october 2008

Blues Boy, Resurgent

By David McGee

Completely well and energized, singing with a fervor befitting a man 20 years or so younger, crooning and growling his way through blues ballads and jump blues workouts with age defying intensity
(Photo by Bruce Stotesbury)

B.B. King
Geffen Records

The news that T Bone Burnett was producing B.B. King's new album was cause for concern, given the ever-fresh memory of how the producer mummified Ralph Stanley, the last aged artist he produced. Turns out One Kind Favor is not a good B.B. King album at all; it's a great one, ranking with some of the finest work the artist has done since he began releasing albums in 1957. Credit T Bone not for staying out of the way, but for absorbing the lessons of his subject's recording history, and taking heed. This accounts for One Kind Favor being the least T Bone of all T Bone productions, reminiscent as it is of others' approaches to the art of Riley B. King—namely those of producers Bill Szymczyk and Stewart Levine, who together account for 10 (Szymczyk four, Levine six) of B.B.'s most memorable long players, primarily by challenging their subject with new thinking.

Szymczyk crossed B.B.'s path at a time when the artist was struggling commercially. After signing with ABC in 1962 following a glorious tenure with the Bihari Brothers' Crown/Kent/RPM/Modern labels in the '50s, when he rose from local fame as a Memphis disc jockey to the pinnacle of the blues world, B.B. found success elusive; he, and the ABC brass, were sure he was going to emulate the success of Ray Charles, who had jumped over from Atlantic and thrived, but as the '60s wound down all B.B. had to show for his decade's work was a string of failed singles and two incredible (but hardly best selling) live albums, Live At the Regal and Blues Is King.

Michigan-born Szymczyk was an ABC staff producer who had long itched to work with B.B., and finally cajoled label president Larry Newton into giving him a shot on what became 1969's career-altering Live & Well (one side of live performances, the other of studio sessions), which yielded the long-sought signature smash, "The Thrill Is Gone." Szymczyk, who had learned the fundamentals of string arranging pre-ABC while engineering Van McCoy sessions, put his skill to good use on "The Thrill Is Gone," but what really made the sessions fly was his pitch to B.B. to surround him in the studio with "some aggressive musicians, not necessarily black, and see what happened. B.B. was open to the idea," as the producer told this writer. The assembled cast included Al Kooper on piano (on two cuts), an increasingly in-demand guitarist in Hugh McCracken, drummer Herb Lovelle, King Curtis's sax player Gerald Jemmott and, in a move that paid off beautifully, a virtually unknown piano player from Long Island, Paul Harris (now deceased). Live & Well resuscitated B.B.'s career, and from it ensued three more top-rate albums, each produced by Szymczyk, each with a gifted piano player in a principal supporting role to B.B.'s guitar companion, Lucille: Completely Well, with Harris again on keyboards; Indianola Mississippi Seeds, with Leon Russell at the 88s, and Live at Cook County Jail, with blues master Ron Levy aboard. The latter came out in 1970, the year Szymczyk, freaked out by an earthquake in Los Angeles, where he lived, quit his ABC job and with it his role as B.B.'s producer, and moved to Denver. Thus began a commercial repeat of the '60s for B.B., with a string of duds amidst a couple of good albums and an ever-decreasing allure as a concert draw.

Enter Stewart Levine, who came not from a blues background but from jazz, rhythm and blues and world music. Encouraged by the Crusaders' manager (at the moment the Crusaders were red-hot on the jazz scene and crossing over to pop) to get together with B.B., Levine agreed, then set out to redefine B.B. in the contemporary marketplace while retaining the elements that made him B.B. King. As Szymczyk had done, so did Levine bring in players from outside the blues realm-the Crusaders, first and foremost—and then, astutely, refused to allow B.B. to rely on the blues grab bag of yore for material but commissioned new songs written especially for him by the Crusaders' keyboardist Joe Sample and Texas-based songwriter Will Jennings. He also became the first producer to enhance the church roots in B.B.'s singing by backing him with a gospel-based background chorus. (One of the oddities of B.B.'s career is the presence of only one gospel album in his entire catalogue, B.B. King Sings Spirituals, recorded for the Biharis in 1959.) Following three rejuvenating albums with the Crusaders, Levine steered B.B. through a masterpiece, 1981's Grammy winning There Must Be a Better World Somewhere, with new songs penned by the team of Doc Pomus-Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) played by a crackerjack band with Hugh McCracken on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, Wilbur Bascomb on bass and Dr. John on piano, plus a horn section anchored by two stalwarts from Ray Charles's band, Hank Crawford on alto sax and David "Fathead" Newman on tenor. For a 1982 album, Love Me Tender, recorded in Nashville, Levine enlisted an all-star lineup of southern soul and country musicians, retained "Fathead" on sax, and added the Muscle Shoals Horns; in 1991 came the stirring There Is Always One More Time, featuring five new Joe Sample-Will Jennings songs, a title track that proved to be the dying Doc Pomus's final, eloquent testimony, and a musician lineup keyed by Sample on piano, Jim Keltner on drums and Lennie Castro on percussion, plus, again, a gospel-rooted female backing chorus. The final Levine-King project was 1991's Louis Jordan tribute, Let the Good Times Roll, a rollicking affair fueled by the heated discourses of Dr. John on piano, New Orleans great Earl Palmer on drums, Lennie Castro on percussion, Neil Larsen on Hammond organ; and both "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford back in the fold on tenor and alto saxes, respectively, with horn charts arranged by Crawford. Having come in to work with B.B. for purely commercial reasons-"we had to get his rate up," the producer has said, referring to the money B.B. could command on the road-Levine launched B.B. into a mostly self-sustaining trajectory from which he's rarely needed, as he might say, "a little outside help" in order to energize his career.

Discounting his duets albums, which apart from 1993's Blues Summit, have been spotty affairs, B.B. has made some compelling albums working as his own producer, such as 1998's Blues On the Bayou and 2000's vastly underrated Makin' Love Is Good For You, and he's maintained his high standards while working with other producers too. More recently, 2003's Reflections, produced by Simon Climie, spotlighted B.B.'s affection for low-key romantic ballads in moving covers of standards by Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh ("Exactly Like You") and Al Dubin-Harry Warren ("I'll String Along With You"), a reassessment of his own early career chestnut, "Neighborhood Affair" along with his second run at Lonnie Johnson's "Tomorrow Night," a closing, spare treatment of the George David Weiss-Bob Thiele tune made immortal by Louis Armstrong, "What a Wonderful World." But it was hard to hear B.B.'s quavering voice and not be reminded of all the years it had on it, and how for the first time he sounded tired, with his 80th birthday looming.

Well, comes One Kind Favor and B.B. King is completely well and energized, singing with a fervor befitting a man 20 years or so younger, crooning and growling his way through blues ballads and jump blues workouts with age defying intensity. The whole enterprise sounds fresh, blessed and au courant, even though it's dotted, profusely, with signposts from B.B.'s rich history: Darrell Leonard's tasty horn arrangements, whether those be the low, mournful hums of "Get These Blues Off Me" or the joyful pumping on the Mississippi Sheiks' "The World Gone Wrong," betray more than a passing knowledge of the arranging style of Maxwell Davis, whose work on B.B.'s '50s albums is nothing short of breathtaking; on drums is Jim Keltner, solid and sensitive, a link to both the Szymczyk and Levine eras (it's a technicality—his first B.B. session was 1971's Live In London, the first post-Szymczyk album but one produced by Szymczyk apprentices Joe Zagarino and Ed Michel); on piano throughout is none other than Dr. John, whose work here is, arguably, the most personable and striking keyboard accompaniment B.B.'s enjoyed on record since Paul Harris tore things up in the sessions for Live & Well and Completely Well in 1969, and that's taking into account the good doctor's own estimable contributions in service to the Blues Boy over the years. Not least of all, the song selection rounds up tunes by contemporaries King admires (John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf), others he was inspired by (the Mississippi Sheiks, and especially Lonnie Johnson, from whence sprang the single string solo long since trademarked by B.B. as a sound signature), and in Johnson's "Tomorrow Night" he returns for the third time to a song he's known almost his entire life, and first recorded on his 1962 ABC debut, Mr. Blues, and reprised on 2003's Reflections.

Presumably cognizant of these ties to his past, or because he was simply feeling his oats, B.B. makes of One Kind Favor a potent showcase for his vocal artistry. If any aspect—and that's a big if—of B.B.'s artistry has been undervalued over the years, it's his singing. Stewart Levine picked up on this right away, explaining, "(B.B.'s) a great singer. Great singer. Totally, totally unique. Unlike lots of other artists, you can't figure out where B.B. comes from. You know what I mean? All due respect to Ray, you listen to Charles Brown and there's Ray Charles. Who you gonna point to and tell me where B.B. comes from? Through all of the albums I did with him, I presented him as a singer. I take it for granted that he's gonna play when he has to; to me, that's not an issue. There's nothing I can do to cause that to be highlighted." T Bone Burnett must feel the same way, because he's had B.B.'s vocals mixed hot and up front, effortlessly dominating the soundscape. Opening with a low-key reading of his hero Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"-recast here as a funky, organ-enriched shuffle-he proceeds to blast into Jean Williams's "I Get So Weary," starting it off with a blistering protest from Lucille before entering shouting, "I get so worried/every time the sun goes down," before giving vent to a multitude of bruised feelings emanating from his gal going astray, articulating a deep, lingering hurt that's about to boil over into searing anger. Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" is a jump blues celebration spiced by Dr. John's steady rolling piano, a horn arrangement that ascends from a mellow hum to sharp, staccato bursts of emotion, a series of voluble single- and double-string protestations from Lucille, and, bringing it all home, a classic B.B. pose as the aggrieved lover, in husky, assertive tones, striking a confrontational stance in querying, "How many more years/I got to let you dog me around." Those who enjoy B.B. digging into pure, deep, juke joint blues need look no further than his stripped-down take on John Lee Hooker's "Blues Before Sunrise," which opens with only B. and Dr. John setting a downcast ambiance with guitar, vocal and piano before the full band and horns enter subtly to enhance a collective lamentation. A five-minute version of Lonnie Johnson's "Tomorrow Night" closes the album on a seductive note, but that's only where it ends up. Initially, backed solely by Dr. John's somber, introspective piano stylings, B.B. treats the song with a gospel feel, and could have taken it anywhere. Slightly past the one-minute mark, the horns ease in, the rest of the band follows discreetly, and the whole enterprise takes on a smoky, sultry cast as B.B. croons his worrisome entreaty to a woman whose affections he fears are fleeting, even though his passion lingers unabated.


Still finding truth in the blues.

So good for T Bone Burnett for doing right by B.B. King, and good for B.B. for laying to rest any thoughts of his slowing down and even more for the sheer vitality of his performances. The one kind favor this album does for listeners is to remind us that B.B. is out there, still finding truth in the blues, still investigating the human condition. He's not sure he has any more answers than anyone else, but he's working on it. It's a lifetime gig, you see.

David McGee is the author of B.B. King: There Is Always One More Time (Backbeat, 2003). Quotes from Bill Szymczyk and Stewart Levine in this review are taken from the book.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
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