50 word Story: Death of a Blues Man

The end is near.

The swirling soup of alcohol, smokes, fast food, and heightened adrenaline have worked their life long course.

But as life fades to a white pinpoint, he hears the approaching music.

Etta, Elmore, Muddy, and a chorus of others singin’ the blues.

He smiles and passes on.

 

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B. B. King – Completely Well (ABC 1969)

The blues as an art form has always struggled with its identity.  It is generally acknowledged to have been born in the early 20th century as a distinct style of guitar music that built on the slave and gospel traditions of black people in the Mississippi delta region, It blossomed in an electrified form, with the addition of the piano, bass, harp, horns, and occasionally the organ, in the bars and nightclubs on the south side of Chicago after World War II.  It was typified as “race music” until the late 1940’s when it was incorporated into the “Rhythm and Blues” category.  By the 1970’s, it had melded into “Soul” music and now has largely disappeared as a distinct music category at major music award venues in the United States.  But if you ask people to name someone who typifies the blues, invariably the primary response is B.B. King! 

Born in Mississippi, he got his start in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1940’s as a DJ and a performer on Beale Street.  He earned a nickname as the “Beale Street Blues Boy” which was shortened to the “Blues Boy”.  As his distinctive guitar style and voice brought him regional attention, it was shortened again to simply “B.B.”.  Born Riley B. King, in 1925, we all know him as B.B. King, the King of Blues; a title that he richly deserves.

Over the course of the 1950’s and 1960’s, he recorded 17 albums and had over a dozen hit “rhythm and blues” tunes featuring heavy brass sounds and the piano.  But with the release of “Completely Well” in late 1969, his music expanded beyond the largely black audiences for R&B music and was introduced to a new generation of white suburban listeners who loved pop and rock music.  They were entranced by the number nine and last song on the album, “The Thrill is Gone”.  The recording was to become one of those rare songs that was a hit on both the “R&B” and pop charts of the day and is now considered a “blues” classic.

Generally, the last song on an album is not destined for greatness. In my experience, they are often “filler” tunes that are added to complete an album within the allotted space.  (For long playing vinyl albums, it was normally 40 to 45 minutes.)  And in a sense, it was a filler tune. A jazz style hit for Roy Hawkins in the early 1950’s,  B.B. reset the song to a slow 12 bar blues beat that allowed his sparse guitar notes and voice to soar to the accompaniment of the bass, keyboards, drums, and a string section (something he had not done before).  A tune for the ages was born and, to this day, I still get those awesome chill bumps listening to it.  It finished as a Billboard Hot 100 song for 1970 and he also won a Grammy for his performance that year.

But the “Thrill is Gone” is not the only great blues song on the album.  It features 5 songs written by B.B. in collaboration with other songwriters; a trait he has shown throughout his long career not only in song writing but in his willingness to share his stage with other up and coming artists.  The songs, “So Excited” and “You’re Losin’ Me” are great upbeat dance tunes.  If you love slow “grinding” blues, “No Good” and “What Happened” should please you.

The version of “Confessing the Blues” recorded on the album is worthy of mention as a classic blues tune in it’s on right.  It had been a1930’s Kansas City style blues hit and the title cut of his 1966 album but he rearranged it from a brassy jazz oriented rhythm to the 4/4 beat familiar to pop and rock audiences. The result is a great catchy tune that has worn well over the years.

The album also includes two longer “blues jammin” songs, “Cryin’ Won’t Help You Now” (initially recorded on his first album in 1956) and “You’re Mean” that allow B.B. to display his guitar virtuosity and the talent of his band: bassist Gerald “Fingers” Jemott, keyboard player Paul Harris, drummer Herbie Lovelle, guitarist Hugh McCracken, and strings/horns arranger Bert DeCoteaux.

Overall, “Completely Well” typifies and personifies the blues and should be considered as one of the great all time blues albums.  The next time someone asks you “What exactly are the blues?”, just play this album for them; awesome tunes, guitar playing by one of the best that has ever lived, and a voice for the ages….he is the King of the Blues!