One drag about getting older is watching your heroes die off one at a time. This month, we lost B.B. King. There have been many eloquent tributes since his demise, and rather than attempt to add anything to that discussion, let’s focus on his music instead. From the perspective of this column, it’s an easy choice, because not only was Mr. King one of the greatest vocalists, guitarists, and songwriters of all time, he also hired some of the world’s greatest bass players.
Rather than following a plan for Blues You Can Use, I typically wait until a week before deadline and look for my “sign.” This month, the signal came in loud and strong when my wife picked up a vinyl copy of B.B. King’s 1969 recording Live & Well from a yard sale. Side I was recorded live at the Village Gate, and featured Val Patillo on bass, while Side II showcases a superlative group of session players, including the one and only Jerry Jemmott on bass. Jemmott recorded several other albums with B.B., including Completely Well, with the stand-out hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” Indianola Mississippi Seeds, a highly regarded collection that featured cameos by Carole King (no relation), Joe Walsh, Leon Russell, and Guess Who from 1972.
Jerry Jemmott has been discussed in this column before, and his significant contributions to our instrument and popular music can never be overstated. But his achievements are not all in the past; most recently, Jerry was back on the road with his old boss, Aretha Franklin. In addition to these studio sessions with B.B., 1969 found Jerry waxing sides with Al Kooper, Don Covay, Otis Rush, Wilson Pickett, Freddie King, the Rascals, to name a few—and recorded many gems that fruitful year. This month, let’s take a look at how Jerry approached another B.B. Classic, “Why I Sing the Blues.” While it’s easy to be drawn in by this song’s funky pulse, I suggest listening first to the lyrics. In no uncertain terms, Mr. King told us exactly why he sang the blues, and it is a sad reality that all these years later, those reasons still exist.
Clocking in at 8:39, “Why I Sing the Blues” is the longest track on the record, and B.B. Is obviously having a good time, taking several rides around the block. Jemmott holds down the fort with remarkable restraint, staying fairly close to the basic groove approximated in Ex. 1, adding subtle variations with ingenious results. This sample chorus happens around the 6:07 mark, underneath B.B.’s fourth break. The initial two-bar pattern serves as the foundation for the entire tune, but dig how Jerry works with the “drop down” idea on beats three and four of the second measure. In bar 2, he uses it to set up the return to the I chord, but in bar 4, he initiates the drop one eighth-note early to set up his approach to the root of the IV chord. He uses the C on beat four as the springboard to the mid-register F instead of the 1st-fret choice, knowing that the 1–b7 motif must continue. He uses the drop-down again over the IV chord to bring it back to the I. Bar 8 uses a longer buildup to the V chord, but in bar 10, he throws down a hint of double-time with some well-placed 16ths on the octave of the IV chord, using them as a bounce point for the drop-down run. He redevelops this idea again in bar 12 on the I chord for an effective cadence statement.
Example 2 is similar to what happens later in the performance. Drummer Herb Lovelle switches back to the stomping quarter-note snare-drum beat he employed several times during the track, but this time Jemmott switches up, too, with a doubled-up descending scale pattern that seems to say “goin’ home.” While it’s a fairly standard two-bar line, notice how he cleverly sets up the return to the higher C in bar 3 with the lower octave on the “and” of the previous beat four. Jerry uses this idea to set up each two-bar phrase, altering it based on its destination. He blasts us once more in bar 10 with some righteous 16ths on beat three—effectively placed, and an easy move bouncing off the open A string as the line climbs. The final ascent to the V chord in bar 11 is followed by a cool octave drop in bar 12, building its way back up for the downbeat of the next chorus.
B.B. King spent his long life giving the world the blues, and we are happier and better off for it. If you haven’t dug deep into the catalog of this legendary performer, go back to the beginning and listen to the evolution of modern music unfold
Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.