In 2004, I attended Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. I previously blogged about the highlight of that experience on a review of Buddy Guy’s book. I have been fortunate enough to witness the full blues power of B. B. King and Eric Clapton together. But I was already among their loyal fans by that point. I had grown up on their music separately, not knowing for the longest time that they first played together in 1967 while Clapton was still part of Cream. It would be 30 years before they’d record together, on a single track for King’s duets album, Deuces Wild. From there, they’d appear together as part of the fictional band Louisiana Gator Boys in Blues Brothers 2000. I’ve always known that Clapton idolized King, perhaps nearly as much as he idolized Robert Johnson, though that might be stretching it. Either way, I wanted these two to record a full album that I could overplay, and I knew they’d discussed the idea for a while. I imagined that if such an event would come to pass, it would be awesome incarnate, one of the most perfect blues albums ever to come down the line. How could it be otherwise, right?
In 2000, I got my wish.
While King was largely granted the spotlight on both vocals and solos, with Clapton playing a supporting role in their duet collaboration, Clapton did the heavy lifting behind the scenes. He picked the tracks, he co-produced the album (with Simon Climie), he initiated the recording sessions, and he herded all the cats to make this album happen, including using his own studio musicians. Riding with the King won the 2000 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album and went 2x Multi-Platinum, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard blues charts. As I said, awesome incarnate. The public pretty much agreed. While some critics thought the album could have been better (as compared to what?!), the biggest criticism leveled at the album was that it was “too clean.” I usually don’t fire back on the opinions of critics because it’s a lot like screaming into the wind, but… what kind of lame criticism is that towards two of the greatest musicians of the genre? Seriously, these guys are among the best who ever lived to play the blues. They know what they’re doing. Just enjoy it and acknowledge it for the gift it is!
Did that sound worthy of negative criticism to you? I didn’t think so. Critics. Sheesh… For obvious reason, the vast majority of audiences and critics alike disagreed with those trying to be too cool for the room. Moving on. We’ve got an album to discuss here.
Here’s the track list:
1. “Riding with the King” – written by John Hiatt
2. “Ten Long Years” – written by Jules Taub and B. B. King
3. “Key to the Highway” – written by Big Bill Broonzy and Charlie Segar
4. “Marry You” – written by Doyle Bramhall II, Susannah Melvoin, and Craig Ross
5. “Three O’Clock Blues” – written by Lowell Fulson
6. “Help the Poor” – written by Charles Singleton
7. “I Wanna Be” – written by Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton
8. “Worried Life Blues” – written by Sam Hopkins and Big Maceo Merriweather
9. “Days of Old” – written by Jules Taub and B. B. King
10. “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer” – written by B. B. King and Jules Taub
11. “Hold On, I’m Comin'” – written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter
12. “Come Rain or Come Shine” – written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer
Longtime listeners of King’s work will recognize that five of these songs are from his classic library, recorded in the 50s and 60s, specifically tracks 2, 5, 6, 9, and 10. The title track first appeared on writer John Hiatt’s 1983 album of the same name. The story is that producer Scott Matthews told Hiatt about some strange dream he had about flying on an airplane with Elvis Presley. I certainly didn’t know that originally, but I found out later when I discovered the original Hiatt album. Until that point, I thought the song was about B. B., and rightfully so! Hey, live and learn.
“Key to the Highway” is, of course, a Clapton classic, recorded in the 70s with Derek and the Dominoes. “Worried Life Blues” comes to us from Chicago pianist Big Maceo Merriweather. “Hold On, I’m Comin'” is an Isaac Hayes tune, made famous by Sam and Dave in the mid-60s as only they could play it. “Marry You” and “I Wanna Be” were written for this album, which is always cool to have new material. And “Come Rain or Come Shine” is a standard from the 40s musical St. Louis Woman… and one of my all-time favorite renditions of this tune since. It really is a classy way to close out the album.
Clapton always said he wanted to play the blues, but the money was in rock and roll, and he had make a living. This album marked a kind of a turning point for him in a phase of his life when the money didn’t matter. Many of his recordings have a bluesy quality to them, but audiences were only starting to overlap in his early days, so he played to expectations of audiences, record producers, and radio managers as any career-minded musician would. The bigger his star began to shine, the more he pushed into the blues, little by little, decade by decade, giving it that distinctive Clapton touch. That sounds weird to think about that separation of styles when you look back at the career and trace a blues line through it. But back in the day, bluesmen went largely unknown outside of their own circles until popular bands like The Beatles propped them up publicly and helped to establish their names in different circles as the creative dynamos that influenced rock and roll. Next thing you know, the walls of separation came tumbling down. So in a big way, this album stands as a testament to the power of music to overcome the racism that kept musicians and audiences alike segregated once upon a time. Nothing heals like music. Nothing heals like the blues. B. B. King’s presence on this album allowed Clapton to slide more directly into pure blues territory without taking any undue flack from anyone about him being a rock guy. While King’s vocal power overshadows Clapton’s, there’s a gritty inspiration that the latter ran with that really works, a grit that he’d apply to his later blues albums, such as another of personal favorite of his albums, Me and Mr. Johnson.
And what can you say about B. B. King that isn’t immediately self evident upon listening? The man was in top form all the way to the end, and this album is no exception. Clapton may have nudged him into the spotlight here, but the man was a consummate showman and needed no serious prodding to show up and be great. He loved what he did, and you can hear that in every single line. Listening to his work here, any perceived “weakness” of the album on the part of critics must surely be smoothed over by such a rich and vibrant performance. Or it may just be that critics love to tear down the gods so as to feel better about themselves. Whatever. They’re still wrong. This album is amazing. There are no arguments to the contrary worth making.
As a bonus, King and Clapton aren’t the only blues guitar gods on this album either. Joining the jam for most of the album is Doyle Bramhall II and Andy Fairweather Low, with Jimmie Vaughan kicking back on “Help the Poor.”
I dabbled in the blues for a lot of years growing up. When I did listen, I listened to a lot of B. B. King, as I mentioned, but my ear for the blues didn’t really develop until I was old enough to have some actual life experience. That’s when the blues works best, when it means something personal. This album was a turning point for me in my appreciation of the blues. I’m fortunate beyond words that I got my wish for this album to appear. That prompted the next wish I made, that I could someday see these guys together on stage. Now we know how that turned out. Sometimes life can be good… when you’re Riding with the King.