At this late stage, B.B. King towers over the genre that inspired his name ("B.B." standing for "blues boy"). His closest competitor as a widely known veteran blues standard-bearer is Buddy Guy, who, at 11 years King's junior, is as much inheritor as rival.
King turned 83 in September and, though he's still been unusually prolific at such an advanced age, his past decade of recording has followed a familiar path: His last studio album, 2005's 80 was, like 1997's high-profile Deuces Wild , a typical "all-star" duet collection. His biggest recent seller, 2000's double-platinum Riding With the King , was an album-long collaboration with Eric Clapton. His last solo studio album, 2003's Reflections , was a far-flung standards record.
All of which makes King's new album, One Kind Favor , such a nice surprise. One Kind Favor dispenses with crutches and gimmicks to embrace a high concept notable for its simplicity: The blues' greatest living figure playing a collection of the genre's signature songs, titles that were meaningful to King when his career really took off in the early 1950s and songs that took him back even further to his days as a childhood music fan.
The album is produced by T Bone Bur-nett, the roots connoisseur who has presided over such recent commercial and/or artistic triumphs as the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and last year's Raising Sand , a duet album between bluegrass belle Allison Krauss and arena-rock legend Robert Plant.
Here, Burnett pushes King into a selection of ace songs and provides a simple rhythm and horn section for companionable support, then seems to get out of King's way. For better or worse, Burnett doesn't seem to shape the sound into an identifiable producer's take on roots tradition. The upside is that One Kind Favor is a true document of contemporary B.B. King in a classic setting. The down-side is that the record is probably unlikely to garner the kind of crossover audience Burnett's other recent projects have found.
One Kind Favor opens with "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," the Blind Lemon Jefferson and Furry Lewis copy-right that provides the album's title. Here the one-time acoustic blues lament is given a strutting but laidback New Orleans-style arrangement, with Dr. John embracing the sideman role on piano. This opener suggests an album of adventurous arrangements, but instead King and Burnett play things straight (though Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" is given a more swinging and less incendiary reading than the original).
King's own still-spry piercing leads and charismatic voice are out front, but, perhaps surprisingly, it's the latter that is ultimately the most important. The standout tracks might be the two longest on the album — patient readings of T-Bone Walker's "Waiting for Your Call" and Lonnie Johnson's (Elvis identified) "Tomorrow Night." On the former, King's nimble guitar sets the stage, but his soul-blues testifying evokes a different old Beale Street cohort, Bobby "Blue" Bland. On the album-closing "Tomorrow Night," King is deliberate and magisterial, with a soul sax rather than a screaming Lucille taking him home.
The result is a more-satisfying-than-expected straight blues record, one whose modesty works in its artistic favor. But, without even Burnett giving outsiders a flashy conceptual or musical entry point, you have to wonder if this bare-bones testament can find the kind of audience it deserves.
B.B. King isn't the only Memphis legend with strong new music out. A couple of Stax legends — singer Eddie Floyd and guitarist Steve Cropper — also have fine new records in the racks, both released on the revived Stax label.
Floyd — the second-tier soul belter perhaps best known for his anthemic "Knock on Wood" and his Otis Redding tribute "Big Bird" — actually cut his teeth in the '50s with the vocal group the Falcons and came to Stax first as a songwriter. On Eddie Loves You So , his first album since 2002 and highest-profile release since the mid-'70s, Floyd digs into his own back catalog for a bunch of mostly self-penned titles drawn from across his career, many of them originally recorded by other artists (including Stax labelmates William Bell and Carla Thomas).
The sound is a more relaxed take on Floyd's vintage style, befitting a soul man now in his seventies. The album opens with a slow, slinky reading of his "'Til My Back Ain't Got No Bone," originally recorded by Stax labelmate William Bell. But the best Stax chestnut is "You Don't Know What You Mean to Me," a minor hit Floyd and Steve Cropper wrote for Sam & Dave. The version here exposes how shopworn Floyd's voice has become, but the Stax-style organ groove and horn punctuation is irresistibly familiar, inspiring Floyd to push through his vocal limitations with gusto.
Elsewhere, Floyd's deliberate phrasing and the sturdy harmony vocals make the pre-Stax semi-obscurity "Never Get Enough of Your Love" a highlight, along with Floyd's toe-tapping solo reading of the Falcons' classic "You're So Fine," the most familiar song here and the only one Floyd didn't write.
Of probably somewhat less interest to Stax addicts is Nudge It Up a Notch , an album that pairs guitar master Cropper with Rascals singer Felix Cavaliere, one of the '60s' best blue-eyed soul singers.
Recorded in Nashville and produced by Cropper and Cavaliere with Jon Tiven, Nudge It Up a Notch is a much more contemporary-sounding album than Eddie Loves You So , for better or worse. Rather than replicate the precision playing of his Stax days, Cropper stretches out here, with traditional rock play-ing more akin to the modern blues scene. (Something familiar to anyone who has seen recent Booker T. & the MGs shows.)
With Cavaliere's own keyboards playing off of Cropper's guitar, instrumental tracks here, such as "Full Moon Tonight," give some hint at what a new MGs record might sound like. But Cavaliere's still-supple voice leads on most tracks, all of them new, collaborative songs that echo '60s and '70s soul and present-day blues.
If Eddie Loves You So is about recapturing the vintage Stax sound, Nudge It Up a Notch is about letting that sound age, unencumbered by nostalgia. Both are worthy goals.