Compiling a double-disc set ranging across the long recording career of an artist like B.B. King, who has a longevity in the business that is not only startling but awe-inspiring, is a challenge indeed. Universal's Gold representation of B.B. King covers the years 1963 (14 years after he began) to 1999, so tracks from his platinum Riding with the King collaborative album with Eric Clapton are not represented. That's healthy, actually, since the latter album has been so widely heard that it's unnecessary. The material here -- 34 cuts in total -- is all stellar. Beginning with the ABC single "How Blue Can You Get?," the picture of King as a guitar-slinging genius is expanded by his wondrous ability as a singer, making him a double threat. King's voice on these early tracks is simply heart-stopping, whether he's growling the blues as he does on the Louis Jordan (B.B.'s inspiration) classic "Never Trust a Woman," backed by a full-on horn section, or crooning them as he does on the shimmering "Help the Poor" by Jessie Mae Robinson, where his guitar, backing vocalists, and the horn section turn a minor-key blues tune into something soulful and elegant. Sure, the big cuts are here, such as "Every Day I Have the Blues" and "Sweet Little Angel" from Live at the Regal, "The Thrill Is Gone" from Completely Well, and "Lucille" from 1967. But those tracks are expected to be here and don't tell the story so much as crystallize it. When listening to "Don't Answer the Door" (off the album of the same name from 1966) with the instruments muted and King just playing in his inimitable tone and moanin' the blues with ferocity, the story of the big smiling man begins to expand. When he covers Leon Russell, as he does on the funky read of "Hummingbird," or dips Carole King in the blues with his version of "Chains and Things," or even records one of his own as on "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother," where he plays only the piano and sings (all of the aforementioned originally appeared on Indianola Mississippi Seeds from 1970, by the way), the story begins to sprawl and change shape as it begins to fill in the outline.
Disc two moves into the deep soul territory of "Ain't Nobody Home" and the slippery post-Chicago blues of "Ghetto Woman," both from In London, as well as the slick studio production on the single "I Got Some Help I Don't Need," which B.B. wrote with Dave Clark. The music here just blows it up and scratches it in the earth indelibly: B.B. King is the blues and the blues are B.B. King. No matter the setting, no matter the strangeness of a studio production, arrangement, or session musicians, King's sound is to imprint his version of the blues -- one he created -- onto everything he records. This is especially true of tracks like the single version of "When Love Comes to Town," recorded with U2 for their Prattle and Drone, er, um, Rattle and Hum set. So disc two presents the beautiful, such as his read of Jesse Belvin's early R&B classic "Guess Who," and the nearly absurd, but the grain of King's voice and the tone of his guitar keep everything back from that edge. And the blues themselves -- such as in the long, previously unreleased version of "Call It Stormy Monday" by T-Bone Walker recorded for the Blues Summit album in 1993 with Albert Collins and the Memphis Horns -- speak through him rhythmically and even spiritually without reservation. For the beginning King fan, for those who got off the wagon sometime ago, and for those who happened to find King's train late, this collection is for you.