Jazz & Blues

B.B. King: the best albums and DVDs of late king of the blues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 May, 2015, 2:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 May, 2015, 2:48pm

Nobody seems to know who came up with the mordant remark "smart career move" in response to the death of Elvis Presley, but there is no doubt that his demise revived his record sales.

Public interest in artists often spikes after their deaths, and it is a safe bet that the recent passing of another of Memphis' adopted sons, B.B. King - he and Presley were both were born in the US state of Mississippi, but made their names in Tennessee - has stimulated some additional interest in his voluminous but confusing discography.

The loss of the undisputed king of the blues on May 14 made international headlines, and for the benefit of anybody who would like to find out why he was so revered - or would like to hear some more of his music - here are a few suggestions for your listening pleasure.

B.B. King was first anthologised with the release of his debut album, Singin' the Blues (1956), which was a collection of singles dating back to 1950 (his first release was Miss Martha King, issued in 1949).

There have been many more compilations since. There are well more than 20 available, ranging from single-disc samplers to lavishly packaged boxed sets. One CD is nowhere near enough to get the measure of King's monumental achievement, but the 1999 release B.B. King His Definitive Greatest Hits does a respectable job with two. The biggest solo hits are all here, alongside an assortment of collaborations, recorded live and in the studio.

Much the best of the boxed-set treatments is the 10-CD Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr B.B. King. Unfortunately it is hard to find new, although a condensed four-CD version is available from iTunes.

Good as he was in the studio, King was at his best in front of an audience, and 1965's Live at the Regal is often cited as the best blues live recording ever made. It is difficult to think of a better one, although it was not King's favourite of his own albums, and he insisted that the performance, captured on November 21, 1964, at the Regal Theatre in Chicago, was a typical rather than an exceptional show among the hundreds he played that year.

Like Johnny Cash - in some ways his country music counterpart - King made a point of performing regularly in prisons. A couple of shows with a noisy inmate audience produced compelling live albums, of which the best is arguably 1971's Live in Cook County Jail.

A rather different favoured venue was the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and for 1991's Grammy-winning Live at The Apollo (GRP), he performed with the Phillip Morris Super Band - a 16-piece consisting entirely of big-name jazz musicians. Regular staples of his repertoire were rearranged for a top-calibre swing band which included Ray Brown on bass, Kenny Burrell as a back-up guitarist and a horn section which included Plas Johnson on tenor saxophone and James Morrison on trumpet.

There's a healthy dose of jazz funk in King's late 1970s collaboration with The Crusaders on the albums Midnight Believer and Take it Home. That relationship led to a 1982 live album titled Royal Jam, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and King features to advantage on several tracks, but the best of their work together is to be found on the studio albums.

Collaborations suited King, and he went the then fashionable multiple-guest-artist route on several albums in the '90s, starting with 1991's Blues Summit and continuing through Lucille and Friends and Deuces Wild.

Each album had its moments, but the best of his collaborative albums were made with just one other star artist, and the ones to pick are probably his first with the great blues singer (and at one time his chauffeur) Bobby Bland, and Riding With the King with Eric Clapton (who appears on the cover driving an open-topped limousine with King and his guitar, Lucille, reclining in the back). King's swansong album One Kind Favor from 2008, produced by T. Bone Burnett, won him his last Grammy and included some deeply felt, philosophically reflective blues from a man who still had a fair stretch of the road ahead, but could see it coming to an end.

Take Three

B.B. King's life and music has been well documented on film and video, as well as on records and CDs. Here are three of the best of the DVDs.

B.B. King Live By Request (2003): a performance filmed for television with King on great form, playing many of his greatest hits, and featuring a guest appearance from Jeff Beck.

Live in Africa 1974 (2009): King's classic concert in Zaire, staged to tie in with the Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" fight.

The Life of Riley (2012): it is hard to fault this account of the extraordinary life of Riley B. King - B.B.'s birth name - except to say that, had it been made a couple of years later, Bill Cosby might have featured a little less prominently.