Friday, September 16, 2005

Top 5: Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, And She Could Be Jivin' Too

Blues legend B.B. King celebrates his 80th birthday today. King started making records in the late 1940s, and scored major hits on the R&B charts into the 1980s. His biggest pop hit, "The Thrill Is Gone," came in 1969--although you don't hear it much on the radio anymore, it's been anthologized everywhere. King still plays about 300 shows a year, although he sits down on stage now. Nobody seems to mind as long as Lucille is on his lap with him.

King has been an icon for so long, much as Ray Charles was, that most people know only the icon without knowing much about the music. To get a sense of classic King, there's the 1965 album Live at the Regal, featuring "How Blue Can You Get?", which you might know from the movie Blues Brothers 2000. And there's 1971's Live in Cook County Jail, which was my introduction to King, thanks to a knowledgeable college friend--although at the tender age of 19, the venue in which the album was recorded seemed more exotic to me than the music did. King's 2000 collaboration with Eric Clapton, Riding With the King, got some lukewarm reviews, but it's a good introduction as well.

I'm a latecomer to the blues, although in another sense, I am typical--the average blues fan today is a white guy in his 40s. I owned records by Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt, and I understood that many rock performers were influenced by blues artists, but I knew almost nothing about the history of the blues itself until a couple of years ago, when the PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues started me exploring. And on my travels, here are five things and/or people I've discovered, all of which are fit for further exploration:

The extent of American blues' influence on British artists. Most of my favorite British artists were deeply influenced by American blues artists: Clapton, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac. Even singers like Tom Jones and Lulu got the bug--Jones' blues chops were the big surprise in the film Red, White and Blues from the Scorsese series. Much of these artists' early exposure to the blues came from the radio, and later, from the handful of American blues artists who toured Europe in the 1950s and early 60s, especially Big Bill Broonzy, who is revered over there, but not nearly so well-known here.

Robert Johnson. Johnson's recordings from 1936 and 1937 are tough for modern ears to listen to because the technology of the time was so primitive--but it's easy to hear why they've captured the imagination of so many musicians. Because these deep rural blues are all we've got to remember him by, we get a skewed picture of Johnson as a ghostly poet, when it's more likely that he was a gregarious and outgoing entertainer entertainer who'd sing whatever people wanted, right up to Broadway show tunes, to make a juke joint jump and fill his pockets. Essential track: "Come on in My Kitchen."

Keb' Mo'. The erstwhile Kevin Moore has the worst stage name in showbiz, and an inaccurate one. Far from being the Delta rustic his name implies, he's actually a smooth performer and talented songwriter. Essential album: Slow Down.

Wisconsin's contribution to blues history.
In 1913, a furniture company based in Ozaukee, just north of Milwaukee, started making cabinets for Edison phonographs. In the 20s, the company formed a subsidiary, Paramount Records, and recorded such important artists as Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, and Skip James. And right in the heart of polka country at that.

The infinite possibilities contained within 12 bars.
When I was younger, I dismissed the blues as dull--"Every blues song sounds alike," I said. To a certain degree, that's true. The classic 12-bar form is everywhere, and if you concentrate only on that, you'll get bored very quickly. But as is true with many things in life, it ain't what you got, it's how you use it that makes it memorable--as my favorite blues artists, those listed above and others, like Susan Tedeschi, the Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band, and Ronnie Earl, prove over and over again.

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