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The Boston Phoenix Royal Flush

Four new B.B. King reissues

By Bill Kisliuk

AUGUST 17, 1998:  The 1960s were tough on B.B. King. The man destined to earn the title King of the Blues had yet to find himself on top of the world. He'd already moved beyond popularity with the hip and youthful African-American audience: blues was old news to young black listeners hooked on James Brown and Motown. And white blues listeners tended to be absorbed in the rediscovery of aging Mississippi Delta blues originals like guitarist Son House. As King noted in Blues All Around Me, the 1997 autobiography he wrote with David Ritz, "Funny . . . because while young black fans were thinking we were too old fashioned, white scholars were thinking we were too modern. . . . Well, it wasn't funny on payday."

The joke wouldn't be on King for long. In January of 1969 he closed out a late-night recording session with a cover of a tune by pianist Roy Hawkins, "The Thrill Is Gone." Two hours later, producer Bill Szymczyk was on the line to King's Manhattan flat, wanting to add strings to the cold-hearted but sensuous ballad. By January of 1970, that recording had become what King has called "the biggest and only real hit of my career."

"The Thrill Is Gone" originally appeared on Completely Well, one of four King releases from 1969 to 1979 that have just been reissued by MCA. The others: his collaborative album with the Crusaders, Take It Home; Live at Cook County Jail; and a roaring compilation of his early ABC recordings, His Best. These represent just a tiny sample of King's 70-plus-albums discography, but they provide a snapshot of all that is good and terrible about his approach to recording.

So-called blues purists love B.B. for his simple strengths: enormous vocal power and grace, plus a soaring yet compact guitar style that remains the most distinctive of blues sounds even after generations have tried to copy it. But his rise to fame also opened a place in his repertoire for the occasional embarrassing novelty, the clunky stretch -- as obvious and tasteless as a bad pair of polyester pants -- in the attempt to reach a new audience. Completely Well, for example, provides a decent dose of B.B.'s true blues. But an over-busy bass and the rock-funk rhythm guitar of session guy Hugh McCracken mar a rendition of the blues standard "Confessin' the Blues" and several other tracks.

King was in better form a year later at Chicago's Cook County Jail, where he recorded a powerful set before a couple thousand prisoners. In an inadvertently funny and scary intro, a female voice announces the presence of a certain Sheriff Woods. The inmates respond with a polite smattering of applause, which is followed by a frightening roar of deep boos. As the band noodle politely in the background, the voice says, "Another dear friend of all of yours out there is the chief justice of the criminal court, Judge Joseph Power." Boos, catcalls, and shouts resound.

Maybe it's the charged environment or the unique acoustic properties of the jailyard, but there is an earthy power to this set that's not found on King's studio albums. On "How Blue Can You Get," longtime B.B. drummer Sonny Freeman doubles up the rhythm at the turn-around, the horns punch, duck, and then punch again while King pleads and pleads with the woman addressed in the song's lyrics. Even the live take of "The Thrill Is Gone" surpasses the studio version. The strings are gone; B.B.'s crying, sighing guitar solo floats above the slightly quickened tempo, and it all rounds to a playful close.

For King, a decade that opened at jail ended in kind of a luxuriant purgatory on Take It Home. He didn't write any of the tunes on the disc, and there is nary a guitar solo to be heard. The relaxed grooves were composed by members of the Crusaders, who perfected soulful and easy-to-digest jazz long before such music was an industry unto itself.

Take It Home is 10 long years removed from His Best, the 1969 sampler of King's toughest and best early ABC material. It's dotted with famous numbers like "Paying the Cost To Be the Boss"; even weak spots like the dance-craze wanna-be "B.B. Jones" strut some soul. King cut this material in the middle and late '60s, when his career was going sideways. In his book, he recalls serving as the opening act in a soul revue and being booed by the kids waiting to dig Jackie Wilson. In an effort to reach out, he switched his opening number from the traditional "Everyday I Have the Blues" to "Sweet Sixteen."

"Sang that song harder than I've ever sung before or since," he wrote. "When I got to the part that says, 'Treat me mean, but I'll keep loving you just the same. . . . One of these days, baby, you'll give a lot of money to hear someone call my name,' I couldn't stop the tears from running down my face. And when I stopped singing, the tears kept coming, but instead of boos, I heard cheers."

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