When B.B. King died last week, the blues world was left in shock. King left a void that can’t really be filled. He was the conduit to the earliest days of the form, and had been an ambassador for the music for decades. And he was one of the last men standing in that regard.
King’s death underscored a sad fact – the icons of African-American R&B and the blues are dying at an alarming rate. Over the past few weeks alone, we’ve lost B.B. King, Ben E. King and Percy Sledge. Add them to a list that, over the last few years, includes R&B/jazz giant George Duke, blues singers Bobby “Blue” Bland and Etta James, and jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, among others.
Take a look at Rolling Stone’s list of the 10 top R&B singers of all time as a point of reference. Six are gone. Only Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin remain.
In the world of the blues, the statistics are even grimmer. B.B. King’s death leaves Buddy Guy on his own as the last iconic bluesman of his generation. The greats have left us.
What does this mean for the future of R&B and the blues? The death of the guitar hero? The end of the deep connection between the blues and the Southern Baptist Church tradition, and gospel music in general? The full eclipsing of subtle soul by in-your-face frippery and oversinging?
It might mean all of these things. Then again, it might not.
In R&B, many of the greats are still accessible to us. Wonder still tours. You can still find Green performing, sometimes at the church where he acts as a minister, a stone’s throw from Graceland in Memphis, Tenn. Robinson and Franklin are still, rather remarkably, in possession of much of their considerable vocal prowess, despite advancing age. Now’s the time to get out there and experience these greats, if the opportunity comes your way.
In addition to what remains of the old guard, a host of younger – and in some cases, not young, but still somehow on the upswing – artists appear intent on protecting R&B’s legacy, while simultaneously seeing to it that the form doesn’t die with its forebears.
D’Angelo: Funk and soulful R&B fill the entirety of D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah.” The guy is dripping with talent.
Essential: “Black Messiah” is clearly one of the year’s finest releases, but if you care about R&B, “Voodoo” is a must-have, too.
Thundercat: As bassist and vocalist, Thundercat is bringing an idiosyncratic slant to R&B, through his own virtuosic solo albums, or as a sideman and touring member of Kendrick Lamar’s band. Listen to the man interpret Billie Holiday, and fear for the future no more.
Essential: “The Apocalypse” (2013) is one of the most frighteningly inventive R&B albums of the past decade. Start there. Odds are, you’ll dig deeper afterwards.
José James: James is an incredible singer with a soul singer’s phrasing and a jazz musician’s chops.
Essential: Last year’s “While You Were Sleeping.” Get it now. Thank me later.
Sharon Jones: She may be in her late 50s, but Jones, when fronting the Dap Kings – as she’ll be doing at Artpark this summer – has the fire of a room full of 20-year-olds.
Essential: “Give the People What They Want.” With nods to Motown, classic funk and Southern soul, Jones and her band just plain tear it up here.
Prince: The man is ageless, apparently. He’s still on the road, still killing it, and still the true heir apparent of James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder. R&B rooted in tradition, but with an eye on the future, will not die as long as Prince is alive.
Selwyn Birchwood: The young Floridian channels the fire and fury of Buddy Guy into his own take on Southern-tinged electric blues. He plays Buffalo regularly, too, so keep your eyes open.
Essential: “Don’t Call No Ambulance,” Birchwood’s Alligator records debut, is a pure face-melter.
Gary Clark Jr.: Chicago electric blues by way of Austin, Texas. Clark has both urban fire and rootsy rural primitivism.
Essential: Clark has been a bit hit-or-miss in the recording studio, but on stage, he’s an absolute powerhouse. Grab 2014’s “Gary Clark Jr. Live” and play it loud.
Ben Harper: Not strictly a blues artist, Harper nonetheless channels the realism of Delta blues and rural African-American folk music through a decidedly unique songwriting acumen.
Essential: Harper’s entire catalog is worth owning, but for blues lovers, “Get Up!,” his collaboration with blues harp royalty Charlie Musselwhite, offers a wonderful point of entry.
Joe Louis Walker: Clearly inspired by the Kings – B.B., Albert, Freddie – Walker commands the searing intensity of seminal electric blues with a gritty and modern urban edge.
Essential: They’re all the same, which means they’re all good, but I’d start with the most recent – last year’s “Hornet’s Nest” sounds exactly like what its title suggests it would.
Alabama Shakes: Brittany Howard has a voice as big as Bessie Smith’s. The Shakes bring a tendency toward psychedelic experimentation to a blues- and soul-based sound, reinvigorating the form in the process.
Essential: “Boys and Girls” might hold more appeal for blues fans, but “Sound & Color” is more adventurous, and a complete crusher.
Sadly, it’s inevitable we will be losing more R&B and blues greats in the coming years. But if you look around, you’ll see the torch already has been passed. There’s hope. The fire still burns.