From the very earliest time in his career, BB King’s shows were wonderful. As the years rolled on, they became the complete experience, honed and perfected to maximize the pleasure, as live albums such as Live At The Regal and Live In Cook Country Jail prove.
BB’s showmanship rapidly blossomed from his first faltering steps in the very early 50s, gigging places around his home state of Mississippi. By mid-1955, he began playing afield – gigs like the Pleasure Pier at Galveston in Texas. A string of singles through the 1950s made the Billboard R&B charts, a trend that continued through into the 1960s.
His stage show was obviously based upon his fabulous guitar playing and his way with a song, but it was also his development as a raconteur and his quick wit that made him so popular. Blues songs tell a story, but unlike many pop songs, they do it with feeling, and BB had feeling by the bucket load. BB went from Memphis’ “Beale Street Blues Boy” to global blues legend because he gave his all in performance, consistently, every time.
Live at the Regal was recorded on November 21, 1964, at the theatre of the same name in Chicago, Illinois. In places, it sounds like the frenzy of Beatlemania that had so recently come to dominate America… you suspect no one in BB’s audience gave a damn about the band from Liverpool.
In the days before pop concerts were aired in their entirety on TV, it did not matter that artists like King rarely strayed from the script. Like the best music hall comedians in that pre-TV dominated age, he trotted out the same spiel night after night, but like the greatest artists, BB always made it sound fresh, made it sound like he was addressing you personally, telling you that stuff for the first time. When he tells you that they’re going to “pick up some of the real old blues” and, “If we should happen to play one that you remember, let us know it by making some noise,” man, you’re ready to holler right along with the very next note.
The staples in his live shows, the songs he performed thousands of times, indeed did stem from his earliest recordings. So, when he says to the audience, “Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re gonna go way back. Way back”, he’s not kidding. Songs that stand out on Live At the Regal are Memphis Slim’s “Every Day I Have The Blues,” which he first recorded in 1955, “Sweet Little Angel,” a hit in 1956, and “Sweet Sixteen,” billed as BB King and his Orchestra, recorded in October 1959.
How he managed to perform these songs with so much heart and feeling, making that connection night after night, as if it was the first time telling his story, is astonishing. To give so much, he clearly did care about the music, its message, and the people who came to listen.
Songs like “Woke Up This Mornin” and the R&B chart-topping, “Please Love Me” go back even further, to 1953. They sound better than they did when he first recorded them. BB himself thought he was always improving throughout much of his career, but this, for many, is the absolute pinnacle of his powers.
Many cultures believed that their monarchy were living gods descended from a higher plane. BB King rightly claimed his throne as “King of the Blues” through the brilliance radiating from performances like the one at the perfectly-named Regal.
Live at the Regal made history and will stand as a testament to the power of the blues and BB King’s brilliance. Both Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler have used this album to get them in the zone before their own live performances. It is in just about every list of the greatest live albums of all time, and yet it was never on the Billboard charts. The fact is some albums just rise above the fray to take on mythical proportions – just play it now, and the smile will stay on your face for whatever is left of the day.