He was too good for the music industry. The man was so dignified in how he handled himself among the sharks. How did a man like this end up becoming such a legend in a cutthroat business like the music business and stay the way he did?
I have a lot of emotional and musical pulls going on within me upon considering the passing of B.B. King. People who know me are well-versed with the fact I actually preferred the other two major Blues Kings, Freddie and Albert, more than I did B.B. Yet, at the same time, I would always tell people that it was essential that one had B.B. King in your music collection. It was imperative because of one incredibly important thing about him. He was the one guitar player who played what I referred to as a run of single notations that were punctuated by the most famous quick string-bend in music. It was like B.B. used to say about himself.
There were players who could play better than him, but nobody played like him. There was nobody like him who could build up tension through those runs and then release the tension with the string-bend. And the amazing thing was that he could do it again and again within the framework of a single song. This is a universal truth. If you want to understand why that run and that string-bend were so important, you have to understand that B.B.’s sincerity was direct and that it came through in his playing in a literal way in musical technique and in emotional depth. B.B. King never blurred his lines when he played. And when people, especially musicians, speak of his purism in his music, it was because his lineage and emotional standing were pure to boot. His playing was methodical without being plodding. So, when you read about how B.B. influenced people like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix (among a host of others), players learned to come out of the blur to slap some emotional emphasis in their presentation long enough to remind people of what’s really real because of him. The sad thing is that a lot of players got lost in the blur and completely forgot those single notation runs which could have helped keep their music having a foundation to fall back on in order for their music and guitar playing to remain effective.
It’s against this backdrop of what what I’ve just explained to you about his playing where I get this pull from another direction. It plays with my mind and I hope people don’t think I’m nuts for picking a time such as now to voice this opinion. I loved B.B. King, but I had to be in the right mood in order to listen to his music. To me, it was never ever about his guitar playing that came into question. This is going to sound so pugnacious that it’s damn near shameful, but I always thought that there were times when B.B.’s music was a little too uptown for me. I always liked my Blues stuff to be a little more down-home. That’s where a little kink in the line was always there within me. It was the horns, people. Now, mind you. I dig Live At The Regal. It is a stone-cold classic. But when I really want to get down to the essence of who I felt B.B. was, I love listening to him when he’s either playing by himself or with only a few other people backing him. Or in other instances, I loved it when B.B. played instrumentals. For years, I’ve had an import CD from the U.K. Ace label called Spotlight On Lucille. It’s a disc of B.B. doing instrumentals from the late ’50s and early ’60s. I go to Heaven every time I listen to this thing because it’s the time that I can get lost in both his marvelous technique and in the emotions of his playing. By the same token, his 1969 version of “The Thrill Is Gone” still moves me to places I can’t otherwise get to. In this regard, I’m very torn as well.
I am also incredibly saddened that it appears that now is the time to also bring up some ugly facts (at least in my eyes it’s ugly). I believe that B.B.’s catalog has not gotten the respect that it has deserved over the years. There are a lot of people out there, even now in the wake of his death, who ask “Where do I start with his music?” “What do I pick up first?” Well, other than Live At The Regal, of which there is one mastering out there that is from 1997 from Universal Music, there’s slim pickings that are worthy of his name. Anybody who is worth a grain of salt will tell you that B.B. produced a ton of other 5-star albums that have not been upgraded since CDs came out. This is actually shameful. B.B. King is an artist who is much more worthy of a single disc compilation or a best through the years thrown together box set. Why? Because neither are provide context. What King is worthy of, instead, is of having his catalog from the beginning of his career all the way through and including the ’70s properly reissued as expanded or Deluxe Edition packages with unreleased tracks added on from each album and given pristine new masterings. I am also including the live albums in this statement as well.
I consider it to be of highest priority that the buying public learns, through the proper chronology of his back-catalog, of why B.B. King was considered such a giant in the industry. As it stands right now, there is no context from which to understand King’s music in this modern society of ours because there has been no effort to have his catalog presented in the respect that it deserves. I am a long-time veteran of music collecting and I can even say that my B.B. King collection is very dissatisfying when I look at it. I see so many missed opportunities. Let me give you one example. One of the most underrated live albums from a Blues artist is the Live In Japan album from B.B. when he performed there back in the early ’70s. I had to buy this as a South American import for God’s sake! This is a 5-star album and Universal couldn’t make it available in the U.S.? And you can’t tell me that there weren’t other shows from that Japan run that weren’t recorded which couldn’t become a Deluxe Edition or even a box set? Another opportunity that has been lost is in his prison albums-the live albums. Where is an updated version of the Live At Cook County Jail album? I don’t even have it in my collection because I’m scared to death to possibly have spent my money on a lousy mastering of the album. This shouldn’t be for an artist as gigantic as he was.
Plus, I have to believe that there’s a ton of unreleased material from his prime, both studio and live, that is laying around in vaults and tape collections. This needs to be collected up and gone through for storage for future releases. I am imploring Universal Music to please get the legal fury surrounding his family and his lawyers facilitated to everybody’s satisfaction and then get down to properly doing this man’s music legacy the just due it deserves. I feel so badly for kids nowadays because they’ll never make the connection as to why B.B. was so important in the development of electric Blues music because there’s almost no catalog for them to comprehend why his work should be a part of their musical education.
Lastly, to get back to the inherent dignity contained within B.B.’s music, I always felt like I wasn’t worthy of B.B.’s respect because I’ve always been a little salty and earthy in how I’ve approached some things in life and as well in music. In this regard, I now feel the same way about B.B King as I did to Ravi Shankar. These two people seemed to be so much better than the industry of which they found themselves in. Here I am, a profane little lout, who crossed paths with his music and learned from it and hungers to learn more. I don’t know. Sometimes I think it was a little unfair to B.B. for having some/ne like myself who admired his music even though I had to be in the right frame of mind to listen to it.