THE title ‘King of the Blues’ wasn’t just a pun on his surname. BB King, who passed away in Las Vegas on May 14, was easily one of the most influential bluesmen of all time, matched in terms of following only by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. And he was definitely the most lasting of the legends, ruling the stage from the early 1950s till almost the end. Sixty-plus years at the very top is something very few musicians have achieved.
As news of his death spread, I was asked by Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper to write a tribute. For those who missed that in the May 16 edition of the newspaper, I am attaching the link below. The article sums up King’s life and contribution to music, and also talks of his biggest songs like ‘The thrill is gone’, ‘Lucille’ and ‘3o’clock blues’.
After King, a few others have successfully attempted to carry forward the blues. Buddy Guy, the other two Kings Albert and Freddie, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and Bonnie Raitt have been some of them. Today’s audiences are fairly familiar with their work, thanks to regular release of albums and the availability of their concert footage on YouTube. Many others are clued in to the modern blues-rock artistes, and in India, the Mahindra Blues Festival, has been a platform for some big contemporary names.
Yet, the music of the older masters remains largely unexplored among today’s younger lot. Their names would be familiar, as they have been mentioned in interviews by the likes of Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Now, with the passing of the legendary King, it might be ideal to start digging back into the work of all those greats who preceded or were contemporary to him. Those days, the blues was pure and unadulterated, and needless to say, was a delight to hear.
One may, of course, start with King’s live records ‘Live at the Regal’ and ‘Live at Cook County Jail’, or his studio album ‘Lucille’ or his collaboration with Clapton on ‘Riding with the King’. Besides that, here are 10 artistes one must check out:
Robert Johnson: A huge inspiration on greats like Muddy Waters, Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, Johnson recorded only 29 tracks in a brief career. He died a violent death at the age of 26, apparently of poisoning . His songs ‘Sweet home Chicago’, ‘Love in vain’, ‘Crossroads blues’, ‘Terraplane blues’ and ‘I believe I’ll dust my broom’ have become major blues anthems.
Son House: In many ways, he was the father of the Delta blues, as he was the mentor of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. His style was rooted in the cottonfields of Mississippi, and he played often with the other blues pioneer Charlie Patton.
Big Bill Broonzy: His biggest achievement is of popularising the blues outside the US, doing concerts in Europe, South American, Africa and Australia in the early 1950s. He was also known for guiding many younger players, with Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs and Memphis Slim acknowledging his role.
Muddy Waters: Born McKinley Morganfield, Muddy Waters was called the father of the electric blues. Almost single handedly, he made the Chicago blues scene turn into the world’s most vibrant music centre in the 1950s and 1960s. His rendition of ‘I’m a hoochie coochie man’, ‘Got my mojo working’, ‘I got my brand on you’ and ‘I’m a man’ are hugely successful.
T-Bone Walker: A huge influence on BB King and Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker was the man who first took the music electric in a big way. His guitar technique was unique, and he was known for his perfect timing.
Bessie Smith: The empress of the blues, Bessie’s music retains its power and emotion to this day, despite facing limitations in recording techniques during her era. Although primarily known as a blues singer, she was equally at home with jazz, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley material.
John Lee Hooker: Best known for songs like ‘Boom boom’, ‘Dimples’ and ‘Onions’, Hooker was known for his unique vocal timbre and brilliant guitar style. Despite being rooted in tradition, he also had a mass commercial appeal, specially in the 1990s.
Leadbelly: Huddle Ledbetter or Leadbelly was a notorious womaniser and convicted killer, who claimed to have twice sung his way out of prison. Musically, he was best known for keeping the country blues tradition alive, and played various instruments like 12-string guitar, bass, accordion, harmonica and piano.
Elmore James: It’s said that the most copied guitar sound in the blues is that of Elmore James’ bottleneck riff in ‘Dust my broom’. It was a sound he developed at age 12 running a broken bottleneck down a wire stung to his shack in Mississippi. James has been a huge influence on many slide guitar players.
Howlin’ Wolf: Born Chester Arthur Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf was best known for his dark and brooding voice, and his innovative harmonica and guitar work. He was a major influence of British rock stars like Steve Winwood and the Rolling Stones.
Summing up: Besides King, these were 10 early legends to begin with. There are obviously many more and the list of greats from the pre-1950s era includes names like WC Handy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Jimmy Reed, Memphis Slim, Charlie Patton and Memphis Minnie, to name a few.
In many ways and like Muddy Waters, King was the bridge between their music and the modern blues sound. His work will stay on forever.
This blogger’s tribute to BB King in Mumbai’s Mid Day newspaper appears on http://www.mid-day.com/articles/remembering-blues-legend-bb-king/16214191