After spending the better part of a year immersed in B. B. King’s catalogue while writing my unauthorised biography “B. B. King: There Is Always One More Time” (Backbeat Books, 2005), I remain puzzled as to why an artist so steeped in gospel as B. B. and who has so assiduously recycled tunes from his past over the decades, has ventured into the gospel field only once in his 50-plus-year recording career, with the 1959 Crown album titled B. B. KING SINGS SPIRITUALS. B. B. may one day supply an answer himself, but for the moment fans can only be thankful that Ace’s ambitious reissue of the King of the Blues’s Crown albums has returned to print this glorious moment in one of the most remarkable careers in 20th Century music. It is nothing less than a cornerstone, an essential building block to understanding the full dimension of Riley B. King’s body of work.
Anyone familiar with the arc of B. B.’s journey out of the Delta cotton fields on his way to worldwide acclaim can easily tick off the varied influences he absorbed and re-imagined in his own style. The first tier of these included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Doctor Clayton, Charlie Christian, and his cousin Bukka White. But before all these there was gospel, from the moment the Reverend Archie Fair from the Church of God in Christ came over to the Kings’ house for dinner one Sunday afternoon bearing with him his trusty Sears Silvertone guitar, which he used to help spice up his weekly messages to the flock. Rev Fair taught Riley his first chords and told the lad, “The guitar is a precious instrument. It’s another way to express God’s love.” B. B., who was proud of being known as a “church boy”, vowed that his life’s mission would be to take the Lord’s word to the masses as a guitar-playing preacher himself. His first public performances were as a member of the Elkhorn Jubilee Singers, a gospel quartet he formed with a cousin and two other friends. Later he made a more serious stab at making a living out of gospel with the Famous St John Gospel Singers. Ultimatelyit was the blues that became his gospel and his ticket out of desperate poverty, but throughout his career he has liberally employed in the blues idiom the gospel flourishes he learned singing the great hymns of his youth. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that no other blues singer betrays his gospel roots as overtly as does B. B. King. Gospel, he once said, was the music that “got all over my body and made me wanna jump,” and he might have added, it got all over his vocal style too, even when he took up secular music full time.
But in a recording career that has yielded more than 70 studio albums only “B. B. King Sings Spirituals” finds B. B. assaying his deepest, most fundamental roots as a musical artist. Here, at last, it is heard as it was originally issued, as opposed to later reissues that featured some unfortunate vocal and instrumental overdubs designed to bring the tunes arrangements’ into the modern era (including one issued on the Kent label, represented here by an altered take of Thomas A Dorsey’s Precious Lord, in an arrangement marked by a crying guitar solo amidst a wash of strings). Shame, shame, shame. Backed by organ, piano, drums and bass, and accompanied vocally by local Los Angelean groups the Charioteers and the Southern California Community Choir, B. B. unburdens his soul in the course of some astounding testimony. And that’s another point to be made: B. B. King, for all his overarching influence as a guitarist, is one of the greatest singers of his time, and this record proves the point. Whether he’s being stately and pleading, as on Precious Lord, or wrecking the house on Swing Low Sweet Chariot / Rock Me Lord or Jesus Gave Me Water, the sheer intensity of feeling in his voice and the subtlety of his phrasing cut right to the marrow of spiritual experience. His sophisticated approach to the lyric lines of I Never Heard A Man betrays more than a passing familiarity with Sam Cooke’s rhythmic phrasing and the song’s swaying arrangement sounds like the blueprint for Ray Charles’s hit (Night TimeI Is) The Right Time. And nothing in the B. B. catalogue prepares a listener for the fury and passion he unleashes vocally in scorching Army Of The Lord - working at the very limits of his vocal range, his voice takes on a throaty quality akin to that of the Sensational Nightingales’ great lead singer Julius Cheeks. To understand how B. B. took his gospel style into popular music, check out some of the wonderful bonus tracks on this reissue - the sensitive reading B. B. gives the beautiful pop ballad Key To My Kingdom is as nuanced as his reading of Dorsey’s Precious Lord, never oversinging the lines, but rather maintaining a fine balance between passion and restraint that adds mesmerizing tension, and subtext, to the whole performance.
In the end, one can only hope that before he hangs it up B. B. will see fit to revisit his gospel roots. Producer Stewart Levine, who was behind the board on six of B. B.’s most important latter day albums (including two with the Crusaders and the Grammy winning “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere”), is on record as wanting to produce a gospel album with B. B.. Until that time - and, lest we forget, there is always one more time – “B. B. King Sings Spirituals” will have to do. This music is timeless and instructive, doubly so when an artist of B. B. King’s interpretive skill digs into the messages and brings them home to the listeners with a power even their composers could not have imagined.
This release brings to a close on a marvellous note Ace’s mid-price reissue series of B. B.’s Crown LPs, with bonus tracks.