Saturday, November 20, 2010

November 20: B.B. King, "Sweet Little Angel"

Artist: B.B. King
Song: "Sweet Little Angel"
Album: Sweet Little Angel (single)
Year: 1956

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For certain genres, there is one artist that is so heavily associated with the sound, that it is quite literally impossible to separate one from the other.  Due to their massive amount of impact on shaping the sound of the genre in question, across the globe, the two are forever linked, and they often stand as the most highly revered artists in history.  While every style of music ever recorded has an artist that fits this description, none have the world-wide name recognition and instant understanding of what type of music is being discussed as one finds in the name B.B. King.  Universally seen as the architect of the modern blues sound, there are so many artists across such a wide range of genres that have borrowed from his style, that one can make the case that there would be very little music of any type had it not been for his contributions over the decades.  With this in mind, it is also nothing short of impossible to choose a single song from his massive catalog as a "best" moment.  From his core sound in the blues, to moments when he bridged both jazz and rock into his music, B.B. King has a catalog that is diverse like none other.  However, there are a handful of recordings from B.B. King that stand out above others both in terms of quality, as well as impact on future generations.  One of these came quite early in his career, and one can only stand in awe of the sonic beauty that is B.B. King's 1956 single, "Sweet Little Angel."

Though it is clearly a blues song from start to finish, one can also instantly hear on "Sweet Little Angel" how B.B. King is able to blend his blues sound with the more popular sound of the day.  This ability to operate as a hybrid sound over the decades has been one of the most unique aspects of B.B. King's music, and it seems there is no genre with which he is unable to blend his sound.  Bringing a slight doo-wop sound, as well as a very solid "slow dance" groove, "Sweet Little Angel" sways as it goes, with King's guitar sounding nothing short of phenomenal.  Though it was new to the world then, it would be this distinctive tone that would become the trademark sound of B.B. King, and it sounded just as good and pure then as it does more than fifty years later.  King seems to use the guitar as almost a second vocalist on "Sweet Little Angel," letting it perfectly fill the gaps when he is not singing.  This, in many ways, is the essence of the blues, as King proves the ability to channel his emotion both verbally and musically, letting the mood build higher and higher as the song progresses.  As the song begins to wind down, King takes a quick solo, and it is here that one can hear his ability to perfectly place notes where needed, but leave optimal open space for the tension and mood to build even more.  The final part of "Sweet Little Angel" brings the listener a classic blues closing, and at just under three minutes, B.B. King delivers everything one could ever ask for in the blues style.

Yet one can easily make the case that the songs of B.B. King are simply not complete without his voice over-top the musical arrangement.  Sounding as strong and pure as his guitar playing, there is never a moment when the song sounds anything less than completely authentic, and this sense of getting "the real deal" is what set B.B. King apart from his peers.  Though his voice is not suited for some parts of the vocal spectrum, King rarely shows any sign of caring, and he lets the emotion of the song guide him, providing a completely honest and raw vocal on every song.  With "Sweet Little Angel," the way in which he cries and pines for the woman in question is as classic as blues singing can get, and one can easily feel the emotions which he is trying to convey.  The fact that "Sweet Little Angel" was able to find its way quite high on the charts is almost a shock, as such innuendos as one finds here were certainly beyond risqué in 1956.  As King sings the lines, "...I've got a sweet little angel, I love the way she spread her wings...," his euphemism becomes quite clear, and yet his is able to brilliantly bury the songs' true intentions behind his stunning guitar and moving voice.  Later in the song, King drops what has become a signature blues line, as he sings, "I asked my baby for a nickel, and she gave me a $20 bill..."  Singing exactly what he wants in a manner that is completely controlled by the energy of the music, B.B. King showed the world exactly how blues were supposed to be sung when he released "Sweet Little Angel."

Truth be told, "Sweet Little Angel" is actually a take on the traditional song, "Black Angel Blues" which was first recorded in the early 1930's.  Countless musicians have recorded their own take on the song, yet B.B. King's reworking as "Sweet Little Angel" has become a standard onto itself.  This is supported by the fact that dozens of artists, ranging from The Rolling Stones to The Allman Brothers Band have made their own versions of the King lyrics.  There are even moments on B.B. King's original recording where it almost sounds as if he is playing pedal-steel, and his ability to give his instrument such a diverse sound is yet another reason why he retains such a highly vaulted status to this day.  Though many artists have made their name in blues music, none have quite the same persona or presence as B.B. King.  His image alone represents blues music, and he has proved over the decades that it is a sound that is truly timeless.  On "Sweet Little Angel," King strips the blues down to their most basic, and the 1-4-5 chord progression that he deploys leaves ample room for his captivating voice to move the listener just as effectively as the music.  In literally every aspect, from the singing to the music to the lyrics, one will find nothing short of pure musical perfection and bliss within B.B. King's monumental 1956 single, "Sweet Little Angel."

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