Like foodies or vinylphiles, blues fans are a passionate lot. Go to any blues club and—between sets—you’re sure to find a group of aficionados debating over the greatest musicians and albums. It’s a time-honored tradition. While it’s unlikely that a room full of blues lovers will ever agree on the ultimate album, B.B. King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds usually makes it to the final round. When the album released in October 1970, King was basking the success of his smash hit, “The Thrill Is Gone“. The tune’s polished feel and innovative use of strings established King as an artist who was willing to take the blues in new directions. Recorded in Los Angeles with superstars Carole King and Leon Russell sitting in on keyboards, Indianola Mississippi Seeds was a deliberate effort to bring King’s music to a wider audience.
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell was an Oklahoma native who always kept a foot in the blues. His session work history with acts like Joe Cocker, the Band, and the Rolling Stones made him a perfect collaborator for a blues artist seeking a touch of airplay-friendly polish. As for Carole King, she’s attained living legend status thanks to her solo career and reputation as a songwriter for the stars. While her role on Indianola Mississippi Seeds is strictly that of an accompanist, listening to her play over, under, and around King’s soulful guitar licks is simply magical. Compared to Carole King, Russell’s style on the piano is more earthy and blues-based. Yet, the musical chemistry between Russell and B.B. King is equally stunning. King and Russell pushed B.B. to new creative heights; on every track, his vocals and guitar have a bite that sadly became absent in his later work.
To fully appreciate how B.B. King was able to create such a timeless album while working with musicians whose backgrounds went well beyond the blues, it’s helpful to get a little insight into his personality. Blues All Around Me, the 1996 autobiography King wrote alongside David Ritz, takes readers on a journey through the bluesman’s heart and soul. Readers quickly learn how open-minded he was when it came to styles of music beyond the blues. King had a deep appreciation for jazz and even formed a genuine friendship with the notoriously prickly Miles Davis. King was also in love with soul music: he had nothing but praise for Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Stax Records stalwarts like Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. He was well aware of soul music’s close ties to the civil rights movement and observed that the music became “tougher and prouder” as the movement advanced.
Another key aspect of B.B. King’s personality was an acute sensitivity to how audiences perceived his music. In his autobiography and countless interviews, King described his strong desire to challenge negative stereotypes surrounding blues musicians. He always went to great lengths to prove that he wasn’t, in his words, “Some ol’ bluesman from Mississippi with torn overalls and a corncob pipe in my mouth.” While King loved soul music and frequently was booked as an opening act for stars like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, he was hurt when soul-smitten African American audiences began to see the blues as a style of music outdated and embarrassing.
That stung even more since, as King astutely notes, many white critics and blues scholars were so focused on “rediscovering” folk blues artists that they viewed King’s electric, horn-driven style as impure. King’s response was always to channel his frustration into his playing and work doubly hard at winning people over with his music. In an especially poignant scene in Blues All Around Me, King recalls being booed by a young African American audience when he was booked as the opening act for a soul artist. (He doesn’t specify who.) Although hurt, King launched into a performance of “Sweet Sixteen” and, by his description, “Played that song harder than I’d ever sung it before or since.” As the boos turned to cheers, tears began streaming down his face.
With this glimpse into King’s psyche in mind, we can now take a closer look at some of the standout tracks on Indianola Mississippi Seeds. The brief “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” gives listeners a taste of King’s piano skills and playful humor. “Nobody loves me but my mother / And she could be jiving too” still stands out as one of the most sardonic blues lyrics of all time. “You’re Still My Woman”, a brooding mid-tempo blues tune, is the first of several tracks to showcase the beautiful musical rapport that B.B. achieved with Carole King. As Bryan Garafola (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums) hold down the rhythm, B.B. and King weave a rich sonic tapestry.
Of the tracks featuring Leon Russell on piano, the instrumental “King’s Special” is the most remarkable. In a spoken introduction, King claims, “I got the idea from a train, but I wanted a beat so people could dance to it.” Garafola and Kunkel are joined by none other than Joe Walsh on rhythm guitar. The three musicians slip into a lively, funky groove. Russell sounds in his element as he churns out bluesy riffs with a melodic touch. King’s trademark string bends and singing vibrato are in fine form.
The Fender Rhodes electric piano is a staple of jazz and funk, but the instrument was never widely used by blues musicians. Instead, bluesmen largely preferred the time-tested sounds of a piano or Hammond organ. After hearing Carole King work an electric piano in the swinging “Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore”, many listeners will wonder why more blues recordings didn’t take advantage of this unique instrument. While recorded in a studio, King’s vocals on guitar on this track have all the spirit and energy of classic recordings like Live at the Regal and Live and Well.
Carole King’s deft touch on Fender Rhodes similarly anchors the album’s centerpiece, “Chains and Things”. “The Thrill Is Gone” might be BB King’s most well-known song, but the mournful, minor-key workout of “Chains and Things” stands out as one of his most soul-baring performances. While Carole King plays a moody, atmospheric vamp on electric piano, B.B. loses himself in the pained lyrics and soaring guitar solo.
On the surface, “Chains and Things” is a litany of a bluesman’s usual troubles, such as a “Cold-hearted wrongdoing woman and a slave-driving boss.” Yet, if we turn once again to Blues All Around Me, we gain some insights that give the tune a deeper meaning. While never viewed as a musician who performed “protest” music, King was acutely aware of the civil rights movement and devastated by Dr. King’s death. In his autobiography, he recalls staying at the Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, when it was bombed in a failed attempt to assassinate Dr. King. He claimed that the explosion’s force was a vivid reminder of the depth of racial hatred in some parts of the United States. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, B.B. was crushed. Dr. King’s death and the devastating blow to the civil rights movement were still a recent memory in 1970. As B.B. King sings the chorus, “I just can’t lose these chains and things,” one can easily imagine him channeling his pain over the death of Dr. King and his own experiences with racism.
In the 50 years since Indianola Mississippi Seeds was released, there have been countless collaborations between blues musicians and figures from the worlds of rock and pop. The musicianship and sheer passion that B.B., Carole King, and Leon Russell generated together set a gold standard that still serves as an inspiration for musicians to this day.