TERRY GROSS, host:
B.B. King and his guitar, Lucille, have been making hits together since 1951, and they keep coming. He's 82 now and on tour with his latest album, "One Kind Favor." Music critic Milo Miles explains how one master musician has managed to remain timeless.
MILO MILES: These are lean times for soul and blues albums. Most years, there's only one or two I expect to ever play again. But just when you think the sources have dried up, everybody rushes in at once. This year, Al Green and Raphael Saadiq have turned in the finest possible modern soul, while Janiva Magness, Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, Taj Mahal, and Elvin Bishop have added outstanding blues albums. B.B. King, at 82 years old, doesn't have anything to prove, but he up and delivers "One Kind Favor," his best work since his batches of duets a dozen or so years ago. It's interesting that the most funky, modern track is also likely the oldest, Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."
(Soundbite of song "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean")
Mr. B.B. KING: (Singing) Well, there's one kind of favor I'll ask of you. One kind favor I'll ask of you. Oh, there's one kind favor I'll ask of you, See that my grave is kept clean. There's two...
MILES: Because it was produced by T-Bone Burnett, "One Kind Favor" not only evokes his refurbishment of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss last year, but Rick Rubin's recasting of Johnny Cash with it's intimation of mortality and roots. "One Kind Favor" stands alone, however, in reaffirming B.B. King's unique power as a star and venerable performer. More than any other icon, King is about the music and not himself. After all, he is large and contains multitudes of blues.
(Soundbite of song "Waiting For Your Call")
Mr. B.B. KING: (Singing) No matter how many hearts you have broken, And no matter how many tears you made fall, Well, I still love you. Baby, I'm waiting for your call. No matter how many times...
MILES: "One Kind Favor" is all cover versions, none previously recorded by King. When he savors "Waiting For Your Call" by T-Bone Walker or several numbers by Lonnie Johnson, King seems to pick players like himself, go-your-own-way guys who wore their savvy lightly and enjoyed jazzy licks. But he also takes control of Chicago's Howlin' Wolf in "How Many More Years" and Detroit's John Lee Hooker in "Blues Before Sunrise." King even puts his stamp on a couple of tunes by the Mississippi Sheiks, who would hardly be recognized as a blues outfit by today's narrow standards. Not that they aren't relevant, the most contemporary moment on the album is their "The World Gone Wrong," where King declares, I can't be good no more, baby honey, because the world is going wrong. I'll buy that, or maybe sell it.
(Soundbite of song "The World Gone Wrong")
Mr. B.B. KING: (Singing) Strange thing that happened that never happened before. My baby told me I would have to go. I can't be good no more like I once did before. I can't be good no more, baby, Honey, because the world's gone wrong. Feel bad this morning, Ain't got no home. No use in worrying 'cause the whole world has gone wrong. I can't be good no more once like I did before. I can't be good no more, baby, Honey, because the world's gone wrong.
MILES: King shows stately vigor on "One Kind Favor." He's reflective, even makes "Midnight Blues" sound like it's more about time than sadness. And though often anguished, he's never angry. And even in songs where he's abandoned and abused, King prefers to celebrate the scornful object of his affection or take on the sympathetic role of a soul-man supplicant. All of this is appealing without any pander, and what matters most is that B.B. King feels he has something to prove this time out. If only, as the Mississippi Sheiks' song puts it, he's sitting on top of the world.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed B.B. King's "One Kind Favor." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of song "How Many More Years")
Mr. B.B. KING: (Singing) How many more years, have I got to let you dog me around? How many more years, baby? How many more years, have I got to let you dog me around? I'd rather be dead, sleeping six feet in the ground. I'm gonna fall on my knees, I'm gonna raise up my right hand. I'm gonna fall on my knees, raise up my right hand. I'd feel much better darling, if I'd just only get you understand.