B.B. King may have played more live gigs than anyone, ever. The precise numbers are hard to pin down, but the few figures that are available are staggering: in his prime, King was playing over 300 shows a year, and in even in his final years was performing close to 100 shows annually. B.B. was no slouch as a songsmith – the 1968 album Blues On Top Of Blues, for example, is penned entirely by King – but such a heavy touring schedule left little time for songwriting. As such, King often covered other people’s songs, spending hours aboard his tour bus listening to albums, searching for songs that could be given the B.B. King treatment.
B.B. King had his first hit with “3 O’Clock Blues” in 1951. Despite being a Lowell Fulson cover, the dominant influence on this track is that of B.B.’s hero T-Bone Walker, whose showmanship and strident lead guitar shaped King’s own performance style. “I can still hear T-Bone in my mind today from that first record I heard, ‘Stormy Monday,'” said King. “He was the first electric guitar player I heard on record. He made me so that I knew I just had to go out and get an electric guitar.”
Speaking of “Stormy Monday,” King would include the song on his second live album with Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1976, and eventually feature it in his solo performances. A particularly strong version appeared on King’s second appearance on Austin City Limits in 1996, showcasing the talents of B.B.’s keyboard player James Toney.
T-Bone Walker wasn’t B.B King’s only idol: another major influence was pre-rock pioneer Louis Jordan. King would release an entire album of Jordan’s songs in 1999, but years earlier he was already including Jordan covers in his live show, often early in the set to get the crowd on their feet. “Let The Good Times Roll” was a popular opener in later years. Another set list staple, “How Blue Can You Get?”, was almost certainly inspired by Jordan’s recording of it, despite being originally performed by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. Moore’s version is stately and dignified, while Jordan gives the song a melodramatic quality (in a good way) that is transplanted wholesale into B.B’s version. Arguably the definitive performance of this track can be found in the 1974 film Sing Sing Thanksgiving, recorded at New York’s Sing Sing Prison.
King was already two decades into his career when he recorded what was to become his signature song, “The Thrill Is Gone,” radically reworked from Roy Hawkins’ 1951 original. There’s nothing wrong with King’s studio version – released on the 1969 album Completely Well – but the song only reached its full potential when played live onstage.
B.B King’s covers sometimes came from unexpected sources. Willie Nelson’s 1961 song “Night Life,” for example, contained the slightest hint of a blues influence, and B.B. took this hint and retooled the whole song around it. King, without changing a word, makes the song about himself: the words “The night life, it ain’t no good life/But it’s my life,” become a declaration of King’s commitment to life on the road.
Continuing the trend of covering contemporary songwriters, B.B. recorded a version of Stevie Wonder’s “To Know You Is To Love You” in 1973. The studio version is not very different from the original, which Wonder had recorded with then-wife Syreeta Wright on her debut album the previous year. Once B.B. started performing the song onstage, however, it truly became his own, propelled forward by King’s longtime drummer Sonny Freeman.
These covers are just a small sample of the many B.B King recorded and performed over a lifetime spent on the stage. While he is best known as a great guitarist, a great singer, and one of the greatest live performers ever, we would humbly suggest that “great cover artist” be added to that list as well.
Read about another blues legend in our In Memoriam feature on Muddy Waters.