B. B. King was a legend and legend is not a word I use lightly. He was and remains an icon of popular music. A blues guitar player whose career ran parallel to rock and roll and who managed to maintain a dignified career for multiple decades, he outlasted contemporaries, weathered constantly shifting fashions in music, collaborated with the worthy (Robert Cray) and the unworthy (U2) and managed to do it all while maintaining his credibility as a musician.
It must have been a long journey for the guy who ran into a burning building to rescue his favourite guitar. Foolish though this endeavour was, it gave him a memorable anecdote – the story goes that the fire was apparently started by two men fighting over a woman at one of his gigs – prompting King to name his rescued guitar after her, thus ‘Lucille’, one of the most famous guitars (or more accurately, line of guitars) gained her moniker.
Of course these days B. B. King is best remembered as a heritage act – one of the last direct links we had to the pre-rock and roll blues era, yet he still managed to pack them in at music festivals. Although at the time of this compilation’s release in 1999 King’s years of hard-touring were apparently behind him, more down to the inevitable aging process than anything else – even in his autumn years, King’s touring schedule would consistently put acts half his age to shame.
This seemingly randomly sequenced compilation makes a good case for King as a pop-culture icon. While he never managed a big signature hit single on his own, his back catalogue is rich and varied, based in the blues, with gospel, rock and roll, and soul elements adding variety, with Lucille’s clear chiming sound ringing through the years. While King’s skills as a guitar player have never been in doubt, it seems a shame that he gets less recognition for his powerful vocals.
Perhaps one reason that King isn’t lauded as frequently as his peers is that his choice of collaborators over the years didn’t always exactly underline his cool credentials. While his one off single with U2 and his work with Eric Clapton were certainly worthy, neither have endeared him to an audience that find little to love in Ooooootwooo’s empty stadium bluster or Slowhand’s moist-eyed hero-worship. This is a great shame, as King’s reputation should have been strong enough without the need for the marquee-name collaborators, or agreeing to guest slots that were beneath him, as appearances in the likes of the toe-curlingly bad Blues Brothers 2000 did nothing to enhance his career.
While there are other compilations available, as well as a whole host of studio and a huge legacy of live recordings, this compilation is probably as good a place to start as any for the newcomer to B. B. King. I urge anyone with an interest in popular song to familiarise yourself with B. B. King and remember him not only as a great blues guitar player, but as one of the most enduring icons of pop culture.