B.B. King - guitar, vocals; James Toney - organ; Ron Levy - piano; Milton Hopkins - guitar; Joseph Burton - trombone; Cato Walker III - alto sax; Bobby Forte - tenor sax; Eddie Rowe - trumpet, conductor; Rudy Eckells - bass; John "Jabo" Starks - drums
At this point in his career, B.B. King had already crossed over to young white audiences through his 1968 appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and his subsequent appearances at Bill Graham's Fillmore West on bills with the hottest contemporary rock artists of the day. In 1969, he opened 18 American shows for the Rolling Stones, which brought him to a higher level of visibility in this country. By the time of this performance at the 1975 Newport Jazz Festival, on a triple bill at Nassau Coliseum with Cannonball Adderley's quintet and the Stylistics, he was universally acknowledged as "King of the Blues."
Fronting a nine-piece band, which included former James Brown drummer John "Jabo" Starks (who had played on such hits as "Cold Sweat," "Super Bad" and "Sex Machine"), King engaged his audience in earthy storytelling, authoritative string-bending and sanctified gospel-holler singing through his exhilarating set. Entering to strains of Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk," performed by his band, B.B. launches into the contemporary flavored, blues imbued "To Know You Is To Love You," title track from his 1973 MCA album (co-penned by Stevie Wonder and Ray Henderson). Then reaching back to 1965's Live at the Regal, he pulls out the earthy slow blues, "How Blue Can You Get" (originally co-penned by Leonard Feather and which remained a staple in B.B.'s live set for the next few decades). Both B.B.'s playing and singing is particularly inspired on this track.
B.B.'s autobiographical "Why I Sing the Blues" is a stunning showcase for his singing guitar style over a driving shuffle beat while the stinging slow blues "I Got Some Help (I Don't Really Need)" is a prime example of King's ability to incorporate humorous, down-home storytelling into his blues. The opening strains of the minor key lament "The Thrill Is Gone" are met by shouts of recognition from this Nassau Coliseum crowd, then after strains of the lament "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother (And Maybe She's Jiving Me Too"), B.B. introduces the band members before sliding into a refrain from "Guess Who," title track from his 1972 album. He follows with the catchy "I Like to Live the Love" from 1973's To Know You Is To Love You, bringing his '75 Newport Jazz Festival set to a rousing conclusion.
He was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, near Indianola. In his youth, he played on street corners for loose change and got some early instruction from his cousin Bukka White, who was a well established Delta bluesman. In 1947, King hitchhiked to Memphis to pursue his music career and got his big break the following year when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio program on KWEM. This led to a ten-minute spot on the black-staffed and managed Memphis radio station WDIA, where he got his nickname the Beale Street Blues Boy (later shortened to Blues Boy and eventually B.B.).
Emulating the guitar styles of T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, he developed a signature sound based on his unique hand vibrato. King began recording in 1949 for the Bihari Brothers' Los Angeles-based RPM label and in 1951 scored a hit with Lowell Fulson's "Three O'Clock Blues." He established himself as a force on the chitlin circuit during the mid-1950s and in 1956 played an astonishing 342 one-night stands. He scored a string of hits through the '50s and in 1962 signed to ABC-Paramount Records. His 1964 recording for that label, Live at the Regal, is still considered a blues classic. But it was 1970's minor key lament, "The Thrill Is Gone," that really brought King mainstream popularity for the first time in his career.
King continued to record prolifically and tour tirelessly through the '70s, '80s and '90s, a period which saw him become one of the most influential guitarists on a generation of rock and blues players. In 1999, King recorded Let the Good Times Roll: The Music of Louis Jordan and followed with 2000's Riding with the King, a collaboration with Eric Clapton. He celebrated his 80th birthday in 2005 with an all-star album featuring such guests as Gloria Estefan, John Mayer, and Van Morrison, then returned to a stripped-down blues format in 2008 with the excellent One Kind Favor. At age 86, he is still singing with gospel tinged-authority and playing with bent-string urgency on Lucille, his signature Gibson guitar.
-Written by Bill Milkowski