B.B. King-guitar, vocals; James Toney -organ; Sonny Freeman-drums; Lee Gatlin-tenor sax; Pat Williams-trumpet
T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt all figure prominently as influences on B. B. King, as does his cousin, Bukka White and Sonny Boy Williamson, who played direct roles in his early development as a musician and blues singer. By the 1960s, B.B. King would transcend the tag of blues singer and would gain well-deserved recognition as a distinct guitar stylist, with a tone both sweet and pure. King's recordings would become a primary influence on the likes of Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green and Eric Clapton, who, along with Jimi Hendrix, would come to define a whole new breed of guitar heroes in the latter half of the 1960's and beyond.
Many consider B.B. King's seminal 1964 album, Live At The Regal, to be one of the greatest pure blues recordings of all time. The man himself has disputed this adulation over the years, stating that his abilities improved considerably over the next several years. This previously unheard recording of King at the 1968 Newport Folk Festival goes a long way toward justifying his claims, capturing him near the peak of his considerable powers.
With limited time and following an introduction by George Wein, King and his band (Sonny Freeman & The Unusuals), take the stage. The group waste no time getting down to business and deliver a double whammy of two signature tunes, King's swinging cover of Memphis Slim's "Everyday I Have The Blues," followed by the slower burn of "How Blue Can You Get." The former swings hard, serving as a warm-up exercise, while the latter eases into a nice slow blues, a style that tends to facilitate King's most inspired performances here. "How Blue Can You Get" has it all, with nearly the first four minutes played instrumentally, slowly building and becoming more forceful before King's vocal begins. James Toney expertly punctuates King's vocals with tasteful organ fills and indeed, whenever King is singing during this set; Toney's organ rises to compliment. Possibly the most valuable player, Toney also plays double duty, as King's bass player, Wilbur Freeman (brother of Sonny) is strangely absent from this gig, with Toney playing his bass parts on the organ's foot pedals. Despite this challenge and the limited stage time, King and the band pour their heart into every performance.
"Whole Lot Of Lovin'" takes off on an Elmore James riff and becomes a hard driving barn-burner, featuring Gatlin and Williams unison punctuation and the entire ensemble cooking away. Johnny Winter would often emulate this style to greater success, but the refinement and tension control here is pure B. B. King. They continue into a slow vamp as King introduces the band members and gives a brief intro monologue to the most soulful number of the set, ""Please Accept My Love." Also the most lyric-driven song of the set, this is an excellent example of King's passionate vocal style.
Almost diametrically opposite in lyric content, is the hot boogie-style "I'm Gonna Do What They Do To Me," one of King's many great ponderings on the battle between the sexes. Throughout this set, King's brilliant, inspired guitar playing defies easy categorization. Whether he sounds soulful, rocking, contemplative, or down and dirty, his distinctive touch and tone exudes authority.
As good as all this is, it all leads up to the set closer, an incendiary burn on "Sweet Sixteen." King's enthusiasm for his music is obvious and never more so that it is on this number. When he solos, you can hear the sheer joy of it in every delicious note. The peak performance of this set, this features King's most searing guitar work and the entire group displaying a masterful control of dynamics. Segueing directly into a quick "outro jam," this performance triggers the Newport audience to begin howling for more. George Wein signals King to keep going for another few minutes, so King and the band oblige with a quick run-through of "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss," as well as a repeat of their "outro jam" to close this remarkable set.
B. B. King continues performing to the present day and has established himself as a national treasure, but as good as his later work is, it pales in comparison to what is found here. Here King's guitar has an exquisite tone, his singing is engaged and his fingers agile. For those who ever wondered what all the fuss was about, this is the real deal, played by a leaner and meaner Mississippi bluesman with a soulful voice and one of the most distinctive and influential guitar styles of all time.
Written by Alan Bershaw