The Jazz.com Blog
September 07, 2008 · 0 comments
You will find B.B. King’s new release One Kind Favor, like his other CDs, in the blues bin of your local music store. Yet most fans have forgotten how often King (who celebrates his 83rd birthday in a few days) has strayed outside the blues field. His biggest hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” was only a step away from soul music, and many of the most successful singles from his early career were polished R&B numbers. King has also collaborated with rockers such as U2 and the Rolling Stones, and climbed the jazz charts via his albums with Diane Schuur and the Crusaders.
Under slightly different circumstance, King might have gone down the rock and roll path himself. After all, he was born just a few months before Chuck Berry, and was younger than Bill Haley of "Rock Around the Clock" fame. King certainly had the stage presence and electric guitar skills to jump on board -- and climb to the top of -- the rock bandwagon, and I sometimes wonder what might have happened if he had spent more time around Sam Phillips, plying his trade with Sun Records rather than the Bihari brothers’ Modern label.
I enjoy the variety in King’s output, and am delighted when, for example, he devotes a whole CD to Louis Jordan jump tunes or mixes it up with pop-rock musicians. Purists will sometimes dismiss his crossover work, but I suggest that you listen again to, say, his collaborations with the Crusaders or Eric Clapton before putting them down. These are fun, exhilarating projects, for the most part, and I suspect that fans will still enjoy them fifty years from today.
Yet what a surprise to see King open his new CD with an old Blind Lemon Jefferson song that was first recorded before the Great Depression. I wonder who made the unconventional decision to kick off the disk with “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”? Even the name of King’s new CD comes from Jefferson’s lyrics. Maybe producer T. Bone Burnett was the visionary here, or King himself. In any event, I give high marks to the brave studio execs who supported this move.
Elsewhere in his CD, King celebrates the legacy of Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker and the Mississippi Sheiks. Each one of those names represents a significant contributor to American music, but these past masters are seldom remembered by the music industry today. Yet Mr. King has not forgotten where he came from, and with One Kind Favor he has given fans one of the most unabashedly traditional recordings of his career, and one that makes no apologies for being a blues CD.
I have come to have such a dim view of the big labels these days, that I half expect a new B.B. King release to feature Justin Timberlake or Carrie Underwood. But King’s new CD doesn’t rely on high profile guest artists or gimmicks . . . just solid blues music, track after track. The visiting artists here are outstanding players, folks like Dr. John and Snooky Young, who got the call for their abilities not just their name value. The songs are gritty blues, like grandpa used to dig. (Well, like your grandpa might have been digging if he had been very, very hip.)
And here is the best part of the story. Only a few days after release, One Kind Favor hit number 37 on the Billboard charts -- the highest ranking debut of any B.B. King solo CD in over three decades. There is a lesson here for the record industry, if anyone in the executive suites is paying attention. In short, when you focus on the music, and not the packaging or marketing angle, the audience tends to notice.
King has maintained very high standards throughout his career, but my favorite recordings have been his medium-tempo blues. His best CD, Live at the Regal, dished out song after song that kept to this same beat, and in King’s hands this formula never gets old. He delivers another gripping in-the-pocket example on his new CD with the track ”Get These Blues Off Me,” which we are highlighting as “Song of the Day” at jazz.com.
This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.