B.B. King

Jan 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Chris J. Walker


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If 2003 was “The Year of the Blues,” it's appropriate that the undisputed modern master of the genre, B.B. King, put out a fine album in the fall to cap the celebration. King has been enthralling audiences and listeners with his distinctive vocals, ripping guitar work and captivating storytelling since the 1940s. His career has reached a pinnacle that few have achieved, particularly in blues. With dignity, perseverance, optimism and an occasional spot of good fortune, King has definitely paid his dues to become one of the most respected performers in the music industry.

Most amazingly, at 78, the veteran bluesman doesn't understand the concept of slowing down or resting on his laurels. Instead, his is a rich life of relentless touring, recording sessions and vigilant administration of his business enterprises. He's made more than 100 albums in nearly every setting imaginable and touching on many, many genres — from the twist to jazz — yet until recently, he'd never devoted an entire project to one of his greatest strengths: ballads. Now he has. With the mellow Reflections album, King has fulfilled a long-held dream.

“I've wanted to do it, but I never do more than a few ballads,” he says, “so I thought it might be good to try a whole CD for once and see if people would like it. Two of the songs — ‘Tomorrow Night’ and ‘A Mother's Love’ — I think I did years ago, but nothing like what we did on this record.”

King's supporting cast for the album are all versatile players, including keyboardists Joe Sample (of the Jazz Crusaders fame) and Tim Carmon, bassist Nathan East, drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and guitarist Doyle Bramhall II. All of them, along with additional symphonic touches added later by Nick Ingman, were employed under the guidance of Simon Climie, a regular Eric Clapton collaborator. Not coincidentally, this is some of the same cast that made Clapton and King's acclaimed Riding With the King CD, recorded in 2000.

“I think B.B. has always wanted to do this [kind of album] and wasn't sure if his record company would go for it because he's a blues guy,” comments producer Climie from a studio in London where he was working on Clapton's upcoming record. “But the thing about him is that he's one of those singers that just makes the words come to life. Even with a great song you've heard so many times that you're really not even listening anymore, somehow when he delivers it, it's totally unconditional.”

“Having over 50 years in the business,” King adds, “I've heard many songs that I would like to do. Sometimes I think I like them because of the person that did them prior to me was so good with them. And in my case, after you try them, they don't sound too good [Laughs]. One of my favorites is ‘Always on My Mind,’ but I can't do it like Willie Nelson does.” Nat King Cole was another King favorite that he wouldn't have dreamed of trying his songs earlier in his career. But early on, King and Climie decided not to limit the scope of the ballads on Reflections. According to the producer, the initial list for the project encompassed 2,500 songs, which King and Climie first whittled down to just 60. Twenty were recorded and eventually 13 were selected.

The tracking sessions for Reflections took place at Record One in Los Angeles — the same facility used for Riding With the King — 10 days before Christmas in 2002. Since his first recording dates in the 1940s, King's sessions have always been about performance above all; he likes to get in there with the whole group and lay it down live as much as possible. “It's always fun for me to see what everyone else is doing and be able to feel them,” King says. “I do a better job then.”

“B.B.'s approach to recording is, ‘Here I am,’” Climie says, “so we just went through it, track by track. He did his thing and that's what it was, and when it was great, he just moved on and didn't question it. There are a lot of people who like the rather more indulgent recording process where you try every possibility. And I do those types of records, too. It just depends on what kind of thing you're doing. With B.B., it's a totally emotionally driven thing. He loves the feeling in a song, and we spent more time focusing everyone, changing the key and working on tempo. Suddenly, you'd get this incredible performance and you have to be in ‘record.’ If you missed it, you wouldn't get it again.”

However, like most modern mortals, King does vocal and guitar overdubs when needed. King insists that he's not very technical and leaves matters pertaining to technology and sonics to his engineers and producers. Instead, he says, “I study the guitar.” Still, Climie notes, “You'd be surprised. He came in at the beginning of the album with a lot of his favorite songs all on an MP3 player with all the lyrics. And he's got kind of a Palm Pilot thing that connects to the Internet when he's on the road. He'd come over when we were sequencing and ask if it was Cubase or Logic Audio we were using. We'd be scratching our heads thinking, ‘Surely he's not asking us that.’ But he is. Watch out for him!”

Engineer Don Murray enjoyed King's inquisitiveness while keeping a watchful set of eyes and ears on the technical aspects of the tracking and vocal sessions. He recorded the project to Pro Tools|HD, which he terms “a great system. Now I'm exclusively working and mixing on it.”

The Los Angeles — based engineer had worked with King back around 1974, when Murray was an assistant engineer at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. Both he and King were fuzzy about the exact recording and date, but nevertheless, had fun reminiscing about the old days. Murray and Climie have now been working together for a little more than a year, doing a Michael McDonald project and a single that Eric Clapton recorded for a Motown tribute to Stevie Wonder. Murray says that he was greatly impressed by King's endearing personality and vitality.

“He would sing [live] all day long and just not lose energy,” Murray recalls. “I guess he's used to it because he's on the road a lot. He didn't really play guitar live; he did that later as overdubs. He really wanted to concentrate on his vocals and we set a mic [a Sony C12] in the studio with the rhythm section. There was no isolation. He was in the middle of the band, literally 10 feet from the drums [which were screened off]. It produced a nice ambient sound that went well for this record. For this type of music and for B.B., I think it's more exciting to hear the songs as if you were in a club, rather than having everything isolated and pristine. I also set up a couple of room mics [also C12s] to capture even more ambience.” Murray also used C12s for piano, while he employed Neumann U67 tubes or Shure SM57s for guitars, and Neumann U67s for the Hammond B3.

“I try to use the best-quality equipment I can going into Pro Tools,” the engineer says. “With an SSL 9000 for monitoring, I used Neve 1073s, 1081s with EQ on them, the Avalon stuff, API and Tube-Tech. Also, I used Teletronix LA-2As and dbx gear for compression, along with Pultecs and LA-2As on B.B.'s and Doyle's guitar.” As would be expected, King doesn't care for any effects added to his guitar, “Lucille.” “One CD years ago,” he remembers, “I used something called a Cry-Baby, but since then, I never have used anything else on my guitar. It seemed like it made things sound so good, it was like cheating.”

Once all of the tracking and overdub sessions were completed, Climie reviewed the tracks and did preliminary edits. From there, he went to London and worked with an arranger to record accompanying orchestration. Then, several months later, renowned mixer Mick Guzauski, who also worked on Riding With the King, worked with Climie to fuse the vocal and band tracks with the strings and brass into the soothing finished selections. “I would usually mix two to three tracks a day,” Guzauski recalls. “Then Simon would come in and we'd work on them together. He'd make comments and look at notes he got from B.B. and then we would do it again. Sometimes, Simon would do some editing after he heard the first mix. I love working like that, because everybody has their input and nobody gets burned out from working really, really long hours on one thing.”

In the end, everyone involved with Reflections — from the musicians to the tech team — seemed to be satisfied with the finished album, yet another landmark in a career filled with them. Climie speaks for many when he notes, “It's a real joy to work with B.B., and kind of educational at the same time. There's not a lot of phenomenal music around at the moment, and we did get to choose from the best songs in the last 50 years. That's got to be a great inspiration for anyone.”

But King is still looking forward: “I still have a lot more songs I'd like to try.”

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