B.B. King’s Live at the Regal is on every blues fan’s list as one of the greatest blues albums ever. It’s a live album of ten songs recorded from a concert by B.B. in the Regal Theatre in Chicago on 21st November 1964, and it captures King, aged 39, at the height of his powers. His singing and guitar work is immaculate and his engagement with the audience hugely entertaining.
I saw B.B. King just a couple of years before he passed away, playing the Grand Rex Theatre in Paris. It was the first time I’d seen him, and it was a great thrill – we really did feel like we were connected to the history of the blues that night, even though B.B. didn’t play his guitar as much or as well as he might have as a younger man. Fair enough! When you’ve reached his legendary status, I’ll take what I can get. His singing was still very good, at times sweet, at times powerful, and his good-humoured interaction with the audience was good to see. I’d have liked one of those guitar picks he tossed into the crowd, but I was too far away!
My daughter bought me a vinyl copy of Live at the Regal for Christmas, and it was a delight to slip it on to the turntable and hear the songs in lovely warm, crystal-clear stereophonic sound. On this album you get B.B. as I didn’t get him that night in Paris, that characteristic, crisply-picked guitar answering his vocals, which range versatilely from tender to gritty to falsetto. B.B. King is one of those rare guitarists you can recognize from hearing just one or two notes.
Was he playing Lucille that night? Well, not one of the black signature models that Gibson brought out – they only appeared in 1980 – but from the photographs on the album sleeve, he appears to have been playing a Gibson 335 sunburst and with a Bigsby vibrato device. Not that King ever seemed to need the latter – he got great vibrato from just his fingers on the fretboard.
Doubtless you’re familiar with the Lucille story – but just in case: when B.B. was playing a dance hall in Arkansas in the winter of 1949, a fight broke out and a barrel half-filled with burning kerosene set in the middle of the dance floor to keep things warm was overturned, setting the place on fire. Everyone, including King raced outside, but in his panic, B.B. had left his guitar behind, so he dashed inside to rescue it. He later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, so he named his guitar, and all subsequent ones, Lucille as a reminder never again to do something as stupid as run into a burning building or fight over a woman!
King, in his biography, Blues All Around Me, said that before this particular concert, he had played the Regal “hundreds of times before,” and felt that he had played “hundreds of better concerts than the one taped at the Regal.” He was surprised at the critical response to the record, but said he was happy to receive the praise. However this particular night rates in the thousands of concerts King has played, the fact is it captures the man in top gear, playing with an outstanding band – Duke Jethro on the piano, Leo Lauchie on the bass, Kenneth Sands on the trumpet, Johnny Board and Bobby Forte on tenor sax, and Sonny Freeman on drums.
Apparently, Jethro’s organ, which he was originally schedule to play, broke down, so King said he should just play the piano. Jethro told B.B. that he didn’t know how to play the piano, only to be told, “Well, just sit there and pretend; that’s what you do most of the time anyway!”
The band that night was in sterling form – B.B., when introducing them, says admiringly, “I think they’re wailin’ out there!”
Recognition of the stature of Live at the Regal has come from Rolling Stone Magazine, which put it at number 141 on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time,” and in its addition in 2005 to the Library of Congress’s list of recordings chosen for permanent preservation with the National Recording Registry.
The album kicks off with Every Day I Have the Blues, after broadcaster and music promoter Pervis Spann introduces B.B. King as the “king of the blues.” It’s exciting stuff from the get-go, the brass in tip-top form duelling with King’s timeless guitar licks before the man kicks in with that beautiful tenor voice.
By the time the full guitar solo kicks in the crowd are already whooping and whistling. The crowd cheering throughout the album, actually, adds to the excitement and atmosphere and never seems distracting from the music. It’s just the way a good live album should be.
The album works its way through a veritable collection of B.B. King hits, including the slow blues of Sweet Little Angel (included in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll) and How Blue Can You Get, King’s guitar reaching right inside you and wringing every ounce of emotion out.
The album captures a couple of great moments where B.B. interacts warmly with the audience – at the start of It’s My Own Fault and How Blue Can You Get – doubtless only a fraction of his chat during the evening, but showing that he was a consummate entertainer with a natural rapport with his audience. But for the most part, King let the sincerity of his singing and the piercing quality of his guitar do the talking.
Obviously you can’t see it with this record, but King used to contort his face when he played his guitar – his wife Martha used to call him Ol’ Lemon Face because of that. King said of himself, “I squeeze my eyes and open my mouth, raise my eyebrows, cock my head and God knows what else. I look like I’m in torture, when in truth, I’m in ecstasy. I don’t do it for show. Every fibre of my being is tingling.” And that commitment to the music is what you’re hearing on Live at the Regal. “I wanted my guitar to connect to human emotion,” he said once. And you can feel that as you listen to this album.
If you’ve not listened to this album – do so without hesitation! If you’ve not listened to it in a while, get it out of your record collection and play it again. And don’t just play a couple of songs – play the whole thing and let B.B. and the band caress your soul. Rock along to You Upset Me Baby and Woke Up This Morning, and soak in the blues feeling of Worry Worry and You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now.
You’ll see what is the very best of modern blues.