B. B. King’s Live at the Regal (1965) suffers from what I call the Citizen Kane problem: an exalted reputation that inhibits genuine appreciation. Knowing that something is the agreed-upon “best”—the best film ever made, the best barbecue in Austin—can leave a viewer or a diner unable to perceive that superlative quality for himself. Live at the Regal, acclaimed as the pinnacle of blues albums and of live albums, is doubly best and doubly cursed. On Rolling Stone’s list of 500 it is topped (among live albums) only by the Allmans at the Fillmore East and James Brown at the Apollo and (in the realm of the blues) only by the collected works of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson (and perhaps by a couple of Hendrix records, depending on where you file them). The exaltation of Live at the Regal is common, even universal. The Rolling Stone Record Guide, tattered bible of my adolescent record buying, gave it five stars and told me back in 1979 that “Live at the Regal is the generally acknowledged classic.” More recently, John Mayer, performing on stage with B. B. King as every aspiring white blues guitarist seems to have done (Slash, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Richie Sambora, the Edge), claims that on tour he would listen to Live at the Regal on his iPod in a darkened dressing room before taking the stage each night. The Regal LP is evidently a touchstone, a magic chalice, a grail from which to drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
But though I have learned to love the blues, I’ve never really loved this album. I came to it belatedly, after first buying B. B. King’s Live at Cook County Jail (1971), an album which largely duplicates and arguably betters Regal (see #499 in this series). For one thing, Cook County opens with the sheriff and the judge being booed by the inmates when introduced; for another, the band is (to my ears) crisper and, this being 1971, a little funkier. And King himself is, well, pretty much the same. His stage patter and mid-song monologues are nearly identical, and his guitar playing, on both occasions, is absolutely distinctive and endlessly inventive. So when I first acquired Live at the Regal, in an unlovely reissue edition that billed it as “the definitive recording of the blues in live performance,” I couldn’t quite hear what all the fuss was about.
Part of my problem may also have lain in my expectations of live albums. The “live double” template that dominated the 1970s (Frampton, Kiss, Skynyrd, Bob Seger, etc.) made a 35-minute live show seem paltry. Also, there’s an older form of show business on display in at the Regal, one that prizes professionalism over edginess, politeness over sincerity, control over abandon. However carried away King gets, and he sings and plays himself into a gospel-ish fervor at times, he always seems able to step out of it in an instant. (Something similar happens in Ray Charles’s riveting 1960 live recording of “Drown in My Own Tears,” when he abruptly switches from the persona of the ravaged, lovelorn man to that the of the approving boss, ad-libbing to the Raelettes, “You sound so sweet tonight, let me hear you say it again!”) Again, this masterly stage persona is something people praise about Live at the Regal: “King’s phenomenal rapport with a crowd” and “the miraculous vibrations that can exist between artist and performer” are Leonard Feather’s phrases, emblazoned on the cover of the LP reissue. The original liner notes also speculate, “There probably isn’t a live recording anywhere that contains more spontaneous spectator enthusiasm.” Listening to the album again, however, I hear mainly piercing shrieks from an audience that sound like it has a mild case of Beatlemania.
For I have been listening to it, again and again, over the past week in preparation for this essay: on Spotify in the living room, on my iPod in the kitchen, down in the basement on my turntable. My expectation, my vague plan, was that I could write something like what Elijah Wald does in his book Escaping the Delta, in which he recalls having formerly undervalued B. B. King and then being unexpectedly blown away by him in performance, even amid an all-star line-up that included Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. “B. B. King,” Wald writes,
taught me that everything I knew about blues was wrong. Because he just stood there calmly and played the most amazing music I had ever heard. He was awesome, in the literal sense that he seemed immense, majestic, and it was impossible to look away from him. And it was all so relaxed and natural, as if he were talking directly to each person in that huge stadium. It was everything I had always loved about the blues and more, the perfect blend of deep emotion and flawless musicianship.
What Wald previously knew, or thought he knew, was that B. B. King was “too slick and smooth,” and that the real blues was raw, down home and unpolished. It is hard, I think, for white blues fans such as myself not to embrace this aesthetic. We often begin as (or turn into) “fanciers of primitive Negro blues,” in James McKune’s unironic phrase from 1959. Again, Wald helpfully punctures this tendency, aptly noting that “black fans have never been charmed by poverty, or needed a sordid atmosphere in order to feel that they were having a real blues experience.”
In any case, I had planned to report here that the scales fell from my eyes, or rather my ears, and that at the advanced age of fifty-two I can now appreciate the professionalism, virtuosity and polish of B. B. King—or, even better, that I now can feel the deep emotion behind his flawless musicianship. Alas, that’s not really what happened. There is undeniably lovely, stylish guitar playing on the album: solos full of drama that builds, disappears suddenly, resurges, abates, and so on. But I also found my attention wandering as I listened, and then I noticed to my surprise how many other B. B. King albums I own (eight). So I took off Regal and began listening to some of his rawest, earliest recordings: boogies that sound almost like what Howlin’ Wolf was recording at the same time and in the same place (Memphis in the early 1950s). Some of those early recordings, like the rollicking “She’s Dynamite” (1951), have Phineas Newborn, Jr. going wild on the piano. This was much more compelling to me. And then I put on J. B. Hutto’s Hawk Squat from 1969 and felt again the appeal of a cruder, raunchier blues—west side, rather than south side, in Chicago terms.
So B. B. King remains for me someone whose greatness I believe in but do not fully experience. In this respect he resembles another King: King James (i.e., Lebron), whose majesty has always eluded me in a way that Michael Jordan’s or Larry Bird’s never did. But I still believe, in both cases, that I’ll get it eventually. (“And when she look at me as if she wanna know when, then I tell her, ‘someday baby.’”)