Saturday, August 4, 2012

Music Reviews-BB King, Tramaine Hawkins

BB King-King of the Blues
Known as the "King of the Blues", Riley "BB" King is the best known, most influential and last living member of the three great Kings of the Blues (Freddie and Albert King being the other two) and is likely even today the single most recognized bluesman of all time. There are many reasons for this. The primary reason is that it is almost but not quite impossible for any guitarist born after BB King and playing guitar in an electric blues, rock, rock-n-roll, or blues rock context not to count him as a primary, secondary or tertiary influence. Lots of things that are electric guitar cliches now weren't cliches when King invented them in his twenties and thirties. The secondary reason is that for multiple decades King has maintained a gruesome and grueling 250-300 night or more tour schedule, one that only in recent years has begun to make allowances for his advanced age and health issues. He was paying the cost to be the boss indeed. There are very few musicians on the planet who are instantly identifiable after you've heard them sing or play just one note. It's a short list and BB King is at the top.

BB King's music is blues but it is blues that successfully synthesizes a number of different influences, especially uptown jazz and down home gospel. King's primary influences on guitar included such jazz guitarists as Lonnie Johnson, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, blues guitarists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Elmore James, jazz horn players like Louis Jordan, Lester Young, and people who like King, walked a fine line between jazz and blues. I am speaking of such people as Lowell Fulson, and of course the incomparable T-Bone Walker, who as much as anyone is BB's most direct influence on guitar. King took Walker's sound, studied it, absorbed it and created his own.

You can't talk about King without talking about his masterful left hand vibrato which he says came about from trying (and failing) to play slide like his cousin Bukka White. Since, in his words, he had "stupid fingers", he had to do something different. And I think he succeeded in doing that. BB King, along with people like T-Bone, Otis Rush, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Ike Turner, Freddie King and a few others was responsible for helping to transition much post WW2 electric blues and rock from a band driven context to one in which the soloist got much more emphasis. He was truly one of the first guitar heroes. Like some of his contemporaries (Miles Davis) but unlike other musicians that came afterwards (Buddy Guy, Coltrane or Hendrix) King usually took a "less is more" approach. His leads and solos are smooth and do not try to show off every musical phrase he knows in a short time frame. There is often a lot of space in his arrangements and his solos.
Vocally he has a style that walks a line between a Baptist preacher and a smooth crooner. You can hear traces of James Cleveland, Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Eddie Jefferson, Joe Williams, Joe Turner and Johnny Hartmann in BB King's singing. He even occasionally employed a fine falsetto to great effect. BB King was born in 1925 and so his voice has finally roughened and cracked with age. But in earlier days he was just as much known for his singing as for his guitar playing. In fact he has always viewed his guitar playing as an extension of his singing, which is one reason that he rarely plays and sings at the same time. Typically modest, he says he just can't do it. He also is not one for playing a lot of accompaniment, feeling that's what his band is for. I've heard him occasionally lay down pretty chordal work but he's correct in thinking that's not what people come to hear him for. But all the same he'll surprise you from time to time. Where Albert King's tone is slow, ominous and menacing, BB King's tone is fluid, sassy and biting. It's a testament to both men's skills and creativity that although they were both influenced heavily by T-Bone Walker, they always sounded so incredibly and immensely different. BB King has usually preferred Gibson ES-355 guitars. His guitars are always named Lucille, after the name of a woman who inspired a bar brawl in Twist, Arkansas where King happened to be playing one night. During the fight the kerosene heater tipped over and everyone ran for the exits, including BB King. But deciding that his sole guitar was worth the risk, King ran back into the burning building to save his guitar. Upon exiting with his cherished axe, King inquired after the name of the woman and thereafter always named his guitars after her to remind himself not to do something so stupid ever again.
Somewhat ironically and quite ignorantly King's music was often initially considered "not real blues" by some English blues snobs (and some white Americans too) who had no social context by which to judge King's fondness for extended humorous preacherly monologues on domestic relationships, jazzy big band sounds, gospel inflected vocals, music that could be danced to, or vamps that sounded to their ears like R&B. King wasn't just playing sad music. He had a facility for a variety of more sophisticated jazzy scales (major pentatonic) and rhythms that didn't necessarily fit the stereotype of a drunk illiterate playing simple music on a back porch somewhere. It wasn't until the late sixties that King started to cross over to white audiences, as black audiences transitioned to soul and funk. But King has always maintained a dedicated black audience as well. King has consistently fought against the stereotype of the dumb bluesman and has resisted both white and black characterization of the blues as backwoods type music. King was always sharp, both musically and sartorially, and dedicated to business. Being from Mississippi he always had some resentments for people who assumed he didn't know things and has lived a life of constant self-improvement. For example not a lot of people know that he is a licensed pilot.
King has been playing professionally since the late forties and like anyone with that sort of history has gone through a lot of different phases. There's the early pre-rock-n-roll sound, the jump-blues sound, a mid fifties uptempo blues sound, a hardcore Memphis blues sound, an early sixties soul-blues/afro-cuban sound, an seventies sound that nodded to funk and rock, some crooner albums, some jazz albums, some country tinged albums and even a few pop albums. Whatever your favorite style of music might be, there's a good chance that BB King has played it at one point or the other during his long career. There are still giants that walk this earth and BB King is such a man. If you've heard him then you know what I'm talking about. If not then please check out some of the tunes listed below. There are tons of albums, remastered cd releases, cut-outs, but for my money his best albums are Live at Ole Miss, Live and Well, Completely Well, My Kind of Blues, To Know you is to Love you, Live at the Regal and Live at San Quentin. And it's hard to go wrong with any single released before 1975 or so. 
The Thrill Is Gone(Live at Ole Miss) Chains and Things  No Good  Boogie Woogie Woman
Hummingbird  Paying the Cost to Be the Boss  The Thrill is Gone   Night Life
To Know You is to Love You (with Stevie Wonder)  Ain't Nobody Home  Sweet Sixteen
Don't Answer the Door  Why I Sing the Blues (Live)  3 o'clock in the morning(with Bobby Bland)
Sweet Little Angel (with Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck)  Ghetto Woman
When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer Woke Up this Morning

Tramaine Hawkins
Tramaine Hawkins is one of the greatest modern gospel singers. She first came to stardom as featured soloist on choir recordings done by her brother-in-law Edwin Hawkins and husband Walter Hawkins. She later went solo with some pop-gospel recordings in the late seventies. It's a funny thing about the attitudes that many gospel fans and musicians have around the music. There's often resistance to anyone who succeeds outside of a strictly religious based format even though much of African-American popular music has gospel roots.

The Hawkins Singers, despite being a religious group, did some secular music, collaborated with various non-gospel musicians and even when they played or sang gospel music did so in a way that made it very obvious that they shared DNA with then current soul and funk music. It's a fine line to walk and one which has a lot of hypocrites on both sides. What makes a song religious or secular can often just be a slight twist of lyric. There's not really THAT much difference between a person singing "Can't nobody do me like Jesus" on Sunday morning and that same person singing "My baby can make a dead man jump and shout" on Saturday night. Many times gospel performers themselves have felt compelled to point out their differences with secular music even though in some cases (i.e. some of Tramaine Hawkins' work) these differences were relatively minor.

Anyway I love Hawkins' voice and most of her recorded output-particularly her work with the Hawkins Singers and her early solo work. I can do without her more dance oriented/disco work ,(i.e. "Fall Down") but everyone has their own tastes. Her music always takes me back to a more optimistic time.
Holy One Goin up Yonder Changed Precious Memories Give me a Star
Highway Will You Be There Someday  Fall Down
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