With one of the biggest voices in blues and blues guitar, B.B. King’s discography stretches back almost 60 years. And just about any music listener can call to mind his signature track “The Thrill Is Gone” by memory along with “When Love Comes to Town,” his ‘80s pairing with U2. Below, some other sample tracks to choose from when considering just what we lost with the death of B.B. King.
“Lucille” from “Lucille” (1968)
Though B.B. King had been around for years by the time this album arrived, dedicated to his famous Gibson hollow-body, this song functions as closely to a mission statement for King as he ever recorded. Providing the origin story for his guitar’s name and what she means to him with a loving spoken-word tribute fitting a hall of fame induction, this 10-minute showcase confirmed what his early fans knew already -- Lucille, in King’s hands, was alive. World, meet Lucille. Lucille, meet world.
“Sweet Little Angel” from “Live at the Regal” (1965)
Taken from a set that’s widely regarded as the must-hear B.B. King album (in 2012 it came in at No. 141 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time), this live track recorded in a Chicago club offers so much to testify to King’s greatness: The gruff, urgent vocal that slides teasingly to a falsetto, a shrieking, awestruck crowd and that signature guitar tone that can sound as round and far-reaching as the Earth itself or sharp enough to cut glass.
“How Blue Can You Get?” from “Live at the Regal” (1965)
After an opening marked by an expert instrumental opening where King bends, holds and stretches an array of notes to their limit, he carves into the song’s desperate, frayed nerve opening, “I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.” It’s the blues reduced to its essence, and if you know it only from a sampled cameo in a ‘90s hit single (Primitive Radio Gods, if you must), you owe it to yourself to hear the source.
“Worry, Worry” from “Live in Cook County Jail” (1971)
Johnny Cash wasn’t the only one to perform for the incarcarated. Taken from a show at a Chicago jail, this nearly 10-minute excursion proves that Lucille wasn’t King’s only electric instrument. Sliding through a range of growls, hollers and calls that give way to a supple refrain of “someday, baby,” King’s showmanship is in full bloom with an extended comic (if dated) spoken word interlude of relationship advice.
“Backwater Blues,” from “One Kind Favor” (2008)
Even with such a storied career, few could have predicted King releasing such a powerful recording at 82 years old. Produced by T Bone Burnett, this album is loaded with a raw, off-the-cuff sound with the help of an unstoppable backing band that included Jim Keltner, Nathan East and Dr. John. The album is full of understated highlights, but a good place to start is this loose, slow-burning version of a Big Bill Broonzy song, proving that as long as King could play the thrill was never gone.
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