B.B. King works audiences the same way he works the guitar he calls Lucille. He teases them, tickles them, and then jolts them with the lyrics he sings and the notes he plays. “Usually when I’m up there onstage,” King explains, “I try and do like an electric eel and throw my little shock through the whole audience. And usually the reaction comes back double-force and pulls me out of it, because the people can help you entertain. They become part of it. It’s something like radar: You send out a beam, and it hits and comes back with more energy.”
Nowhere is this better exemplified than on King’s classic Live at the Regal album, recorded on November 21, 1964, at Chicago’s Regal Theater, one of the nation’s most prestigious black venues. King had played there many times before, and Johnny Pate, a top producer and arranger, came in to supervise the recording. B.B.’s hard-swinging band was in sublime form, and King remembers his tenor man, Bobby Forte, as one of his “all-time great sidemen.” Rounding out the lineup was pianist Duke Jethro, trumpeter Kenny Sands, saxophonist Johnny Board, electric bassist Leo Lauchie, and drummer Sonny Freeman.
In the liner notes for his King of the Blues box set, B.B. recalled that “Johnny Pate set up everything, making sure that we had a good sound, and he recorded two or three of the shows. And the audience was good. See, we were starting to lose young blacks. I’d never really had a young black audience – blacks were with me according to my age and older, and as I got older, my black audience got older with me. But at the Regal and in Chicago, they still think well of and respect me and the dignity of blues, thanks to Muddy Waters and the rest. That particular day in Chicago everything came together and the audience was right in sync.”
The Regal repertoire was typical for that era. The band starts with “Every Day I Have the Blues,” with B.B.’s beautifully placed, warm-toned solo soaring over the driving rhythm and horn kicks. He then slides easily into “Sweet Little Angel,” which he describes as “one of the real, real oldies.” The song’s pedigree includes Lucille Bogan’s 1930 piano-backed version, Tampa Red’s 1934 slide guitar rendition called “Black Angel Blues,” and Robert Nighthawk’s 1949 Aristocrat single of “Black Angel Blues.” B.B. himself had cut an RPM single of the song in 1956. He laces his Regal version with crackling lines featuring his trademark “hummingbird vibrato,” which many have imitated but none have surpassed. (In a classic example of turning limitations to strengths, King originated his distinctive vibrato early in his career, when he found himself unable to play traditional Mississippi bottleneck blues: “I won’t say I invented playing like this,” he says, “but they weren’t doing it before I started! Bukka White and quite a few other people used bottlenecks, but I got stupid fingers. They won’t work. If I get something like that in my hand and try to use it, it just won’t work. So my ears told me that when I trilled my hand, I’d get a sound similar to the sound they were getting with a bottleneck.”)
Without missing a beat, King and his band segue from “Sweet Little Angel” into another powerhouse blues, “It’s My Own Fault.” His Gibson ES-355 SV, at the time the company’s top semi-hollowbody model, sported stereo electronics and a Vari-tone. With a flick of the switch, King dials in a tougher, more trebly sound for his solo flourishes. “I usually go through the stereo circuitry, with both pickups working against each other,” King explained. “With just a quick shift of the hand I can set the volume or change the tone. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure which pickup does what. I just put them both on and use my ear.” Towels or wadded paper stuffed through the guitar’s soundholes eliminate feedback.
King’s storytelling lyrics during “It’s My Own Fault” hold the audience at rapt attention; his blistering solo brings them screaming to their feet. Without pause, the band modulates to a higher key as B.B. explains that he’s going to go “way down in the alley” with his next selection, “How Blue Can You Get.” His opening solo is a masterpiece of phrasing and string bends – pure B.B. King at his best. He delivers his heart-rending lyrics like a preacher in an old-time revival, and he brings down the house with his punchline, “I gave you seven children, and now you want to give ‘em back.” Wow!
King jump-starts his original “Please Love Me” with an Elmore James chordal flourish. He then pays tribute to his swing and bebop influences, Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker, with horn-like guitar lines soaring above the jumping band. He follows with a sexy jump blues, “You Upset Me Baby,” comping rhythm while giving his band room to move.
B.B. brings Lucille back into the spotlight for the extended opening solo of the “waaay back” slow blues “Worry, Worry,” providing a case-study in how to “tell the truth” on electric guitar. The performance showcases his extraordinary finesse with bends, which often involves hitting a fret lower than the intended note and then quickly bending up to pitch. “My reason for developing this way of doing it was that my ears don’t always hear like they should,” King explained with typical modesty. “I’m always afraid that I might miss a note if I try to hit it right on the head, so if I hit down and slide up to it, my ears tell me when I get there. But also it’s more like a violin or a voice; you just gliss up to it.”
After the hard blues of “Worry, Worry,” King and company change the pace with the rumba-esque, riff-driven “Woke Up This Morning,” which he’d recorded a dozen years earlier for RPM. He then launches into a reworking of Victoria Spivey’s prewar blues, “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” making the song uniquely his own with gospel-inflected vocals and taut guitar jabs. He ends the show with “Help the Poor,” a modernistic, rumba-flavored plea for understanding. In just 35 minutes, B.B. King has delivered a blues masterpiece.
Mirroring the audience reaction, critics went wild when ABC released Live at the Regal, proclaiming it King’s “best ever” recording and hailing the “rediscovery” of a bluesman who, ironically, was averaging 310 shows a year. As the ever-astute critic Leonard Feather aptly put it in his liner notes for a reissue of Live at the Regal, “This unique Regal session is the definitive statement of B.B. King’s phenomenal rapport with a crowd, of the miraculous vibrations that can exist between audience and performer. In essence, it tells you how, where, and why he ultimately became King of the Blues.”
These days, B.B. King is quick to point out that while the Regal concert was a good one, he’d played hundreds of better ones during the same era, which found him performing almost exclusively to black audiences. The album’s release in 1964 was perfectly timed, as young British rock musicians were in the midst of the “blues boom” that had led to the formation of bands such as the Animals, Yardbirds, and Rolling Stones. Back home in America, Live at the Regal struck a resonant chord with Michael Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Johnny Winter, and many other guitarists who’d soon bring blues to stadium-sized audiences.
For a few years after its release, B.B. would still play to largely black audiences in the Southern chitlin circuit and Northern clubs. After one such performance, he was paid a compliment that shows great insight into his artistry: “I was at the Apollo Theater one time, and there was a critic there, and to me what he said was one of the great compliments that people have given me. The critic wrote: ‘B.B. King sings, and then Lucille sings.’ That made me feel very good, because I do feel that I’m still singing when I play. That’s why I don’t play a lot of notes maybe like some people. Maybe that’s the reason why most of my music is very simple – that’s the way I sing. When I’m playing a solo, I hear me singing through the guitar.” And that, ultimately, is the deepest beauty of Live at the Regal.
Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.
© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.