Over the years, Soul Train has showcased all forms of black music. The blues was by no means an exception.
Blues music was just as popular in the seventies as it was in its heyday in the 1940s and 50s. In fact, blues music, along with be-bop, was a forerunner to rap music, with its narratives on world issues, women, booze, money, sex and partying—topics that are still in rap music today . The genre held its own in the midst of the changing music styles of the seventies and was helmed by the King of the Blues, B.B. King.
Soul Train host Don Cornelius, who was a big fan of the blues, believed it was important to feature blues music on his program in addition to other musical trends that were slowly eclipsing the genre. By featuring blues artists such as B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland on Soul Train, it was a way to illustrate that blues music was still highly relevant.
B.B. King made his first Soul Train appearance in late 1971. He brought his band along with him (as well as his trademark guitar, “Lucille”), and played all of their performances live on this episode. He opened with his 1969 hit “Why I Sing the Blues.”
Later in the show, after King introduced his band members, a question-and-answer session was conducted between him and the Soul Train Gang. One dancer asked if it was difficult to keep his originality with the changing music landscape being widespread. King replied, “It is sometimes. When I hear other people playing things I play, I listen to the other people playing things I don’t play and I think in terms of the trend of music happening.” He added that he balances both his own style along with current music trends to maintain his originality. B.B. then performed his latest single, “Ain’t Nobody Home.”
King closed the show with his classic, “The Thrill is Gone.” It reached number three on the soul singles chart and number 15 on the pop charts in February 1970, becoming his highest ranking single on the pop charts, and was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
King returned to Soul Train in the fall of 1973 to promote his latest album To Know You is To Love You. Don Cornelius said in his introduction of King: “He was not born a prince nor was he promised from birth a kingdom or the riches that normally characterize royalty. He had to earn his crown.” He then presented King, who sang a track from the album, “I Like to Live the Love,” which would be released as a single a few months later. It went number six on the soul singles chart and number 28 on the pop singles chart. He didn’t bring his band this time, but he sang all of the vocals live over the pre-recorded musical tracks. His gutsy live vocals, along with the mid-tempo steady beat, garnered huge applause from the Soul Train Gang after he finished performing.
Later in the show, Cornelius commended King on the album, noting Stevie Wonder wrote its title track and asked how Wonder came to write that song for him. King explained that during a rehearsal for the Pearl Bailey Show, Wonder told B.B. that he wanted to write a song for him. So some years later, King’s producer, Dave Crawford, told him that Wonder had written a song for him but King had already known about it. Not only did Wonder write the song, but he also played piano on it. The uptempo track is a gem, with the blending of King’s guitar playing and Wonder’s piano playing. The Soul Train Gang loved this cut as they gave the song quite a workout on the dance floor.
King closed the show with a slow, bluesy tune from the album entitled “I Can’t Leave.”
The album To Know You is To Love You did quite well on the soul album charts, peaking at number 13, but only reaching number 71 on the pop album charts. It didn’t matter; a chart ranking couldn’t take away the fact that King had many fans who loved and appreciated his music. In fact, the album generated quite a bit of attention and put him back in the mainstream limelight, as he was also a guest on the popular Midnight Special program performing material from the album, which aired the night before this segment of Soul Train was broadcast.
In February 1975, King returned to Soul Train to do a cameo as a special guest on a show which featured fellow blues great Bobby “Blue” Bland. With Bland, Cornelius and the other special guest, Godfather of Soul James Brown on stage, Brown introduced King as “the other part of the blues, the two of them (King and Bland) make the only blues in the world, Mr. B.B. King!” King received thunderous applause as he went on stage and Cornelius mentioned that King’s and Bland’s appearances were prompted by the recent album they did together, a live concert album called Together For the First Time…Live. Cornelius asked them to do a medley of some of their tunes, but when Brown was about to leave the stage with Cornelius, Bland told Brown to remain on stage to sing with them. What occurred was one of the most classic moments in the history of Soul Train and in soul music in general.
King, Bland and Brown did an impromptu blues medley, doing takeoffs of each other’s hits. Brown started his career singing the blues so he blended well with King and Bland, both of whom he knew for a long time. At one point, while Brown harmonized, Bland sang “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, so open up the door and I will get it myself,” which prompted cheers from the Soul Train Gang. Seeing these three legends on stage is a rare moment that is forever cemented in the archives of Soul Train.
King made his fourth and final Soul Train appearance on a show that aired two weeks after his appearance with Brown and Bland. This appearance was actually filmed on that same day and this time around, he was the featured guest and Bobby “Blue” Bland did a cameo spot.
B.B. King brought his band back with him to do a live version of his 1973 hit “I Like to Live the Love.” Midway in the show, Bland joined King as Cornelius again praised their Together For the First Time album. He mentioned that a critic who gave a negative review of the album didn’t know what he was listening to and added, “People shouldn’t write about things they don’t understand.” After the interview, King and Bland did a duet of their blues hits.
King closed the show with “The Thrill is Gone.”
Blues will always be an important part of the music landscape as a whole. The genre and its artists influenced generations for many years to come. As mentioned earlier, if there was no blues, there would be no rap. Indeed, B.B. King is, without a doubt, one of the all-time “original rappers.”
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.