The BB King Blues Band – The Soul Of The King
Ruf Records – 2019
13 tracks; 60 minutes
Ruf is best known for its roster of blues-rock artists but here diversifies its catalogue with this album which unites long-serving members of BB King’s band with A-list guests like Taj Mahal, Kenny Neal, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Louis Walker; also featured are Diunna Greenleaf, Mary Griffin and Jonn Del Toro Richardson on vocals, Kirk Joseph on tuba and Michael Lee on guitar and vocals. However, despite the quality of the guest stars it is the horn-heavy arrangements of the band that really bring home the memory of the King. Nine strong with five horn players, this full-throated band plays superbly across a programme of four BB classics and nine songs composed by members of the band or the guests. Bassist Russell Jackson and trumpeter James ‘Boogaloo’ Bolden share seven vocal leads, sax player Eric Demmer sings one and the guests sing the rest. Also in the band are Walter King on sax, Lamar Boulet on trumpet, Raymond Harris on trombone, Wilbert Crosby on guitar, Darrell Lavigne on keys and Herman Jackson on drums.
“Irene Irene” sounds like a BB classic but in fact it’s Eric’s song with Russell’s vocals, superb horns and stunning guitar by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, a great start to the album. Kenny Neal plays and sings very much like BB on “Sweet Little Angel” before Diunna Greenleaf’s vocal and Eric’s alto sax deliver a splendid version of “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere”. Taj Mahal and Mary Griffin duet on a fun version of “Paying The Cost To Be The Boss” and Joe Louis Walker’s “Regal Blues” is a fitting tribute to BB, Joe playing in BB style and singing about how he was influenced by the great man’s playing. Michael Lee performed “The Thrill Is Gone” on The Voice and recorded it for his debut album (reviewed in the November 29 2019 issue of Blues Blast) but this version with the horns is definitely superior and a strong version of a familiar song.
The rest of the album consists of originals from the band, highlights including Kenny Neal’s mournful harp and Diunna Greenleaf’s background vocals providing a gospel feel to “Becoming The Blues” and tuba adding a New Orleans-flavour to “Low Down”. ‘Boogaloo’ is not quite as strong a singer as Russell but his lighter vocals work well on “Pocket Full Of Money” and the horn flourishes that enhance tunes like “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” recall the heyday of big band blues and act as a fitting tribute to the great man himself, making this a disc that will interest fans of BB and his brand of big band blues.