This is not a collection for the casual B.B. King fan in search of the man's greatest hits. On the other hand, for those desiring to dig deeper into the earliest Memphis
recordings by the King of the Blues, this anthology represents true nirvana. Ace's comprehensive four-CD box set surveying B.B.'s lengthy tenure on the Bihari brothers' RPM and Kent labels contains the issued versions of these classic 1950-1951 performances,
but here they're joined by a bevy of priceless alternate takes. They provide the most revealing look yet at the creative process behind his primordial Memphis waxings, many of them roduced by the equally legendary Sam Phillips.
When he first ventured into Sam's fledgling studio at 706 Union Avenue, B.B. was a raw young talent with a local radio program and a load of potential. By the time he left behind Memphis as
his primary recording base, King was a fast-rising blues star boasting a busy touring itinerary and a number 1 rhythm and blues hit, ''3O'CIock Blues''.
16 September 1925 in the heart of the Delta not far from the village of Itta Bena, Mississippi, Riley B. King didn't have it easy as a lad. "B.B. King's parents died when he was quite young, and the people that he worked for just kind of adopted him like he
was their child'', said Purvis Henson (tenor saxophonist with Buddy Johnson's Band) whose uncle, Luther H. Henson was one of King's childhood teachers. "B,B. has always been very, very bright. And for a long time B.B. kind ff stayed by himself, they provided
a place for him to stay. He used to go up to milk the cows, do whatever thing else around needed to be done, but he lived by himself. Yeah, he came up rather tough, kinda rough''.
B.B. was entranced by gospel music at an early age, But the blues made an equally indelible impression, thanks to his aunt's collection of 78s by Blind Lemon Jefferson
and the exquisite Lonnie Johnson. T-bone Walker eventually became B.B.'s principal influence as an electric guitarist, and he came to love jazz virtuosos Charlie Christian and Diango Reinhardt. Even hillbilly music played a supporting role in Kings musical maturation.
"When I was trying to learn to read music, the books that I would
buy had country songs in them,'', said B.B. in 1985. "I learned to read music by learning songs like 'You Are My Sunshine''' and 'My Darling Clementine''' These were the songs that they had the musical notation on for you to learn to read. So I knew that long
before could even write a note of ''3 O'Clock Blues'''.
Not all of Kings mentors derived from shellac. Slide guitar master Bukka White was his mothers
first cousin and the first gent he hooked up with when he hit Memphis in 1945. After retreating to Indianola, Mississippi for a time, he returned to the Bluff City in late 1948, ready to make his musical mark. Pioneering Memphis radio station WDIA would be
B.B.'s ticket to success.
"I needed a job playing at one of the clubs'', said King in a 1979 interview, "And the club owners kind of forced me into
radio, because they said if I was on the air, I would be able to advertise the place where I was playing, like some of the local dudes was doing. So when I went and applied for a job at the station, just as a musician playing, they gave me a job that very day, playing by myself - kind of folk guitar style. About two months later, my programme was very, very popular. so I started a trio then. And at that time, one of the disc jockeys
left the station. And when the disc jockey left the station, they started training me to be a disc jockey''. Sponsored by an alcohol-based elixir called Pep-Ti- Kon, King picked up a lifelong nickname while manning the radio microphone daily at WDIA. He was
billed as the Beale Street Blues Boy, then Blues Boy, Bee Bee, and ultimately B.B. In 1949, he made his first two 78s at the station for Jim Bulleit's Bullet logo.
next year, B.B. signed with the Bihari brothers' Los Angeles-based RPM label, a new subsidiary of their Modern imprint. The association would endure for more than a decade. King's first RPM session ensued around July of 1950 at Memphis Recording Service under
Phillips' supervision. Sun Records was still some 18 months from commencing operations, and Phillips was independently producing groundbreaking masters for Modern and Chess. "He recorded
many of the people like Howling Wolf and many other guys for different labels, because he was the only person that had a studio'', noted King. "In fact, his studio was one of the first that I ever saw that was an actual studio''.
'Mistreated Woman', B.B.'s first RPM biscuit, is a languid outing anchored by Ford Nelsons 88s (inspired by Sonny Thompson's 'Long Gone'') and sporting a crisp high-neck guitar solo from the
youthful-sounding King. But it's the opposite side, ''B.B. Boogie'', that's the dazzler, distinguished by several choruses of high- flying fretwork (the second take, first issued on a ,1969 Kent LP, is taken at a hotter tempo, B.B.'s axe sailing fast and free
over Nelson's furiously pounding ivories). There are three takes of each side of B.B. 's RPM encore: ''The Other Night Blues'' and ''Walkin' And Cryin" are both after-hours odes, King's vocals clearly growing more confident.
Both sides of RPM 318 served as intriguing tuneups for subsequent King gems. ''My Baby's Gone'', cut on January 8, 1951 , is his first crack at what would morph into his horn-leavened early
1953 smash ''Woke Up This Morning''. The bubbly Latin rhythmic pulse is already in twidence and the lyrics are nearly identical, but the innovative tempo switch into full-blown jump mode that made ''Woke Up This Morning'' so distinctive isn't. King takes ''Don't
You Want A Man Like Me'' at a more deliberate pace than the sprightly south-of-the-border tempo of his '54 L.A. treatment, concentrating on his vocal to the total abandonment of Lucille.
Solomon Hardy's squealing tenor sax wails throughout the mid-tempo ''B.B. Blues'', King shouting the blues full-throttle. The patriotic Korean War epic ''Ouestionnaire Blues'' and the double-entendre boogie ''A New Way Of
Driving'' stem from the same session as ''B.B. Blues'' but had to wait a couple ot decades to see light of day on that same historic Kent LP. Rounding out the session was the easy-swinging
''Fine Lookin' Woman'', issued as RPM 348 with Hardy squawking up a storm and is also on offer here in an alternate rendition.
Hudson Whittaker - better
known as kazoo-blowing Chicago blues patriarch Tampa Red - had just cut the rollicking original ''She's Dynamite'' for RCA Victor in March of 1951. Then B.B. grabbed hold of it two months later for RPM, hiking its energy level in the esteemed company ot two
generations ot Newborns (Phineas Sr. on drums and Phineas Jr. on piano). Two takes of the mournful ''She's A Mean Woman'', cut June 18, 1951, convincingly spotlight B.B. the blues singer, with a noticeable nod to the melismatic innovations of Roy Brown - whose
open- throated delivery also echoes through two renditions of B.B.'s rocking ''Hard Workin' Woman''. Why the Biharis chose to bury both takes of the driving ''Pray For You'' is anyone's guess - punchy
horns push the proceedings hard (Richard Sanders probably handles the sax solo), and B.B.'s stinging solo attractively complements his roaring vocal.
a result of a feud between Phillips and Modern over Sam handing Jackie Brenston's ''Rocket '88" to Chess, the Biharis eschewed the use of Phillips' studio that September to cut what would be King's national breakthrough, ''3 O'Clock Blues''. "When they would
come in town, usually they would bring portable equipment like Ampex 600s, things like that'', said King, whose backing cast for the session included ill-fated pianist Johnny Ace, Sanders
and Billy Duncan on saxes, and drummer Earl Forest. "And they would set them up in any vacant place that we could find. In tact, when we made ''3 O'Clock Blues'', we made it at the YMCA''.
B.B. picked up ''3 0'Clock Blues'' from fellow blues guitar master Lowell Fulson, who scored his own first national hit with it in late 1948. B.B.'s did even better, topping Billboard's rhythm and blues listings for live
weeks in February and March of 1952. Its flip, ''That Ain't The Way To Do It'', is a playful romp highly reminiscent of Louis Jordan's ''Ain't That Just Like A Woman'' (the ebullient alto saxman was another primary King influence). Despite a large gap in the
matrices, the bone- chilling ''She Don't Move Me No More'' apparently dates from the same session.
King had assembled a splendid crew of up-and-coming
musicians for local gigs that he dubbed the Blues Boys. "The group first was mine, and then it was called the Beale Streeters after that'', he explained. "The Beale Streeters, at that time, consisted of Richard Sanders, Johnny Ace was the piano player - his
name was John Alexander, but he later started making records under his own name with the Beale Streeters. In tact, the whole group was the group that I put together whan we made ''3 0'Clock Blues''. But when ''3 O'Clock Blues'' became a hit and I started to
work out of a hooking agency called Shaw Artists Corporation, and Universal (Attractions), they didnt want me to have a band. They wanted me alone. So I left the band, and when did, gave
it to Johnny Ace. And that's when he changed it. Instead of calling it the Blues Boys as it had been, he started calling it, the Beale Streeters''.
could hold B.B. King no longer. His vital recordings of the 1950s and early 1960s for the Bihari brothers, that inaugurated an open-ended regal reign, are fully revealed in his Ace box set, "The Vintage Years".
- Bill Dahl
B.B. King interview by Bill Dahl, Chicago, December 1979
B.B. King interview
by Bill Dahl, Chicago, September 1985
Purvis Henson interview by John Braven & Richard Tapp, New York, 1989 (Unpubished)
Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography
of B. B. King, by B.B. King with David Ritz
(New York Avon Books, 1996)
Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records
and the Birth of Rock And Roll,
by Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins (New York: St. Martins press, 1991)
Records, 1943-70: A Selective Discography, Volume 1, A K, by Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven (London: Record Information Services, 1987)
Joel Whitburn's Top Singles
1942-1988, by Joel Whitburn (Menomonee Falls,
WI: Record Research Inc., 1988)
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