Most of us know of bluesman B.B. King from his one hit, The Thrill Is Gone (1970, originally penned in 1951 by Hawkins and Darnell). But King produced a lot of LPs before that. There are no liner notes on Custom Records CS 1052 “R&B Series,” a stereo LP released sometime in the 60s. So I don’t know who the band is, but the horn section and organist are cookin’. The LP is apparently a mish mash of several sessions mushed together on one LP. It sounds like it, too.
The Letter sounds like early stereo, because King’s voice was panned far left, as is his guitar & drummer. And his voice sounds like there was a thin blanket over his microphone. A bit muted/mushed in the mix. But his guitar style is all over this LP, and it’s an ear opener to hear what the man could really play like back then. These days he relies on one signature lick, but back then he was just-a-free-wheeling it on his ax in ways that modern audiences are unaware of. Is he Jimi Hendrix? Not even close, but he’s a better guitarist than most people give him credit for, especially today. Fun stuff.
The House Rocker is from a different session than The Letter. All of a sudden, you’re listening to mostly mono. All the instruments are panned dead center. It loses much of the fullness and power of the other stereo tunes. But if you like a good-time rocker of a blues, the title is apt. This instrumental is a nice break from the vocal tunes, and a chance to hear him pluck strings on a real toe-tapper. Without the vocals, you might not guess this is B.B. King. He solos through most of the song, followed by the unknown guy on the tenor sax, who blows an appropriately bluesy solo. King’s guitar sounds different here, too. It’s brighter and thinner for some reason. Maybe he changed guitars, or maybe it’s the way his guitar was recorded for this particular date.
If you’ve heard King before, You Shouldn’t Have Left Me sounds like a typical B.B. tune, in the song construction and singing. Change the title and this could be any number of songs he played throughout his career. But it has that grinding, blues in the back alley kind of sound that is very appealing, even if this LP isn’t the highest of fidelity. The fidelity, or lack thereof, is highly variable. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse. But in an odd, overall sense, I liked it anyway. It just sounds like an old record that should have been consigned to the garbage dumpster but was rescued, and is a fun play. Sometimes the instruments sound a little distorted, which could be a bit of damage to the vinyl, or maybe that’s just how it was recorded. Probably the latter.
All of the pre-Thrill Is Gone LPs I’ve discovered by King have been just good blues, by a guy who later became arguably the best known of all the bluesmen. I saw him play live at Selland Arena in Fresno (May 28, 1971), after his hit song was all over AM radio. The show opened with Big Brother and the Holding Company, which was Janis Joplin’s band (she had already died). They were great. Then one my faves, Elvin Bishop followed, and he was better. I recall thinking that there is no way B.B. King is going to better than either of those bands, but damn it, he was! The guy put on a hell of a show. Check out my grainy, Kodak Tri-X film pushed to the limit photo from the date:
This Custom Records LP has a crazy timeline. It was originally issued on Crown as B.B. King and was then repackaged on both United and Custom labels (subsidiaries of Modern Records, in Los Angeles) as The Soul of B.B. King. Online discographies don’t even have an exact date of issue. Ah Well. If you like electric blues with some churn, spin this one, ’cause that’s what it’s for.
Got one minute and 13 seconds? Listen to a medley of four tunes from the LP!
Blues Is King: ABC BluesWay BLS 6001
Live In Cook County Jail: ABC ABCS-723. Terrific live set from the prison yard, includes an extended version of The Thrill Is Gone. He plays a selection of the old faves. Fun banter between BB and the guys in stripes. Pretty nicely recorded, too. I’ve read that Live at The Regal is even better, it includes two songs that are also on the Cook County set.