“I’m now 73, and I’ve been in the business now over 50 years, so I’m still looking for things I haven’t done,” says B.B. King. Calling from a hotel in New York City, the King of the Blues is referring to his new MCA album, Blues on the Bayou, a back-to-basics recording that King produced himself (amazingly, for the first time in his career). There are no big-name guest stars, no studio trickery, and no session musicians—King recorded the album with his long-time backing band—on Blues on the Bayou, just the sweet sound of King’s guitar Lucille wrapping around a collection of timeless material and new songs. And the title is telling: the album was recorded in Maurice, Louisiana at Dockside Studios. “I heard about Dockside through our A&R person, Gary Ashley, he had some friends that had recorded there, so he was telling me about it. So we checked it out, and liked it. When you’re in a place like that…they fed us, and it was like being out at a resort. And I had a good time. If it didn’t help, it certainly didn’t hurt,” King says. (The beautiful cover photograph of King on Blues on the Bayou was taken on the back porch of the studio.)
Truth be told, while Blues on the Bayou will undoubtedly make King’s Louisiana fans beam with pride, if he had recorded it in Timbuktu it would still hold up as one of his finest albums. This is the CD his diehard followers have wanted for years, a no-frills affair that has the feel of King’s always-intimate concert performances. The CD opens with the wistful instrumental “Blues Boys Tune,” which sets the tone immediately with soulful Hammond B-3 work, an unhurried rhythm section, understated horn charts, and King’s guitar work unfolding naturally, hanging on the single-note bends that are his trademark. He gives his bandmates some solo room n “Bad Case of Love,” a funky uptempo number, and slow-blues aficionados will find reason to rejoice with the songs “I’ll Survive,” “Mean Ole World” and “Darlin’ What Happened.” The overall effect of the CD is like visiting with an old friend after 30 years, but the ever-gracious King doesn’t entertain comparisons between the sound and personality of Blues on the Bayou and his other recent efforts, like 1997’s cameo-heavy Deuces Wild.
“Each time that I record, with or without anyone, I play what I feel. I leave it to the listeners to choose for themselves what part of me they pick [out] and what they don’t. I just have a good time doing it. I’m a blues player. You set me anywhere, and people let me do what I feel like doing, I feel good,” he says.
Further proof of King’s humility is evident in his downplaying of the inestimable effect he’s had on the contemporary blues scene. When I mention how many current guitar players point to him as the man, the one individual responsible for paving the way for countless six-stringers and performers, he responds, “I’m glad to hear them say that they listen to me and think well of me, but they would have made it anyways with or without me. But you know I was playing when all these guys were born, so it makes me feel good that I’ve got something that they think is pretty good. I’ve tried very hard, and I think of them as great young artists that are doing the same thing that I did when I was their age. All of them seem to have a sound of their own—they don’t sound like me or anyone else I know. To hear them [play], and hear them praise me and pay compliments to me, it makes me feel good, yes, and of course it makes me want to do better.”
For King, his greatest satisfaction still comes from feeling the love of his fans. “One of the most rewarding things is to hear people say, ‘I liked what you did,’ or to watch them when I’m playing concerts and to see them move, or get their attention. That’s wonderful. It’s a lot like that song “I’ll survive.’ People have kept me out there for over 50 years, and they’ve helped me to survive, and for them to still show up and come around, all of that is rewarding. To be honest with you, I’m glad to be here.”
Amen, and long live the King.
One young local player King has influenced is Kipori “BabyWolf” Woods, who celebrates the release of his debut CD I’m a Blues Man From Way Down South November 28 at Margaritaville Cafe. Woods doesn’t quite have the seasoning yet to convincingly pull off his cover of King’s signature song “The Thrill is Gone,” or T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” but his debut reveals a guitarist and singer with a truckload of promise. Woods, whose nickname comes from his friendship and stylistic debt to Walter “Wolfman” Washington and his youthful looks, is a funky fretman, and he’s backed up by Washington’s drummer Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Arnold and keyboard wizard Davell Crawford, among others. Woods has a few catchy originals here too, including the humorous ditty “Just Like King Kong.”
Harmonica player Adam Gussow is best known as half of the acclaimed blues duo Satan and Adam, but Gussow’s also led a dual life as a writer, chronicling his journeys with guitarist “Mister Satan” for such outlets as The Village Voice and Harper’s. Now Gussow has just published the book Mister Satan’s Apprentice (Pantheon), and stops in New Orleans this month on his national book tour. Catch Gussow performing and discussing his book on November 16 at Garden District Bookshop, 2727 Prytania St., from 5-7 p.m.
And speaking of harp players, a pack of ‘em—including New Orleanians Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and Rockin’ Jake—are converging on Glendora, Mississippi, the weekend of December 5 and 6 for a tribute and workshop to benefit Glendora’s newly-opened Sonny Boy Williamson Library and Community Center. Other confirmed performers include Lee Oskar, Blind Mississippi Morris, and Mark McGrain (of Anders Osborne’s band), and Rod Piazza and Paul DeLay are also tentatively scheduled to appear. Glendora, the birthplace of Rice Miller, a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson II, is an extremely impoverished town, with 93% of its citizens living below the poverty line. A number of sponsors, including Hohner and the Southern Music Network, are helping the cause as well. Individuals interested in donating records, books and memorabilia to the Sonny Boy Center can send material in care of Mr. Tom Freeland, P.O. Box 629, Oxford, Mississippi 38655. For more information on this event, call 530-873-9048, or e-mail Maggie Mortenson at email@example.com.
The Maple Leaf has a particularly strong line-up in November of national blues acts we don’t get to see in New Orleans often, including Texas firebrand Smokin’ Joe Kubek (featuring B’Nois King on vocals) on November 6, boogie-woogie piano player and saxophonist Deanna Bogart on Nov. 19, acclaimed female blues guitarist Deborah Coleman (touring in support of her new Blind Pig CD Where Blue Begins on Nov. 20), and blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis on Nov. 21. House of Blues presents the Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Revue on Nov. 21, featuring R.L. Burnside, Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early. This is also an OffBeat-sponsored show, and the first 15 people who buy a copy of R.L.’s new record Come on In (see review, p. 62) receive a free pair of tickets to the show.