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inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #0 of 112: 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.
 
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #1 of 112: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #2 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #3 of 112: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 18 Nov 05 12:02
    
(Note: offsite readers with comments or questions can email them to
<inkwell@well.com> to have them added to the conversation)
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #4 of 112: 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.)
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #5 of 112: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #6 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #7 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #8 of 112: 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>
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #9 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #10 of 112: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #11 of 112: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #12 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #13 of 112: Low and popular (rik) Sat 19 Nov 05 17:12
    
This is great info.      If nothing else, David, you've sold me a book.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #14 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #15 of 112: Gary Lambert (almanac) Sun 20 Nov 05 00:32
    <scribbled by almanac Sun 20 Nov 05 00:46>
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #16 of 112: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #17 of 112: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #18 of 112: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #19 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #20 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #21 of 112: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #22 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #23 of 112: 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."
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #24 of 112: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.259 : David McGee - BB King: There is Always One More Time
permalink #25 of 112: 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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