Hal Royaltey (hal) Thu 17 Nov 05 21:32
Please welcome our next guest, David McGee. David McGee is the author of three books: "Go, Cat, Go: The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly" (Hyperion, 1996); "B.B. King: There Is Always One More Time" (Backbeat, 2005); and the forthcoming "Steve Earle: Fearless Heart, Outlaw Poet" (Backbeat, 2005). His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Absolute Sound, Acoustic Guitar, New Musical Express, Spin, BMI Music World and other publications. He has written liner notes for albums by Dr. John, B.B. King, for four Chieftains reissues, and for Sony's 100-CD box set, Soundtrack Of the Century, and wrote the concluding chapter for the companion book to the PBS Series, "American Roots Music." He is the country music editor for barnesandnoble.com and the editor of trade show publications for CMP Entertainment Inc. Born and raised in Oklahoma, he lives in New York City. Our interviewer is Ed Ward. Ed Ward is best-known as the "rock historian" for Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and is a veteran of many music magazines during the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. Like many other white American males of his generation, he completely missed B.B. King in rushing to the Chicago blues guys the Stones idolized, and was only alerted to his existence by Eric Clapton. He has since made up for this lacuna in his education.
Berliner (captward) Fri 18 Nov 05 05:47
Hi, there, David. I guess we should just cut to the chase and ask the obvious first question: Why another book on B. B. King? There are already a couple of them out there, including one co-written with the man himself. What does this book add to this corpus of information?
David McGee (davidmcgee) Fri 18 Nov 05 11:55
Hi, Ed, What a pleasure to make your acquaintance (however virtual that acquaintance be) after admiring your work lo these many years, dating back to your early Rolling Stone days. Why another book on B.B.? Prior to mine there were in fact three authoritative B.B. King books out there-the first was Charles Sawyer's groundbreaking biography, The Arrival of B.B. King, in 1981; the second was a fine update by European journalist Sebastian Danchin, Blues Boy, published in 1995; and the third, of course, was B.B.'s autobiography, written with David Ritz and published in 1996. But in appraising B.B.'s entire catalogue, first for the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide and then updating it for the John Swenson-edited Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Guide in 1998, I felt about B.B. as I did about a lot of the artists with broad, deep and influential catalogues who were on my assignment list: there was a story in the making of this music that had not been told, because in so many cases the producers and key musicians these artists had worked with had rarely, if ever, been interviewed specifically about working in the studio on a particular project or projects. In B.B.'s case, both Sawyer and Danchin had addressed the music critically, and in some instances referenced a producer, but neither author dealt with every single in-print album; B.B., in his autobiography, mentioned only a few of his albums and gave only passing nods to a couple of producers he had worked with (he even claimed not to have ever worked with Sam Phillips in Memphis, a bizarre assertion that is refuted by Phillips's own studio logs and the reminiscences [in my book] of Calvin Newborn, who played guitar on B.B.'s first sessions, at Phillips's studio [Calvin even recounts a little bit of head-butting that occurred between his dad, Phineas Newborn, and Phillips]). So I had an idea for a series of books titled Lives in Music that would fuse discography with biography in a more intense and, I hope, dramatic way than the standard biography-biography driven by discography, in other words. So I endeavored to flesh out B.B.'s history by getting not behind the music, if you will, but inside of it. For the Modern years, I relied on the expertise of John Broven, A&R consultant for Ace Records in the U.K., which is engaged in an ambitious program of reissuing all of B.B.'s Modern recordings and doing a great job at it. Broven was an invaluable resource in helping me assess those years, as he had interviewed Sam Phillips for Ace's essential B.B. box set, The Vintage Years, and the Bihari brothers from Modern Records as well. The key guys I ended up with that are almost unrepresented in the other B.B. books (even B.B.'s autobiography) are producers Bill Szymczyk and Stewart Levine, who combined account for 10 of B.B.'s most important albums, Szymczyk being the producer who helped B.B. get The Thrill Is Gone down and subsequently teamed him, for the first time, with rock artists on the amazing Indianola Mississippi Seeds album, Levine's contribution being to energize B.B.'s career in the late '70s by teaming him with the Crusaders and challenging him in ways he hadn't been challenged before. And since the last B.B. book was his own in 1996, there was a lot more music to consider as the man approached his 80th birthday this year. So what my book adds to the corpus of information you cite is an otherwise unavailable insider's perspective on where B.B.'s music came from, album by in-print album. Brevity is not my strong suit.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 18 Nov 05 12:02
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Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 18 Nov 05 12:08
I think my first blues album was BB King's "Live at Cook County Jail" over 30 years ago. At the same time, as much as I love his music, I've never been blown away by him the way I have by the faster, slicker guitarists. For all that I find him soulful, and have learned to hear at least some of what he does on guitar, I'm always curious - what is it that others see in him? I'm not judge of commercial taste - what makes him commercially popular? (It's so rare for me to find myself on the same side as the buying public, even if limited to the blues-buying public.)
Berliner (captward) Fri 18 Nov 05 12:11
And yet you didn't have access to the Man Himself. Any reason why not? And did this make things difficult? <ari> slipped in, but I'll tackle some of that after David replies.
David Gans (tnf) Fri 18 Nov 05 13:35
Wow, I didn't realize Szymczyk was the producer on "The Thrill Is Gone." I want to give a very special extra welcome to David McGee, who hired me in time for the first issue of RECORD Magazine as a musical instruments columnist, saw some potential in me as a writer, and mentored me all the way up to Senior Editor (West Coast). I owe you big, Sarge, and I'm glad you're here.
David Dawson (dawson54) Fri 18 Nov 05 21:00
Hello David (McGee). I enjoyed "There Is Always One More Time," and congratulate you on a book that will be of interest to casual fans, serious followers of BB's music, and researchers looking for in depth information. As a native Memphian who has resettled here several decades ago, after my young wanderlust had come to an end, I've always wondered where BB considers himself in the various blues traditions. He isn't an acoustic Delta slide player, obviously, and yet his style doesn't really jibe with the northeast Mississippi electric guitars like Junior Kimbrough or RL Burnside. His music doesn't have the grit and drive of Chicago raunch (Muddy Waters). Which leads at least to my question: is he sui generis, playing in a style all his own? With influences from Bukka White to Charlie Christian, it would seem this might be inevitable.
David Dawson (dawson54) Fri 18 Nov 05 21:13
<ari> -- To reply to one aspect of your post -- "as much as I love his music, I've never been blown away by him the way I have by the faster, slicker guitarists" -- I can not recommend a videotape of "B.B. King and Friends: A Night of Red Hot Blues (1986)" highly enough. BB holds his own and more with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Paul Butterfield, and Albert King. The real ear-opener for me was hearing BB and Clapton get into trading licks during the solos for "Thrill is Gone." Not only does BB play outside of his ordinary patterns, he keeps Clapton his toes for a good bit of the solo. Why he didn't display more of such virtuosity is something that maybe others -- David, especially -- can comment on. The Amazon URL for the video is <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/6302373670/103-5938502-7521407?v =glance>
David McGee (davidmcgee) Sat 19 Nov 05 11:16
Wow, where did all these people come from? And why are they asking me all these questions? Seriously, this is a great forum, and I'll try to uphold the high standard others have set for Inkwell dialogues. And DG, I think that burger you bought me in Berkeley a couple of weeks ago is more than adequate to erase any debt you feel you owe to me, which I think is none at all. You done good, and that reflected favorably on the magazine as a whole and what we were trying to accomplish in spite of the napalm attacks from the office next door. 'Nuff said. To Ari, who asked what others see in B.B.--I think you answered that yourself in your post when you commented on how soulful you found B.B.'s playing. I'll venture a guess that among B.B.'s millions of fans worldwide there is but a tiny percentage who are actually guitar players. Those folks might talk to you about techniques B.B. uses in deploying Lucille as a second voice to his own, or particular phrasings, or the tone of his instrument, that they find fascinating. On that point, there's a very good essay published in an anthology titled "The B.B. King Reader," edited by Richard Kostelanetz, that breaks down B.B. guitar playing from a strictly technical standpoint. It's quite erudite (sorry, I don't have the book at hand to tell you the author's name) and technically involved, but a few pages of that will tell you what certain others have found interesting about B.B.'s playing. More than anything, I think what people connect with in B.B.'s music is the immense soul he pours into his vocals and his playing. Granted, he's phoned in a few too many of those duets he's recorded, but for the most part you can put on any B.B. album and somewhere along the way find yourself bowled over by the emotional power of his performance. As Andy McKaie and I discussed in an interview in the book detailing the making of the "King of the Blues" box set, it's not as if every album is a gem (and bear in mind he's recorded 80-plus albums in his half-century-plus recording careeer), but even the few tepid ones (notably the 1975 disaster "Lucille Talks Back" (the first album project B.B. produced himself) will contain a moment or two of stunning grandeur. B.B. has said, over and over, that Lucille picks up where his singing leaves off and it's those two voices, whether tender or tough, that get a grip on the casual listener and keep him or her coming back, year after year, to what the King of the Blues is doing. To Ed--No, I didn't have access to B.B. for this project. Although no one said it outright, my request for interview time was answered in such a way as to let me know that time is money when it comes to interviewing B.B. for a project of this magnitude. Not having anything significant to offer in the way of remuneration, I had to soldier on without B.B.'s help. I was able to use the entire transcript of a 1998 interview I did with B.B. for Rolling Stone, only a small portion of which was actually published in the magazine, but otherwise B.B.'s voice is heard courtesy previously published interviews and his autobiography. I would love to have found out more about his studio work during the Modern years, and I especially wanted to talk to him about his most recent albums, all of which he's produced himself and for which I could find no published interviews. I know B.B. has strong ideas about working with musicians in the studio, and how he plans an album, conducts a session and works with his engineers would have made for an invaluable addition to the B.B. literature. Because B.B. has been so accessible to the press over the years I had lots of secondary sources for finding his voice, so from that standpoint his absence didn't really make my job more difficult. Also, getting Bill Szymczyk and Stewart Levine on the record about their work with B.B. was akin to having B.B. on board, so vivid were their recollections of B.B.'s reactions to their suggestions in the studio and to the musicians those producers assembled to back B.B. To David Dawson: Indeed, a remarkable number of influences coalesce in B.B.'s style (although, as B.B. himself says in his autobiography, Bukka White is not one of those--Bukka was a mentor in terms of style and professional decorum, but his guitar playing, as much as B. admired it, was not what B. was going after), but I think in the end there's too much Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker in his approach to call it sui generis, as distinctive and individual as it is. He's brought his own personality and soul to bear on those styles in fashioning his own voice, and that's why his sound is so immediately identifiable as his. But check out T-Bone's double-CD "Imperial Recordings, 1950-1954" and you'll hear where B.B. really came from, to the point where, if you didn't know it was T-Bone, you'd believe it was B.B., at least on a good number of cuts. Actually, in my travels as a music writer--and Ed, and David Gans, might want to jump in with their own takes here, based on their experiences--the one musician I've written about extensively (to the tune of an authorized biography) whose developed a style that really could be called sui generis is Carl Perkins. When I was researching my Perkins biography ("Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly," published in 1996 by Hyperion; look for it back on shelves next year, 2006 being the 50th anniversary of "Bue Suede Shoes"), I spoke to two musicologists, one at Memphis University, the other at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, who had studied Carl's guitar style for years; both had come to the conclusion that he had melded his influences so organically that what came out when he played was something that had not been heard before, played in a way no one had played it before. As great a player as B.B. is, there's a lot of quotes in his style taken from the giants he admired. As for B.B.'s playing on the "B.B. King and Friends" video, only B.B. can tell you why he seems to hold something back at times and go along for the ride. You know, he really is a humble guy, and I'll venture a guess, based on reading hundreds of interviews with him, that in the presence of other heralded guitarists, he opted for the deferential pose so as not to compromise his guests' turn in the spotlight. I think with Clapton he feels a great comfort zone and can turn it on a little easier than he can with a lot of other pickers. That's an educated guess on my part, but it's still only a guess. If B.B. signs on to the Inkwell, maybe we can get an answer out of him.
Berliner (captward) Sat 19 Nov 05 11:35
Fat chance of that, I'd say. But B, if you're out there... I'm shocked to hear that anyone connected with him was asking for money for an interview. That is just Not Done, and it makes me wonder about what kind of people he has around him these days. He was incredibly gracious when I interviewed him for my long-out-of-print Michael Bloomfield biography and gave me plenty of time. Actually, I do want to get into the Carl Perkins book a little later in the conversation here, but since this book celebrates B.B. King through his records, where would you tell someone to start? I mean, I'd start with the Ace Records box, but that might be too much for a beginner. I'm a blues fan, got there via Stevie Ray and Clapton, what B.B. King album should I get and why?
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sat 19 Nov 05 13:40
"my long-out-of-print Michael Bloomfield biography" These are sad words indeed. About the soul vs. technique thing, on the "Fathers and Sons" album (speaking of Mike Bloomfield) there's a live track of "Same Thing" that contains one of the most devastating blues solos ever recorded. Yet Muddy Waters uses just a few notes, and one of those notes is repeated several times. The solo is but one chorus long. Bloomfield was onstage when it was recorded, comping behind Muddy, and you can very nearly hear him take three steps backward when the power of Waters' sliding notes comes on full force. Flashy technique can be great, but it's just all flash if the player has nothing to say. BB and Muddy Waters and, to our great benefit, a host of other musicians in all variety of styles have understood that it's what you say that counts, not the artifice of how you say it.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Sat 19 Nov 05 14:19
Ed, nailing down one B.B. album as an introduction to the man's work is tough, because there are so many distinct eras in B.'s recording history, and there's wonderful work in every one of them. But certainly, the Ace Records box, "The Vintage Years," shows him at the start, and more experimental than he would ever be again, in the sense that he at least referenced other trends in popular music at that time in his and the Bihari brothers' quest for a hit record. I think of the song "Come By Here" (off the "B.B. King Wails" album), which is built on the folk song "Kumbaya," and off that same album, one of his most touching ballad performances, on a doo-wop-styled song, "I Love You So," a thoroughly captivating performance with horns. But if the box is too pricey for the average Joe, Ace also offers two or three double-disc retrospectives of the Modern years that are quite satisfying and, as all Ace releases are, authoritatively annotated. Ace is also reissuing all of B.'s Crown albums, and of those the abovementioned "B.B. King Wails" is one I consider a must-have, as well as "My Kind of Blues," which pairs B. with a small combo in an intimate setting that has never been duplicated on any other B.B. King album. From the ABC/pre-Bill Szymczyk years, the obvious album to own is "Live at the Regal," which I believe was inspired by the success of James Brown's "Live at the Apollo" and has been regarded as a classic live album, one of the best of that kind. But I would recommend the live album that followed the "Regal" album, "Blues Is King," which has not received the kind of attention "Regal" gets, but should. Like "My Kind of Blues," "Blues Is King" gives us a B.B. we had not heard before and have not heard since. As I described it in the book: "Coming a year after the divorce that had wounded him so deeply, "Blues Is King" revealed the hurt inside that B.B. simply did not share with his public, except in song. The misogynistic strains evident from time to time in his earlier songs were presented here as all-consuming. B.B. knew how to play the aggrieved male convincingly by this time, but where his stance had once been mitigated by humor, now it seemed as if he were eaten up by recrimination and rage. It was not a winning strategy, this startling transformation from sophisticate to bully. New ideas were in order, even if "Blues Is King" was, from a strictly musical standpoint, B.B. in peak form, and memorably so." Of the Bill Szymczyk-produced albums, while it's natural to pinpoint "Completely Well" as essential, for "The Thrill Is Gone" if nothing else, my favorite, and Bill's too, is "Indianola Mississippi Seeds," the last studio album Bill produced for B.B. This is where Szymczyk teamed B.B. with contemporary rock musicians--Joe Walsh, Russ Kunkel, Leon Russell, among others--and even brought in Carole King (the first female to play on a B.B. album) on piano on "You're Still My Woman," and she plays a mean blues piano on that cut, really strong (I attempted to interview King for the book, but she was out stumping for Kerry at the time and declined the interview, saying she wanted to "stay on message" while the campaign was going on). The album closes wtih a powerhouse version of Russell's "Hummingbird," which also features an awesome female chorus backing B.B., a quartet of gals Szymczyk dubbed "The Angelic Chorus," and their names are familiar and quite imposing: Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Vanetta Fields, Shirlie Matthews. Again from the book: "...Indianola Mississippi Seeds is a remarkable artistic achievement, strictly top-drawer in its mix of excellent songs, in the musicians' drive to take everything to another level, and especially in B.B.'s powerful vocal performances both as a balladeer and as a blues shouter. With this album, more so than with Completely Well, B.B. King had arrived as a fully realized artist in the studio and out." I do go on. After the Szymczyk era, I'd recommend two great albums from the Stewart Levine-produced era, one being the first volume done with the Crusaders, "Midnight Believer," which really challenged B.B. musically, being with these solid-sender type jazz players; and as Levine told me, "I think people saw there was something special about the song forms. They're real songs; they're not just 12-bar blues. At the same time they weren't bullshit pop songs. There was something different about it that sat in between both worlds, I think. That album resonated." The other Levine-produced album that's a must-have is the Grammy winning "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere," with songs written by Doc Pomus and Mac Rebennack, and B..B. accompanied by Hank Crawford, Fathead Newman, Bernard Purdie, Hugh McCracken, and Mac (Dr. John). All of the key players save Doc and Hugh McCracken had some serious affliction at the time--alcoholism in Crawford's and Levine's cases ("I was drinking five bottles of wine a day, and I didn't even drink wine," Levine said), junk in Mac's case ("Mac was incommunicado; Mac was nodding out" durding the sessions, Levine said); and again according to Levine, "Purdie was weird; the bass player was weird; Hank Crawford was fucked up, drunk and stoned"--and they made an absolutely magnificent record, wonderfully executed, mature songs that cut to the marrow of life, and performances by B. that were deep and moving, responding to the lyrics Pomus had penned. Other albums that might also be a worthy introduction to B.'s art: "Six Silver Strings," "Blues Summit" (two thumbs up for that one), "Blues 'N' Jazz," and although it shouldn't be your first choice, B.'s Christmas album, "A Christmas Celebration of Hope," is a wonderful, underrated record. So there's a whole lotta choices for you. In anthologies, I'd recommend any of the Ace retrospectives of the Modern years; domestically, the ABC/MCA years are best summarized in two two-disc CDs, "How Blue Can You Get? Classic Live Performances 1964-1994," and "Anthology," 34 tracks, good liner notes, and a thorough sessionography. And I shouldn't omit the terrific MCA box set, "King of the Blues," which includes B.'s first-ever recording, "Miss Martha King," a sampling of the great Modern sides, and a sweeping overview of the ABC/MCA years on four CDs--that's a job well done by Andy McKaie at MCA.
Low and popular (rik) Sat 19 Nov 05 17:12
This is great info. If nothing else, David, you've sold me a book.
David Dawson (dawson54) Sat 19 Nov 05 19:17
This is indeed great info, David, and I appreciate you mentioning T-Bone Walker again. Of course. Just to connect a couple of musical dots: in an almost comically futile but persistent attempt to learn "jazz guitar," my teacher taught me four-note "Charlie Christian chords" (as he refers to them). One the songs he used to demonstrate how the chords work was "They Call It Stormy Monday." Play it straight up, and it sounds like standard blues. Play it with the "jazz chords" and it takes on that slightly spooky groove. The influence from Christian to T-Bone to BB is right there in the music and the style. Yes, it all fits! Sorry if this jumping ahead of Ed's request to hold off on talking about Carl Perkins. I too look forward to hearing what you have to say about one the most gracious and sincerely nice musicians I had the good fortune to interview back when I was journalist. But I wanted to mention that Carl's wife Val died last Tuesday (Nov 15). I don't know if this was widely reported, and I'm sorry if you're hearing it first from me. <http://tinyurl.com/7dr5h> More on Carl when Ed opens the rockabilly bar. For now, I've lots of BB's music to find and listen to. Thanks again.
Gary Lambert (almanac) Sun 20 Nov 05 00:32
<scribbled by almanac Sun 20 Nov 05 00:46>
Gary Lambert (almanac) Sun 20 Nov 05 00:47
Hi, David. Glad you're here. I've been enjoying the book tremendously and think the "biography driven by discography" approach is a great way of illuminating an artist's life and work -- particularly an artist like B.B., whose career has been so long and distinguished and whose influence has been so huge. For a couple of years in the late 80s, I had the enormous honor and pleasure of working as researcher/production assistant on B.B.'s syndicated radio show, The B.B. King Blues Hour (which my older brother produced and wrote - nepotism can be fun!). The bulk of my job consisted of digging through the music library, helping to select cuts for the show and getting historical background on the featured artists. But on several happy occasions, I got to tag along for the sessions at which B.B. recorded his voice tracks for the show. Since B.B. was touring incessantly, as he had for years, this usually meant catching up with him somewhere on the road, setting up a mini-studio in his hotel room and recording as many as a dozen shows over the course of a day or two. A wonderful thing I learned during these encounters was that even then, in his 60s and almost 40 years into his career, B.B. still considered himself very much a student of the guitar and of music in general. He always brought a large and diverse selection of CDs on the road with him, to listen to on the bus and in his room. He always had some of the expected favorites on hand -- Lonnie, T-Bone, Django -- but also plenty of non-blues and non-guitar stuff: a bunch of jazz saxophonists, African and other world music, etc. He told us that he listened not just for entertaiment, but to challenge his ears and keep himself open to new ideas (on one of our visits, he had been listening to a lot of Sonny Rollins, and trying to incorporate some of what he heard into his own playing). And every now and again, up to and including the most recent chance I got to hear him play (at the Apollo about a year and a half ago), I'll detect something subtly new in B.B.'s playing -- not a wholesale attempt to reinvent the wheel, to be sure, but a little something different... always listening, always learning. Which brings me (at last!) to my question: Are there places in B.B.'s body of work where those major breakthroughs or subtle refinements in his musical development are most markedly evident? Or has the progression been so subtle and gradual as to be almost impossible to pinpoint?
Berliner (captward) Sun 20 Nov 05 03:01
I'll back up the point about B.B.'s listening by mentioning that I was once trying to research a book that never came out, and went to Oxford, Mississippi, where there was supposedly a "blues archive" at the University. Turns out it was pathetic, virtually useless (maybe it's gotten better in the interim), but the guy who was showing me around motioned towards a big area that was closed off behind a gate. "That's B.B. King's record collection, which he donated to us a couple of years ago." I looked through the wire and the first album I saw was Folksongs of the Ukraine on the old Soviet label (Monitor? Something like that). Wait, I said to the guy, B. B. King listens to Ukranian folk songs? "Well, I've never seen him do it, but all of those records there he says he's played, usually several times." Maybe this kind of ear exercise is what keeps him able to be such a quick study when presented with the likes of the Crusaders as a band.
David McGee (davidmcgee) Sun 20 Nov 05 13:04
To David Dawson: You stole my thunder a bit. I intended to alert everyone here to Valda Perkins's passing. David, don't feel bad; you didn't break the news to me here. My answering machine had two messages on it late last week , one from one of Carl's best friends, Jim Bailey (whose Carl Perkins archive was an invaluable resource to me; Jim also helped me with the Perkins discography in the back of that book), the other from the former Sun Studio manager, Mark Bell. It's a sad time for the Perkins family, and I fear that's been the case since Carl passed away. Valda never really recovered from losing the love of her life. She was so overcome with grief she couldn't even attend the funeral service. Their love for each other was every bit as deep and true as Johnny and June's was for each other.--"to the bone and through the bone," as Carl put it to me. Honestly, I think Valda was barely hanging on these years since Carl passed, and finally let go. Life without him was simply too hard for her. So let's all think a good thought for Valda Perkins, because without her one of our rock 'n'' roll pioneers would not have been the man or the artist he was. Thanks for that link to the Jackson Sun obit too. To Gary Lambert: Indeed, the arc of B.B.'s mastery of the guitar is subtle and nuanced rather than there being one dramatic moment where it all came together. He was pretty well formed by the time he started recording, but made little refinements in his sound and attack as he progressed through the early RPM singles that preceded his introduction as an album artist in 1957. If anything, you will notice a difference in B.B.'s attack prior to 1954, at which point the Biharis hired Maxwell Davis to work with B.B. in the studio, as an arranger and essentially a producer. The pre-Davis B.B. plays with a harder, edgier tone, and I believe it was the power of that attack, steeped in blues but suggesting something wilder and more raucous, that so stirred Sam Phillips--in an interview with John Broven for the Ace Records box set, Phillips laments that he didn't have a chance to continue working with B.B., because he thought they were onto something special, something entirely new. Had the Biharis and Phillips not had a falling out, maybe B.B. and Sam would have arrived at rock 'n' roll well ahead of the Million Dollar Quartet's arrival on Union Avenue. Check out the heavily distorted chording B.B. employs to kick off the version of Muddy Waters's "It's My Own Fault, Darlin'," that he recorded at Tuff Green's house and is available on the Ace Records box set (a more polished version was later recorded and released as a single on RPM). As I appraised it in the book, "...the session at Tuff Green's house works on a gut level that wouldn't be so manifest on a B.B. King record again until 1963, when he was taped live at Chicago's Regal Theater." With Maxwell Davis on board, he almost immediately settled into that warm, crying tone that is the B.B. King sound. And sure, he refined it over the years, but he'll tell you he simply got better as a player as he picked up on new ideas he heard other guitarists advance over the years. That Ukranian folk song album Ed writes about seeing at the U. of Mississippi is a real good tipoff as to how B. keeps his intellect sharp and shows that the sources of his own ideas know no bounds. And Ed is right--B.'s catholic interest in music enables him to step up to challenges posed by great players like those he encountered in the Crusaders. He's a most remarkable musician, in that he's never allowed himself to coast, but remains driven to be better at what he does. When he talks, today, of his inadequacies as a guitarist it's not false humility. He really feels he needs to get better in all facets of his artistry. Never satisfied. If his energy and his health hold up, I (and I'm not alone in feeling this) think B. has another great album in him, something that will stun all of us. Stewart Levine wants to make a gospel album with B. and I happen to believe that's where the next transcendent moment might come from. The last time B. cut gospel was in 1959, for a Crown album that Ace will reissue next year (it's reviewed in my book, but the release has been delayed). For an artist so steeped in the gospel tradition, he's barely dipped his toes into those waters. I think the time is right.
Gary Lambert (almanac) Sun 20 Nov 05 13:29
>When he talks, today, of his inadequacies as a guitarist it's not false >humility. Exactly the impression I got. When he told us "I'm still trying to learn how to play the guitar," there was a sense of absolute sincerity. And I completely agree that B. has another masterpiece in him, given the right producer, players and material. That show at the Apollo not too long ago proved that he still can summon the greatness at will. There was a version of "Please Accept My Love" that night that was just astonishing in its emotional power. The singing and playing hit me every bit as hard as at my first B.B. show, at the Village Gate in the winter of 1967.
Low and popular (rik) Sun 20 Nov 05 17:29
"The pre-Davis B.B. plays with a harder, edgier tone, and I believe it was the power of that attack, steeped in blues but suggesting something wilder and more raucous..." From the publicity photos I've seen, it seems that BB played Fenders early on. If this is so, I would think that there would have been a very noticeable tonal shift when he switched to Gibsons, with their shorter scales and humbucking pickups. I've also heard, and wonder if you can confirm, that he invented the light guage string sets that almost eveybody in rock and blues uses today. He wanted easier bends, so he is said to have thrown away the low E of the then standard set, moved the rest of them over and added a .010 for his high E.
Berliner (captward) Mon 21 Nov 05 06:13
The other night, inspired by reading the book and this conversation, I played The Great B.B. King, which is one of Ace's full-album-with-bonus-tracks reissues, and I was struck by the weird diversity of stuff there, including the notorious "Bim Bam," the only song he's ever recorded which he says he hates. What do you think possessed the Biharis to make him try all this weird stuff, cha-chas and crooning ballads and third-rate Little Richard-type stuff like "Bim Bam?" Why didn't they just realize that blues was something they could sell, that this guy was an excellent player of blues, and just leave it at that?
David Julian Gray (djg) Mon 21 Nov 05 07:43
First of all, welcome David and thank you for that book - it becomes one of just a few books in my fair sized library which sits on the RECORD CD shelf (next to my box set of BB King) and not on the book shelf (the only other books on the record shelf are analyses of Bach's musical offering and the Beethovan quartets). I got turned on to BB King, as did so many boomer white guys, by Clapton and, particularly Mike Bloomfield - I think I first heard of BB from an interview with Bloomfield in Sing Out magazine ca 1967 or '68, and I first heard BB shortly afterward on WDAS-FM in Philly which added "Everyday I have the Blues" from Live at the Regal to its wide and deep playlist (ah...the early glory days of FM rock radio). Until I was given the MCA "King of the Blues" box set the only BB King recording I owned was "Lucille" - which I got when it came out in 1968 - the title track remains my favorite BB cut - I love the playing and the I love the story - but mostly I love the way he TELLS the story - and I think that has everything to do with what we love about BB's playing, and why virtuosity is beside the point When BB King plays guitar he is always telling a story - and usually a story I want to hear. I really appreciate David's book for covering the recording career as it does - it has proven 10 X more valuable in making sense of the box set I've owned for 13 years than the liner notes of the box set EVER did... and it's even making me want to fill in some of gaps.
Walter Keeler (wkeeler) Mon 21 Nov 05 11:53
One of my favorite musical moments was in the theatrical release of "U2: Rattle and Hum" (not sure if all the footage made its way to the home video version), where B. B. first meets the band on the road at a soundcheck to rehearse "When Love Comes to Town." First, they showed B. B. in an offstage dressing room, commenting on how heavy the lyrics were for being written by such young men, and saying "I hope they don't want me to play chords - I'm terrible with chords." Next, he walks out onto the stage, Lucille strapped on and plugged in, as they roughly run through the song. He throws in a few notes, asks Edge "What should I play?" and Edge replies "You're kidding, right?" He's just right there with them before they even start playing. Much richer and more interesting than the final studio version, although that one comes off as one of the most successful collaborations on "Rattle and Hum."
David McGee (davidmcgee) Mon 21 Nov 05 13:24
Both David's and Walter's comments illustrate the awesome artistry B.B. has delivered consistently over the decades--Walter citing a very good (and underrated) 1968 album that was produced by jazz great Bob Thiele and featured among the accompanying musicians Cecil and Bob McNeely, brothers of '50s R&B stalwart Big Jay McNeely, as well as the redoubtable Maxwell Davis leading the band and playing organ and some B.B. road warriors--notably Lloyd Glenn on piano--rounding out the band. My take on "Lucille": "A noble experiment with which to close out 1967..." Then Walter sees what B.B. is all about in a revealing moment from the '90s, more than two decades after David Julian Gray got into the King of the Blues. And there are many more great B.B. moments to cherish since that one-off U2 collaboration. The man is as amazing as his music.
valerie (valerie) Mon 21 Nov 05 14:42
Hello David! I really enjoyed the book, particularly your inclusion of passages regarding BB's influences, his peers, and the musicians who cite him as an inspiration. It's well documented that he is very generous in sharing his talent on stage and in the recording booth with many artists, but is there any blues musician in particular that you sense B.B. might regard as a protegee?
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