My favorite guitar player, B.B. King, died Thursday. Undoubtedly – and correctly – as people write about his remarkable career, they will pay particular tribute to his 1965 Live at the Regal album, documenting a 1964 concert in Chicago. There's no way to overstate how powerful a performance this was — never mind the emotion he was able to wring out of his legendary Gibson, Lucille, the recording is an especially good reminder of his gift as a singer.
But I'd like to remember King today with a song so obscure, so seemingly tossed off, that probably none of the musicians involved remember recording. The song, “Friends,” appears on his 1969 album, Live & Well, and it just might contain the greatest notes Lucille ever spoke.
What makes that all the more remarkable is that, in essence, “Friends” is a boring song. It sounds like an impromptu groove that session musicians might lay down so an engineer can tweak the knobs and buttons to the right setting. It's the musical equivalent of a test pattern. This is not to say that the musicianship is bad – far from it. It's just sort of there.
At least, that's what I thought the very first time I heard it. And then, at what, thanks to YouTube, I can pinpoint as the 3:44 mark, something happened. Coming out of a piano solo, you can hear King playing what sounds like chords, which is something he rarely did. It's a simple, almost doorbell-like progression, like he's about to make an announcement.
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It turns out to be a very important, very ass-kicking announcement. He breaks back into the single-note stabs he virtually invented, and suddenly it becomes clear: This was what the song was building to. Because King, who had the song's first solo several minutes earlier, shifts the song from a simple groove to what I can only call a paean. At 4:20, most of the musicians drop out, leaving a tugging but subtle bass line, a barely audible chugga-chugga rhythm guitar, and a snare so crisp it sounds like a gunshot.
Above all, this is Lucille. The phrase “ice pick” is usually reserved for another legendary guitarist, Albert Collins, but what King does here is sharper and, well, icier, than anything Collins ever did. Or that anyone ever did. Especially at 4:23. Boom. That's where it gets me. A note so piercing that it seems to disappear in a puff of smoke, like it can't even sustain itself. Like there's no atmosphere to support it. And then King alternates from damn near dog-whistle highs to whispers, stopping on a dime each time, building the tension, until the rest of the band drops back in, and King just bends note after note after note, and you're hearing something that you will never hear anyone else do. Ever.
It's one of the greatest examples of King's patented less-is-more approach. The space between the notes become just as important as the notes themselves. It demands attention. Thank God he left us with so many amazing recordings, because now there's no more space between notes. There's just the space.