodically in his career King has recorded songs that build on these outside influences. Even coming close to disco, a wrongly dismissed genre but not one normally associated with the classic King sound, on 1977s "Never Make a Move Too Soon", results in neither side being shamed. Stevie Wonder and his then-wife Syreeta Wright wrote the similarly funky "To Know You Is To Love You", but King makes it his own. "I Like To Live the Love" is another example of King's absorbing a contemporary groove while making sure his music retained his own sound. Long a personal favorite of mine, and a top 15 R&B hit in 1985, "Into the Night" shows King coming to terms with the rise of electronics during that decade. Cool synthesizers drive the song, recorded as the theme for the film of the same title, but B.B.'s guitar playing is no less hot, and his vocal is one of his most roaring -- at age 60!
A figure as influential as King has dozens of people lining up to work with him in concert or on record. More than one entire album has been made of these duets; this album contains four examples. Though U2's motivation in recording "When Love Comes to Town" with King was no doubt genuine, almost 15 years later it's hard not to hear them as coming out the worst for the deal. Bono is just barely qualified to sing backup vocals for King, he has no business singing a duet with him (but then, Bono would seem to have no qualms about singing duets with people he isn't qualified to sing with, something which I've still Got Under My Skin). Collaborations on a more equal footing with Bobby "Blue" Bland, Albert Collins (in an extended jam on "Call It Stormy Monday") and Robert Cray (on "Playing With My Friends") are also included, and when King is truly playing with his friends, as here, you can hear their joy in each other, calling and responding with their instruments as much as their voices.
"Why I Sing the Blues", anchored by a funk bass line, is a statement of identity for King that places him firmly in the context of black history. Though this 1969 record is a fine version of a strong song, later concert performances would be even more brilliant. (The B.B. King: Live in Africa documentary from 1974 is particularly recommended, and is available on video.) Many live performances by King have been taped for release on record or on video, a few excerpts appear on this collection. Live at the Regal is the most legendary example. King had already been recording for more than 14 years at this point, with much success -- almost 20 singles in the R&B top 10. (The generally excellent liner notes point to the four-disc box The King of the Blues for his earlier work.) There'd been a little down time for him on the charts by the time the Regal album was recorded, however. The critical reaction to the set would help change that, and it would become an album that everyone who is even a casual blues fan must own. Two tracks act as a sampler on this Anthology, but you need the full album. King's control over his instrument, his voice, his band, and his audience is extraordinary. He plays with the apparent ease with which Martin Luther King spoke, and I ain't got a higher compliment to give.
Odds and ends worth mentioning: "Lucille", is less talking blues than monologue blues; as King smoothly tells the story of his guitar while she speaks more eloquently than he (or just about anybody) ever could. The novelty of "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother", on which King alone sings and plays-piano! On the second disc, we hear King briefly trying to recapture the sound of "Thrill" with the similarly arranged but less electrifying "Ghetto Woman". More impressively a little later, "Guess Who" is as loving a blues as I've heard. The 1979 "Better Not Look Down" finds King rushing to squeeze all of the verse in before he launches into the chorus in some places. That's my way of saying that the lyric, though funny, doesn't scan entirely well. "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere" features what may have been the most star-studded horn section King ever had; including Hank Crawford, David Newman and Tom "Bones" Malone, with a fine solo by Crawford. The set winds up with "I'll Survive". Seventy three when this version was recorded (it was written in the 1950s), King is the very picture of the wise old bluesman here, the years only adding to the emotion in his voice -- 35 years later and Lucille still by his side.
In case the foregoing hasn't made this clear, or as if you didn't already know: King is, and from this vantage point it seems always has been, one who has crossed the line from "mere", though supremely talented entertainer, to National Treasure. This two-disc Anthology examines 35 years of B.B. King's career, between 1963 and 1998. Forgive the salty language, but it does a pretty fucking awesome job of it too -- the only fault I can find with this set (apart from an annoying technical glitch on my promo copy that bounces the last cut back to the beginning midway through) is that it leaves one wanting more. I've already ordered another King album.