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"The Thrill Is Gone"
B. B. King
Composed by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins
Another day in the life of a music writer, another CD arrives in the mail. This one--a new disc by yet another, long-overlooked soul and blues musician, J. T. Watkins--gets popped into the CD player. The music is good, and the writer (your Daddy B. Nice) shakes his head, marvelling at the music the Mississippi Delta brings him daily. Track follows track. Then, as predictably as the sun coming up in the morning and the sky clouding over in the late afternoon, the obligatory homage (or rip-off) of B. B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" wends its way out of the speakers like an audio trail of cigarette smoke. This time the track is called "Back In Town Again," but the chords are identical, the melody and arrangement a carbon copy of the B. B. King original.
Does the writer groan? A little. Does the writer hold it against the performer? Not really. This appropriation of King's masterpiece of modern blues occurs so frequently the writer is used to it. And the "ransacking" of King's ultra-durable classic is by no means restricted to the obscure.
When the venerable Denise LaSalle released "The Thrill Is On Again" (another carbon-copy remake of "The Thrill Is Gone") in 2005, your Daddy B. Nice scoffed, only to succumb to its derivative pleasures as time passed. And when it came time to annoint Sterling Williams' "Heartache Medicine" to his Top 25 Songs of 2006 (above such heavyweight fan favorites as Billy "Soul" Bonds' "Scat Cat Here Kitty Kitty" and Bobby Rush's "Night Fishin'"), your Daddy B. Nice merely noted: "Sterling Williams had competition from Nolan Struck, Stacy Mitchhart, Dee Bradley and Wilton Lombard in a great year for 'Thrill Is Gone'-style blues."
For the record, those "Thrill Is Gone" clones were "My Nerves Are Going Bad" by Nolan Struck, "Things Have Changed" by Stacy Mitchhart, "Too Much Man To Cry" by Dee Bradley and "It's A Cruel World" by Wilton Lombard. Like the Watkins' and LaSalle tunes, they were all entertaining and aesthetically-credible renditions that stood on their own merits. Yet, they all began in the vestibule of the blues that is "The Thrill Is Gone."
What other blues artist has played both Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," a feat surely as rare and incomprehensible for a bluesman as a camel being threaded through the eye of a needle?
What other blues great has toured for sixty--count 'em, sixty--years, with only the transportation (from a beaten-up station wagon to a fully-equiped bus with all the 21st-century amenities, including TV, laptop computers and a leather swivel chair) having changed?
What other musician could have accrued so much respect and homage, qualities--it must be noted--inseparable from his unfailing humility and regal poise, that a noted blues deejay (Deejay Outlaw of WMPR in Jackson, Mississippi) would send him on-air condolences on his beloved dog's passing?
All Music Guide lists some four hundred recorded versions of "The Thrill Is Gone," and that is unquestionably just the tip of the iceberg. (You won't, for example, see the five songs mentioned above.) And while King has never wavered from his rightful title of "King of the Blues," the fact is that his monumental shadow, and in particular the shadow of "The Thrill Is Gone," has profoundly influenced Southern Soul.
The song is so ubiquitous it seems unnecessary to quote any lyrics, but let's meditate on those words for a moment:
"The thrill is gone.
The thrill is gone away.
The thrill is gone, baby.
The thrill is gone away.
You know you done me wrong, baby,
And you'll be sorry some day."
Yeah. B. B. King's talking about revenge. And there's not a trace of a smile on his face, or in his delivery. This is as bitter and terminal as a relationship gets--there's no, as they say, love lost--and it is only our culture's encompassing familiarity with the song that dilutes the despair, rendering it invisible.
"The thrill is gone.
The thrill is gone away from me.
The thrill is gone.
The thrill is gone away from me.
Although I'll still live on,
So lonely I'll be."
When you break the song down to its basic elements, the most surprising discovery is that the medodic structure is no different than most other blues. It could very well be a pedestrian effort, but three elements conspire to distinguish it, illustrating once again how, in art, style makes substance.
The three stylistic elements are the oceanic-like strings, B. B.'s drawn and ravaged vocal, and Lucille. One could write chapters on any one of the three. And one can almost add a fourth dimension--the rhythm track, the rhythm section--but other blues artists (J. B. Lenoir, Muddy Waters, Albert King, R. L. Burnside) have mastered rhythmic bottoms. It's the first three characteristics, the guitar and strings and vocal, which combine to produce an unbearably sad but unflinchingly tough, one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
Syl Johnson, who never became famous like King, came close to this atmosphere with his masterpiece, "Is It Because I'm Black," but--good as it was (and recorded around the same time)--it didn't have that trinity of elements (King's vocal, King's guitar-playing, and those symphonic-sounding violins) that made "The Thrill Is Gone" impossible to deny.
--Daddy B. Nice
About B. B. King
Just south of franchise-strewn Highway 82, the east-west thoroughfare through the delta country of Indianola in central Mississippi, a marble plaque on a brick building in the tiny, historic downtown memorializes it as the birthplace of Riley B. King (known to three succeeding, 20th-century generations as B. B. King, the King of the Blues), born on Sep. 16, 1925. Actually, young Riley was born on a plantation, in a family of sharecroppers, in a nearby country hamlet called Itta Bena.
His parents separated when he was four, and he lived off and on with his mother and grandmother. His mother died when he was ten, and young Riley lived alone in a cabin for four years until his father found him. In 1943 he moved to Indianola, but after an accident on a tractor while doing farm work, he hitchhiked to Memphis, where his cousin--bluesman Bukka White--schooled him in playing guitar. King went back to Indianola once more, but returned to Memphis and a music career for good in 1948.
In Memphis King went to work at one of the new "colored-format" radio stations that sprang up in the post-war period, WDIA, where he became known as the "Beale Street Blues Boy." As his fame grew, the monniker was eventually shortened to "B. B." Within a year B. B. King was cutting his first records for a California-based label, RPM, produced locally in Memphis.
King formed a group, the Beale Streeters (later to become the Ace Records studio band), and worked with a number of stars-in-the-making, including Bobby "Blue" Bland, Howlin' Wolf and Rufus Thomas, not to mention producer Sam Phillips, who would go on to form Sun Records and discover Elvis Presley.
The 1950's was the breakout decade for rhythm and blues. Radio was the great popularizing medium, reaching white and black households across the country, and B. B. King was at the very center of the action. He began touring heavily (a practice he would keep up for the rest of his life) and recording in Los Angeles for RPM and its successor, Kent. Early hits included "Three O'Clock Blues," "Every Day I Have The Blues" and "Sweet Little Angel." During this decade King also honed his spare, stinging guitar style on an instrument that had become so influential King gave it a name: "Lucille."
King's musical progress through the fifties and sixties was steady and ground-breaking, but never phenomenal in the sense of crossover R&B artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Drifters and The Platters, whose choreographed moves and dance-crazed audiences catapulted them to fame in the rock and roll genre.
"I was never like James Brown or Jackie Wilson," B. B. King told Steve Jones in an interview published in the newspaper "USA Today." "Kids were crazy about them. I never danced in my life, and I don't get no trophies in Hollywood for looking good. So I never had that audience."
Instead, King maintained a relentless recording and touring schedule, bent on popularizing the blues, which received only a fraction of the exposure accorded to rock and roll. King's band sounded more like an orchestra on many of those occasions in the sixties, with arrangements that recalled the Duke Ellington years, and none more so than the Chicago gig memorialized on the Live At The Regal CD in 1964, which many blues purists consider his best.
The hits from the sixties--"Sweet Sixteen," "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss" and "Why I Sing The Blues," etc., recorded for major-label ABC-Paramount--consolidated B. B. King as the "king" and worldwide "ambassador" for the blues. And while not overwhelming America's musical mainstream, the B. B. King style of blues began to filter into a new generation of British rock-and-rollers, who were listening closely: George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and others, who along with American rock guitarists like Michael Bloomfield and Duane Allman injected a powerful blues sensibility into rock and roll beginning in the mid-sixties.
B. B. King's relative obscurity, however, all changed with the release of "The Thrill Is Gone" (Bluesway) in 1970. Uncompromisingly "bluesy," yet in a contemporary-sounding, string-laden way, "The Thrill Is Gone" rose to #17 on the pop charts in early '70 (#3 R&B), imprinting King, his sound, and his sophisticatad guitar work on the nation's consciousness as the template of what a great blues record should sound like.
In 1971 King's album Live In Cook County Jail arguably surpassed Live At The Regal in its rollicking, right-on, prison-blues ambience. The record influenced yet another generation of musicians, many of whom would eventually put out live records of their own set in prisons. (Note: In 2005 MCA/Universal repackaged B.B. King's greatest live albums as a three-CD box set: Chronicles: Live at the Regal/Blues Is King/Live In Cook County Jail.)
King never again achieved the pop success accorded "The Thrill Is Gone," which music pundit Dave Marsh called "the last great blues record." However, his creditable recording schedule and practically ceaseless touring over the decades have brought him a renown few living artists can equal.
A keen observer of the cultural scene, King has always welcomed collaboration, seeing it not only as an artistic stimulus but another valuable tool in popularizing blues. It's no wonder then that some of King's most memorable accomplishments in his golden years have been musical get-togethers with a seemingly endless queue of musicians-cum-admirers. Blues Summit(MCA, 1993) and Riding With The King(Reprise, 2000) are two of the most high-profile and fan-friendly collaborations.
Blues Summit features duets with Irma Thomas, Ruth Brown, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Lowell Fulson and other notables. Riding With The King is actually an Eric Clapton album, but Clapton is such a fervent B. B. King disciple that he delivers an album that could just as well have been produced by King. (There is also the priceless cover photo of Clapton in the driver's seat of a vintage convertible while--shades of "Driving Miss Daisy"--a tuxedoed B. B. King holds forth from the back.)
One of the best recordings of "The Thrill Is Gone," King's duet with Tracy Chapman from the album Deuces Wild, is just one in a number of joint efforts with younger-generation artists including Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Heavy D, Willie Nelson, Dr. John, D'Angelo and the Rolling Stones. But almost any B. B. King album over the last quarter-century has been a magnet for the best musicians from a variety of genres: reading the credits of King albums is to tour the musical history of America.
And more than other other bluesman, King has succeeded in changing the mid-20th century perception of the blues as an "old" and "tired" musical form. Today, in the 21st century, the blues is a vibrant genre, with an avid, worldwide following and a largely positive and sympathetic audience. Much of that good will stems directly from the travels, performances and recordings of B. B. King
1. May 23, 2007. Dyed-in-the-wool fans will cherish a sumptious coffee-table book devoted to King: The B. B. King Treasures: Photos, Mementos and Music from B. B. King's Collection by B. B. King and Dick Waterman.
An autobiography, Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. King, written by David Ritz, is also available. King recalls the music, women and public events that shaped his life.
Fans can buy posters and prints of B. B. King at B. B. King Posters.
2. May 28, 2007. Many fans of the "King of the Blues" know that President Bush awarded B. B. King the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December of 2007. And many fans are aware of the annual Medgar Evers/B. B. King Homecoming concert held in Jackson, Mississippi. But few outside the central-Mississippi area realize the extent of the festivities. It's not just a concert. Here is the announcement for this year's (the 44th) annual celebration, taken verbatim from a press release posted April 19, 2007, by WMPR radio.
44th Annual Medgar Evers B.B. King Homecoming
May 31st - June 2nd 2007
Come Celebrate The Legacy of Medgar Evers
*Starting with the gospel memorial service Thursday May 31th at the Pearl St. African Methodist Episcopalian Church 2519 Robinson Rd. Jackson, MS.
Friday: Tour of Jackson, MS and The Home of Medgar Evers hosted by The NAACP and WMPR90.1 Radio Station starting at 12:30pm.
-Friday night: Reception for The World Conference of Mayor's and others at E&E Blues Cafe' 2605 Robinson Rd. *Gospel program starts at 6:00 PM and reception at 5:00 PM.
Saturday: Medgar Evers / B.B. King Parade starting at 10:00 AM on Freedoms' Corner.
-Parade participation requirements: bring floats, band's, cars, horses, motorcycles. Also, bring whatever you have and join us for the celebration.
-Saturday afternoon: The 44th Annual Blues Concert starring Sir Charles Jones, Bobby Rush, Peggy Scott Adams, Nellie (Tiger) Travis, Tina Diamond, The House Rocker's and many more.
The concert will be held at the parking lot beside WMPR Radio Station at 1018 Pecan Park Circle behind E&E Blues Cafe' at 2605 Robinson Rd.
Concert Admission will be $25.00 at the gate. Gates open at 2:00PM and show starts at 4:00PM. (Security Provided)
3. July 1, 2007. B. B. King's Big Head Thousand's
Before the Internet, when your Daddy B. Nice traveled regularly by car--actually, pickup--through the chitlin' circuit, recording radio deejays and Southern Soul music on a boombox in motel rooms along the way, there were no lodgings in which I spent more time than the old Ramada Inn (now called the Jacksonian) on Ellis Avenue and I-20 in Jackson, Mississippi. The Ramada, on the edge of the ghetto, with a huge, aqueduct-like structure for signage out front that could be seen from the interstate and the Sack 'N Save on the hill a mile away, was not far from WMPR, the guiding-light of Southern Soul stations. And as an inveterate traveler and connoisseur of the best rooms in cheap, down-on-their heels hotels, the two-room suite I was able to rent for under a hundred dollars--as little as $70 in the early days--was in my view the perfect bargain. It gave me room to pace during the endless hours pent up listening to Uncle Bobo.
The motel--a sprawling complex--had one incredible room, called (at that time) the "B. B. King Room." I know this because I always checked out the "best" room of every motel. Sometimes I'd luck out and get a room "fit for a King" for close to the price of a "regular-Joe" room. No such luck at Ramada, however. If I remember right, the B. B. King room rented in the vicinity of $200-250, way too rich for my blood. (And that was a decade ago.)
But I had fun checking out the room. It was odd in that it was two stories high, and it was huge. B. B. could entertain an entourage on the first floor, but retreat to the upper floor for privacy.
This memory came back to me as I read an item in the "Rocky Mountain News" (Colorado) newspaper recently: "Regents gasp at $160,000 speaker's fee." The sub-headline read: "Ex-UN leader (Kofi Annan)paid hefty sum for 1-hour University of Colorado talk."
The kicker, as the article specifies later, is that B. B. King was in Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, last year. His paycheck for a one-hour talk was modest by comparison to Kofi Annan's: only a little over a 100K.
"Speakers like Annan help make CU a world-class institution," said one Regent.
Honorary "B" Side
"Why I Sing The Blues"
The Thrill Is Gone
Why I Sing The Blues
Chains And Things
Paying The Cost To Be The Boss
CD: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
The Thrill Is Gone (w/ Tracy Chapman)
CD: Deuces Wild
Big Boss Man
CD: Best of B.B. King [Madacy Box Set]
Lay Another Log On The Fire
CD: King Of The Blues: 1989
Sinner's Prayer (w/ Ray Charles)
CD: Genius Loves Company
Three O'Clock Blues w/ Eric Clapton
CD: Riding With The King
Don't Answer The Door
CD: Best of B.B. King [Madacy Box Set]
How Blue Can You Get?
CD: Chronicles: Live at the Regal/Blues Is King/Live i
Sweet Sixteen: Parts 1 & 2