With his faithful guitar, nicknamed Lucille, in hand, Mississippi-born B.B. King composed some of blues’ greatest music over the course of his recording career from the 1940s all the way into the 2000s. He was a triple-threat singer, songwriter, and performer who defined a new generation of the genre, influencing countless young players who would bring clean licks and silky production into the historically gritty genre.
Aside from his commanding vocals, he is the inventor of the “B.B. King Blues Box,” a way of playing guitar that connects major pentatonic, minor pentatonic, and blues scales on the fretboard seamlessly, allowing for a “lyrical” approach to soloing.
Not only did King redefine blues standards, he also highlighted his crossover appeal by collaborating with rock-inspired artists like U2. Keep reading for the inside scoop on B.B. King’s best songs.
10. Sweet Little Angel
King shows why he’s considered to be one of the greatest blues guitar players to ever live with his interpretation of ‘Sweet Little Angel,’ a blues standard that goes way back to the 1930s, with popular singer Lucille Bogan (on stage she went by the name Bessie Jackson) singing it first. For the first 3 minutes, King softly plays, evoking gentle phrases on his six-string that perfectly align with the tune’s theme. But once he brings in his band, he doesn’t hold back. Among the welcomed frenzy, his voice dials in and he delivers one of his best vocal performances of his career. King’s 1957 cover paved the way for the vintage tune to become known as a standard, with a slew of other musicians following in his footsteps to record their own takes, though none holds a candle to B.B.’s performance.
9. Three O’Clock Blues
An essential song in the great span of King’s repertoire, he released ‘Three O’Clock Blues’ in 1951 as his debut single and it became a huge hit. If there’s one tune that effectively catapulted him to fame, this one is it. It was the first in a long list of slow burners for King. While contemporary electric blues races like a muscle car, B.B. King’s electric blues of the ’50s churned down the line like a magnificent steam locomotive. Not only was the single recorded in a project studio out of a YMCA (yes, you read that correctly), but B.B. managed to deliver the most emotional rendition of all with significantly less man power than other artists who had also released the track. While his guitar playing is squeaky clean, his voice delivers an epic performance shaded by all the nuances that come with insomnia (the song’s subject boiled down to one word), pain, heartache, endurance, and emotional release. These are all cornerstones of the blues King owned in this track.
8. When Love Comes To Town
In the late ’80s, King teamed up with a young band out of Ireland who had just made a huge splash in the music entertainment world with the release of their album The Joshua Tree. ‘When Love Comes to Town’ features King’s most notable collaboration, with U2 frontman Bono trading vocal lines in between B.B.’s electric guitar solos. Both U2 and King had an immense amount of mutual respect for each other, and Bono was heavily influenced by blues greats, including King himself. What started as a high-powered collaboration turned into a lifelong friendship. Well into the ’90s, most blues players from the ’50s and ’60s weren’t household names. As well-known as King was in blues communities, he wasn’t a part of the mainstream conversation. This single, appearing on U2’s project, Rattle and Hum, changed all that. After the exposure he received from the song’s release, King’s audience grew significantly and it became a hybrid community of blues “purists” and rock n’ roll enthusiasts.
7. To Know You Is To Love You
Right off the bat, you can tell this is another masterful cover by King rather than one of his classic blues originals. ‘To Know You is to Love You’ is the title track off of a collaborative album by the same name. This song opens up with a simple, funky piano groove that immediately sets the tone. This subtle hint points to the jazzy-funk talents of none other than Stevie Wonder, who wrote this track alongside singer-songwriter (and for a time, wife), Syreeta Wright. B.B.’s vocals are especially haunting, soaring above all instrumentation involved, in the same vein as Wonder often performs. Released in the ’70s, the tune marks an expansion for the blues artist, who spent the ’50s churning out one powerful blues song after the next. From this point on, he began experimenting with different genres, incorporating everything from jazz and funk to pop into his rock-blues foundation.
6. Why I Sing The Blues
Often included on his greatest hits album compilations, this late ’50s release finds the bluesman reflecting on “why he sings the blues,” since everybody keeps asking him. When fellow blues artist Howlin’ Wolf was asked this question, he said, “A lot of peoples holler about ‘I don’t like no blues,’ but when you ain’t got no money, and can’t pay your house rent and can’t buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you ain’t got no money you got the blues, because you’re thinking evil. That’s right. Any time you’re thinking evil, you’re thinking about the blues.” This powerful quote echoed his playing style, which often felt like he was conjuring the ghosts of Mississippi as he performed. King takes a more rock n’ roll approach, using the song’s lyrics as social commentary to shed light on his humble beginnings and the struggles he had to go through to become a success. Each bluesman has different reasons as to why they “sing the blues,” and for King it wasn’t just a matter of why, but a matter of necessity.
5. Riding with the King
An industry hit, Riding with the King was a collaborative project (and title track) between King and fellow blues guitarist Eric Clapton. Critics loved the album. The monumental record not only won a Grammy Award but also hit number one on the Billboard blues charts. Featuring King’s immaculate guitar work and Clapton’s classic electric blues riffs, their collaboration was a major success. Despite the record’s gold star status among critics, industry professionals, and plenty of blues connoisseurs, the large section of blues naturalists out there took a bit of an issue with it because they felt it was “too polished” to be an authentic blues release. To be fair, there isn’t that traditional gritty fibrous undercurrent that bellows beneath so much of the blues’ greatest works. However, both King and Clapton ushered in a contemporary way of playing that had a focus on clean delivery and buttery smooth production. Take a listen, and you be the judge if you think this is a bonafide blues number or not.
4. Chains And Things
A moody piano groove holds down this track that finds our blues singer down-and-out. Singing about the “chains that bind us,” King ruminates over how twisted the world continues to be no matter how many years pass by. Strings help to accentuate his solo parts. An interesting fun fact about ‘Chains and Things’ is it contains a well-covered up but rare mistake. While soloing, he accidentally hit a wrong note but kept going. Instead of stopping the track for a do over, the producer introduced strings over certain parts of the song to smooth out the error. This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes regarding music performance attributed to classical musician Ludwig van Beethoven: “A wrong note played timidly is a wrong note. I wrong note played with authority is an interpretation.” And King could interpret the blues like no other.
3. Bring It On Home To Me
Romance overflows with ‘Bring It On Home To Me,’ a Sam Cooke-written powerhouse of a creation. Dueting with British musician Paul Carrack over high-flying, soulful vocals, King delivers yet another rousing guitar masterclass. The song is especially symbiotic, with lyrics, vocal melody, backing band, and flowing guitar parts all effortlessly working together. While King’s own work is blues-centric, when he partnered with the “blue-eyed-soul” singer Carrack, covering a song by the King of Soul himself, Cooke, was a no-brainer. While much of B.B.’s work proves he can “sing the blues,” ‘Bring It On Home to Me’ proves he can wield soul just as expertly.
2. Everyday I Have The Blues
B.B. King put his own spin on this blues standard in 1955, and it turned into one of his most popular tracks. Even now, blues fans prefer King’s rendition. He pays homage to the song’s original creator, Maxwell Davis, by following the groove he charted out many years before. While many artists over the years speed the song up and add blistering solos, King slows it down with an easy rhythm, and layers clean guitar solos over horn work and piano. One cool thing about his recording is that when he and his production team were in the studio, they plugged his guitar directly into the mixing board rather than miking a guitar amp to be recorded for the track. This gives it an authentic ’50s feel, with equal parts grit and glamour. His cover of ‘Everyday I Have The Blues’ is an absolute gem.
1. The Thrill Is Gone
When B.B. King was working as a radio DJ, he came across a Roy Hawkins tune named ‘The Thrill is Gone,’ and he quickly fell in love with it. He recorded quite a few different versions of his own, but he felt all of them fell short of the original. However, a phone call in the middle of the night resulted in King agreeing to add a strings section to the tune at the suggestion of his producer. The addition proved to be just what the song needed to give it that flare they were looking for. Released in ’69, King’s passionate interpretation of Hawkins’ tune would go on to become his signature release. Not only did it help put him on the map, but he also gave the tune “blues standard” status, and it has continued to influence the genre with each new generation. He gave it new life in ’97 when he partnered up with Tracey Chapman, who had scored a hit with her pensive power ballad ‘Fast Car,’ and performed a live version of ‘The Thrill is Gone’ alongside her. His biggest hit over the course of his long and impressive career comes in at number 1 on our list of the best B.B. King songs.