The King lives on!

Blues fans all across the world are still mourning the passing of B.B. King. Such a strange feeling, when someone larger than life passes on. Most of us never knew or met the man. But he spoke to us – through his music.

I bet you can find the King’s influence in the music of many artists across the different genres: pop, R&B, hip hop and rock music – and without a doubt in the offerings of a wide variety of blues artists who grew up on his music. Though his guitar playing was never technically brilliant, B.B. King’s songs are all heart. Feeling. Soulful substance over form. Impossible to copy. The stuff myths are made of. Why else would guitar players, with more technical finesse, try to copy his simple style over the years? Stop reading – go put on some B.B. King right now – close your eyes and just feel the music.

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Goose pimples, right? Such a typical human trait though. We don’t know what we have until it’s gone. Eric Clapton’s short but heartfelt video clip on his facebook page – the morning after the King died – made me realise that the spirit of the blues feigned immeasurably when he left the planet. God, I wish I could’ve put the brakes on death. For the King’s family and friends mostly. That’s why we get the blues, man. When inevitability brings you to your knees. All you can do is turn up the music and throw yourself at the loss, the pain, the heartache or whatever makes you blue. Not because you love being blue. Hell no. But you realise you’re human. You feel it in your soul, find yourself in the moment and the only way through it is to enjoy the good things in life even more. Joy, love, friendship, music, good times…it’s a strange balance…like in the blues songs of old – the worldly things cause us trouble – but the simple things bring us salvation, brothers and sisters. That’s the blues for me, man. Finding balance in this hard old world.

The King’s death gave all of us the blues. The worst kind. But his spirit lives on in his vast discography of music, filmed live footage and anything you can lay your hands on or download. Fans can still enjoy every minor pentatonic scale, the notes he immortalised in an “out of key” fashion, his simple but profound lyrics, his regal vocals, and his mere presence and aura on stage. So choose your method of resurrection. Me? You should know my poison by now.

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In the eighties four Irish lads from Dublin introduced me to the King. Of course ‘When Love Comes to Town’ didn’t teach me the blues. I was too young. But I knew they wrote the song for someone iconic. I guess it was only in the early nineties that I began to slowly discover the genre. A friend of mine’s father had a pretty decent vinyl blues collection back then and we home taped some serious vintage blues on cassette. John Mayall, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry and the King. Add a little curiosity – cheap cigarettes, reefer and even cheaper ‘liver hating’ whiskey. The end result: the kind of legendary good times you can’t help but reminisce about when you listen to them good ole tunes. Jesus, and those were epic times.

We collected the Blues Collection magazines and CD’s sold by the local stationary franchise at the time. Some blues education before the days of google. Just a year before all this, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album introduced the blues to Generation X, so mainstream media played it’s part too I guess. In those days, they played some pretty great music. Not just shite like today. But did we really understand the blues then? Probably not.

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When the millennium turned, one of the blues albums that shone its light for me, when hard times came knocking, was B.B. King and Eric Clapton’s timeless collaboration: Riding with the King. By the time this album was released I was qualified to sing the blues…my right of passage fatefully handed to me – and without question I obliged.

So enough of the deep shit…..way too deep man…even for me. But I think it’s justified for the King, not so? Let’s move on to specifics though. So guess what? I found this classic on Mr Vinyl’s website. (http://www.mrvinyl.co.za). There’s been several pressings since the first pressing in 2000 but this one is a WEA International 2011 180g re-issue – pressed in the Netherlands. Kinda strange because this double LP is supposed to be part of a Box Set styled “Clapton Blues” which includes no less than 3 albums (5 LPs). Go check it out if you’re a vinyl junkie. And yes I checked all the different identification numbers! The deciding number was scratched on the vinyl itself….

Don’t think that because it’s a newer pressing that it’s easy to come by. Save yourself the wait, the trouble and the cost and buy it if you want it. Blues vinyl (in general) is not easy to find. In particular the King’s vinyl. Vinyl dealers don’t stash thousands of copies of  a specific newer pressing and definitely don’t have thousands of copies of a specific older pressing lying around. The market is way too small for mass sales. You can, however,try to negotiate with Mr Vinyl to see if they can get this pressing for you from the suppliers.

In terms of sound, most audiophiles agree that older pressings sound better, however there’s no hard and fast rule (and too many variables) to compare the two “mano e mano”. I just had to use a Ford Fairlane reference somewhere. However, my experience is that more often than not the older pressings sound better. In this case, most of the information available point to the 2011 reissue being the better one. The reason? Mastering was done at Bernie Grundman Mastering studios in Los Angeles by Chris Bellman and pressed on the finest grade European vinyl.  So all in all at R310 the price is quite reasonable – considering it’s a double album. That’s the only thing that got to me is the fact that there’s three songs on each side. So I wouldn’t recommend playing it while you’re having a braai outside. Treat your friends to an in depth listening experience in front of your sound system. You’ll be turning these babies over quite often.

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Ok I need to say a little something about the album. The two blues legends performed together for the first time in New York City in 1967. Thirty years later they recorded the song “Rock Me Baby” for Clapton’s duets album, Deuces Wild. But Riding with the King was the first collaborative album by Eric Clapton and B.B. King. It’s a very polished blues album – the only real critique blues aficionados expressed in respect of the album. But who gives a howling Lucille about them? The offering won the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. The album reached number one on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums and went double multi-platinum in the USA.

The album contains five “vintage” King songs “Ten Long Years”, “Three O’Clock Blues”, “Help the Poor”, “Days of Old” and “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer”. It also includes several covers: Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” which Clapton recorded with Derek and the Dominos in the early seventies, Maceo Merriweather’s “Worried Life Blues”, Isaac Hayes’s composition “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” from the 1946 musical, St. Louis Woman. The album’s title track, “Riding with the King”, is a John Hiatt composition inspired by Elvis Presley. The rest of the songs were written especially for the album. Go check it out again or if you haven’t heard it go experience it for the fist time. Choose your own method of resurrection!

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It’s no small wonder that my favourite songs on this album have always been and always will be the B.B King originals. The King is alive and well when I put the needle to this record, man. And I intend to keep him alive for all of my days.

Goodbye everybody,
I believe this is the end.
Oh, goodbye everybody,
I believe this is the end.
I want you to tell my baby,
Tell her please, please forgive me,
Forgive me for my sins.

(Three O’ Clock Blues)

Rest in Peace, King of the Blues

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