Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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B.B. King

  • Live at the Regal [MCA, 1964]  
  • Blues Is King [BluesWay, 1967]  
  • 16 Greatest Hits [Galaxy, 1968]  
  • Completely Well [Bluesway, 1969] B
  • Indianola Mississippi Seeds [ABC, 1970] B
  • Live in Cook County Jail [ABC, 1971] A-
  • B.B. King in London [ABC, 1971] B
  • L.A. Midnight [ABC, 1972] B+
  • Guess Who [ABC, 1972] B+
  • The Best of B.B. King [ABC, 1973] A-
  • To Know You Is to Love You [ABC, 1973] B-
  • Friends [ABC, 1974] C
  • Lucille Talks Back [ABC, 1975] B+
  • King Size [ABC, 1977] B-
  • Midnight Believer [ABC, 1978] B
  • Take It Home [MCA, 1979] B+
  • There Must Be a Better World Somewhere [MCA, 1981] B+
  • The Best of B.B. King Volume 1 [Ace, 1986]  
  • The Best of B.B. King Volume One [Flair/Virgin, 1991] A
  • Blues Summit [MCA, 1993] B+
  • Deuces Wild [MCA, 1997] ***
  • Live in Japan [MCA, 1999] ***
  • One Kind Favor [Geffen, 2008] *
  • The Jungle [Ace, 2009]  

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Live at the Regal [MCA, 1964]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Blues Is King [BluesWay, 1967]
B.B. King wasn't yet a legend in the rock world in 1967. But props from Eric Clapton and others meant he was getting there. His canonical LP was 1965's Live at the Regal, which showcased his songbook at Chicago's version of the Apollo. But this live album, cut at the same town's International Club, is so raw vocally and untrammeled instrumentally it cuts even that classic in retrospect. "Gambler's Blues," which King never recorded again, tears and saws rather than stings before it vows not to "crap out twice." Willie Nelson's not-yet-standard "Night Life" is all riled up. Bobby Forte's tenor sax adds a sour-mash kick throughout.  

16 Greatest Hits [Galaxy, 1968]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Completely Well [Bluesway, 1969]
A year ago I thought B.B. was the best live act there was and treasured several of his lps, notably Live at the Regal. Since then he has been transformed by astute management into the major attraction he should have been 10 years ago, and I hope he makes two million, but his music is not improving. There's no reason why someone as sweet-voiced as B.B. shouldn't cut his blues with ballads, but his ballad-singing is just plain schmaltzy--the taste that serves him so exquisitely in blues betrays him when he tries to be tasty. This record is good enough, especially the first side. But Live at the Regal is so much better. B

Indianola Mississippi Seeds [ABC, 1970]
I hate to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but the best moment here is unaccompanied--"Nobody Loves Me but My Mother," all 1:26 of it, with King singing and playing piano. B.B. King, that is--most of the piano here is by Carole King, who sounds fine, as do Leon Russell and Paul Harris. Even the strings and horns avoid disaster--B.B. goes pop with real dignity. But he's rarely brilliant, and the only songs on this record with a chance of being in his show a year from now are "Chains and Things" and Leon Russell's "Hummingbird," hooked on the deathless line "She's little and she loves me." I mean, what good does it do to perform that kind of tripe with dignity? B

Live in Cook County Jail [ABC, 1971]
This begins inauspiciously, with introductions and a thrown-away "Every Day I Have the Blues" (compare Live at the Regal and weep), and ends dubiously, with the sappy show-closer "Please Accept My Love." In between B.B. socks home old hits as familiar as "Sweet Sixteen" and as worthy as "Darlin' You Know I Love You" with a tough intensity he rarely brings to the studio. I prefer the horn arrangements on the Kent originals, but the unpredictable grit with which he snaps off the guitar parts makes up for any lost subtlety. A-

B.B. King in London [ABC, 1971]
Overlooking Alexis Korner's acoustic boogie, this encounter with Brit second-liners (famed blues devotee Ringo Starr is the big catch) and L.A. session stars is substantial stuff. "Caldonia" and "Ain't Nobody Home" are more than that. But rock with a steady roll it doesn't. Maybe Klaus Voorman, listed on bass, knows why. B

L.A. Midnight [ABC, 1972]
Hey, I've got an idea--how about sending B. into the studio to do a blues album? We could bring in a tuba like Taj Mahal, hire some decent rhythm players this time, call up a coupla good white guitarists--B.'ll cut the shit out of them, of course, but it can't hurt. He's got a great new iceman-cometh song, he's always good for a jam or two, and if we have to we can always do "Sweet Sixteen" again. Roots, get back, it's a take. B+

Guess Who [ABC, 1972]
Bluesy soul records aren't getting any easier to come by, and who am I to complain about one with the great B.B. King contributing guitar parts? "It Takes a Young Girl" and "Better Lovin' Man," which sound like standards that somehow passed me by, more than make up for the clumsy "Summer in the City" and the rereremade "Five Long Years." But the singer obviously isn't getting any younger, and when he begs comparison with Lorraine Ellison and Howard Tate on "You Don't Know Nothing About Love" he's risking more than he ought to. Which is admirable, in a way. B+

The Best of B.B. King [ABC, 1973]
King is human and then some--never less than intelligent but often less than inspired, especially with words. So I'm delighted at how many high points this captures--"Caldonia" and "Ain't Nobody Home" from London. "Nobody Loves Me but My Mother" (marred by unfortunate engineering tricks) from Indianola, two classic blues, and "The Thrill Is Gone," one of his greatest ballads. And though I still find "Why I Sing the Blues" self-serving and "Hummingbird" silly, they sure make classy filler. A-

To Know You Is to Love You [ABC, 1973]
The Stevie Wonder-composed title track isn't blues or even soul--it's one of those slow, funky grooves that smolders along for minutes before you notice you're dripping from the heat, and it almost justifies the lame idea of sending King into Sigma Sound with Dave Crawford. Elsewhere King sings indifferent songs sincerely, recites a poem he wrote, and plays his guitar when he gets the chance. B-

Friends [ABC, 1974]
If Dave Crawford really wants to turn B.B. into a major "contemporary" soul singer, he shouldn't make him sing Dave Crawford's songs. Best cut: the instrumental. C

Lucille Talks Back [ABC, 1975]
In which King expresses himself by (a) following "Have Faith" with "Everybody Lies a Little" (b) covering Lowell Fulson, Z.Z. Hill, and Ann Peebles (c) conversing with his guitar and (d) producing himself. Personal to Dave Crawford: listen hard to those horns. B+

King Size [ABC, 1977]
Old Chess man Esmond Edwards acquits himself with honor--the charts are sharp, the sidemen prime, and most of the songs good ones. But the mildness of the two Muddy Waters covers reminds us that King conceived his style as progressive from Muddy's Delta-Chicago gutbucket, and the segue from "Mother Fuyer," the dirtiest traditional blues in the repertoire, to Bill Withers and Brook Benton is disorienting rather than revelatory. B-

Midnight Believer [ABC, 1978]
In which B.B. and the Crusaders cut room for a party between sincere schlock and pseudo purism. The King's voice hasn't regained its edge and his guitar is used mostly to decorate Joe Sample's tunes, but this would rate as a mini-comeback if it included another song as good as "Never Make a Move Too Soon," the only one on the album that Sample didn't help write. B

Take It Home [MCA, 1979]
The Crusaders' songwriting doesn't peak the way it did on B.B.'s 1978 collaboration with the L.A. topcats, but that's OK because it doesn't dip either. The Crusaders jam, B.B. jives and raps, and the result--give or take some background vocals and a few overworked horn charts--is the topcat equivalent of the kind of wonderful blues-bar album Bruce Iglauer of Alligator has been getting out of less accomplished musicians throughout the '70s. A small delight. B+

There Must Be a Better World Somewhere [MCA, 1981]
King's seldom been terrible, and when in 1978 he decided to stop trying for AM ballads and disco crossovers and move on up to nightclub funk he started making good albums again. With songs by Doc & Dr. (Pomus and ace sideman John) and a band anchored by the spectacularly unflappable Pretty Purdie, this is the third time in a row he's topped himself. The voice is no longer exquisite and the licks might as well be copyrighted, but King's standard is classic. Of course, it's also predictable--though the material reprises the timeworn truisms (heavy on party blues and perfidious women) with palpable enthusiasm, only "Victim" stands much chance of entering the repertoire. But if this were the first King album you'd ever hear you'd make damn sure it wasn't the last. B+

The Best of B.B. King Volume 1 [Ace, 1986]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

The Best of B.B. King Volume One [Flair/Virgin, 1991]
Like Louis Armstrong before him, King has evolved into American totem and international ambassador, so reliable that he obscures his own formal audacity. Since he concocted his music rather than inventing it whole, mutating Mississippi seeds into an all-inclusive synthesis he no doubt conceived during his brilliant DJing career, it's hard to keep in mind how startling and triumphant he once was. This man was an r&b ruler in the '50s because he could do it all--not just electrify Robert and Lonnie Johnson simultaneously, but croon and growl and split the air while writing standards almost as fast as Willie Dixon. Anyone who thinks he's too smooth can kiss his ass. A

Blues Summit [MCA, 1993]
The artist's flair for the duet is such that the most arresting solo here comes when B.B. is driven to new heights by his favorite collaborator, the B.B. King Orchestra. And because he doesn't want to give away his come-ons yet (or else doesn't have any), he sounds more comfortable with the men than the gals. But that's not to say the likes of Robert Cray and Etta James and John Lee Hooker aren't extra added attractions. Or that they don't inspire him to focus--which is really all he needs. B+

Deuces Wild [MCA, 1997]
Best cameos of an albumful: Tracy Chapman, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton ("The Thrill Is Gone," "Paying the Cost To Be the Boss," "Rock Me Baby"). ***

Live in Japan [MCA, 1999]
Cut 1971--fresher than London, not quite as ripe as Cook County Jail ("Japanese Boogie," "Niji Baby"). ***

One Kind Favor [Geffen, 2008]
Other mainstays of 82-year-old's meticulous retro combo: steadfast Jim Keltner and mercurial Dr. John ("The World Gone Wrong," "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"). *

The Jungle [Ace, 2009]
Although five of its dozen selections had attained the lower reaches of the R&B chart twixt '65 and '67, few noticed this slapdash piece of product when the Bihari brothers' L.A.-based indie put it on the market. But as rereleased by Ace in 2009, it exemplifies how great artists' lesser work comes to feel more precious when they're gone. Otherwise unavailable highlights include the poverty-fighting title track, a short and sweet "Ain't Nobody's Business," and a "Beautician's Blues" that sics said blues on said beautician. A guy his ma called Riley plays guitar on every track.  

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: He's seldom been terrible, and when in 1978 he stopped trying for AM ballads and disco crossovers and moved on up to nightclub funk, he started making good albums again. There Must Be a Better World Somewhere (1981), anchored by Pretty Purdie with plenty of fine Hank Crawford sax and Dr. John piano, featured fine new songs from Dr. John and Doc Pomus. The voice was no longer exquisite and the licks might as well have been copyrighted, but for King, standard means classic. Then again, it also means predictable, and the only one of his well-made later albums I got into was Fantasy's 16 Original Big Hits, a reissue of Galaxie's 1968 best-of. Now that's classic.