Review: Shirley King, “Blues for a King”

Shirley King - Blues for a King

Listening to Shirley King’s new album, “Blues for a King,” one is reminded how vast and rich the American Songbook truly is.  Armed with a lustrous set of songs and a phenomenal line up of guest guitarists, Shirley King hits a long line drive out of the park.  Conceived as a tribute to the lasting legacy of the King lineage in modern music, Cleopatra Records teamed up with Shirley King, the late B.B. King ‘s eldest daughter, and various highly acclaimed guest artists, to bring about this collection of singer/guitarist duets.  B.B. King, the legendary groundbreaking, blues artist/guitarist from Mississippi, is most certainly held in the highest regard by purists and serious music collectors around the world.  This album will be a welcome addition, not only to those who loved Mr. King’s prolific catalogue, but also to those who love good songs, passionately delivered with heart and soul.

A mixture of older blues and pop songs, the album travels lightly over some fairly well known territory with charm and grace.  Shirley presents each number with verve and passion, allowing the guest guitarist to bring edgy prowess and renewed energy to the performances.  The songs themselves represent a broad spectrum of styles and origins – from early English folk songs to modern classics mixed up with some of the bluest of blues, most notably “Hoodoo Man,” which features Junior Wells on vocals and harmonica.  Clearly designed as a posthumous tribute to Wells, King sings along and intertwines her vocals with that of the great bluesman; her lyrics boasting a powerful authenticity, that only a singer steeped in the healing waters of the great blues tradition, genuinely can.  One of the stand out moments on the album, King is more than comfortable lending her voice to a song whose groove and feel must be like a homecoming reunion for her.

King has seen the ups and downs of blues music for most of her life.  She witnessed first hand the challenges her famous father had to face, to take his rightful place in the pantheon of guitar masters and singers in contemporary music.  Of the many lessons learned from her father, she discovered early that her job as a performer was to give her very best to those who came to see her and that she was going to have to make her own mark in the entertainment world.  Although she started as a dancer, she has pursued singing for many years. 

Shirley King with B.B. King

Cleopatra Records developed the arrangements and tracks before sending them to Ms. King, who freely admits that some of the approaches to these songs were intimidating to her, since she always relied on the interplay between players to inspire and lift her up.  The songs work because of that tension.  The dynamic between the singers’ phrasing and guitar push of the songs is endearing and often produce surprising interpretations of songs that, for many, will be very well known.  This is especially true of the folk-roots based songs such as “Gallows Pole” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

“Gallows Pole” is a centuries old folk tale that recounts the treachery of the powerful and the sacrifice of love.  Perfectly supported by Harvey Mandel on guitar, Ms. King finds a way to breathe new life into a song that many will have forgotten as so mesmerising.  Mandel has played with many greats throughout the years, and his solo work in this tune demonstrates why.  “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the classic Stevie Winwood composition, is a beautiful surprise.  Sung with tenderness and a clear sight line on the inner meaning of the lyric, King’s version is memorably uplifting and pairs effortlessly with Martin Barre’s fluid accompaniment.

The rockers in the set are meant for dancing and there’s no shortage of high-energy songs; “Feelin’ Alright,” “That’s Alright Mama,” and “Give It All Up” are served up hot.  Shirley King stands tall and proud on Nina Simone’s incredible anthem to new resolve and determination toward hope, faith and love: “Birds flying high, you know how I feel / Sun in the sky, you know how I feel / Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel / It’s a new dawn / It’s a new day / It’s a new life, for me yeah.” If Simone’s version of this show tune sets your hair on fire, Shirley King brings similar passion and joy into her version, along with Robben Ford’s exquisite swirling guitar runs.

King ends the album with Etta James’ eternal masterpiece, “At Last,” and the significance of this song’s inclusion into this album cannot be overlooked.  Etta James, one of the most powerful blues singers of all time, was renowned for her extraordinary singing on “At Last.”  Shirley knew Etta from early childhood, and her message to those who came before her and touched her long life in music, including her famous father, rings out in these everlasting words: “I found a dream that I could speak to / A dream that I can call my own / I found a thrill to press my cheek to / A thrill I’ve never known, oh yeah.”  Shirley King will certainly be heard from again as a performer who brings her own magic to song.

“Blues for a King” track list with guest artists:

  1. All of My Lovin’ (Joe Louis Walker – guitar)
  2. Feelin’ Alright  (Duke Robillard – guitar)
  3. I Did You Wrong  (Elvin Bishop – lead guitar)
  4. That’s Alright Mama  (Pat Travers – guitar)
  5. Can’t Find My Way Home  (Martin Barre – guitar)  
  6. Johnny Porter  (Arthur Adams – guitar/backup vocal)
  7. Feeling Good  (Robben Ford – guitar)
  8. Give It All Up  (Kirk Fletcher – guitar)
  9. Gallows Pole  (Harvey Mandel – guitar)
  10. Hoodoo Man Blues  (Junior Wells – vocal/harp & Joe Louis Walker – guitar)
  11. At Last  (Steve Cropper – guitar)

Douglas McLean fell in love with music at a very early age and has worked as a musician and songwriter since his early teens. He has a deep love for the written word and has spent his life in pursuit of language as a means to convey what Van Morrison once called “the inarticulate speech of the heart”. He lives deep in the Almaguin Highlands with his wife and their dog. Douglas is active in local radio, recording, producing and writing, in and around Huntsville, Ontario.

His website is:
http://www.douglasmcleanmusic.com

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