Though Eric Clapton and BB King had crossed paths many times since they first had an impromptu jam session in New York’s Cafe Au Go Go in 1968, they had to wait until after the turn of the millennium to actually get in a studio together. By this time, King was 74 and Clapton was 55, and as the album’s famous cover suggests, the Mississippi icon was happy to be chauffeured through the project by Slowhand, who curated the material and enlisted a familiar producer (Simon Climie) and backing musicians, with King reserving the power of veto.
The record charted highly on release, went on to sell over two million copies and won the 2000 Grammy Award For Best Traditional Blues Album. Two decades on, a new Anniversary edition, remastered and expanded by Bob Ludwig, now includes two new bonus tracks cut at the sessions.
While it was never likely to be a record that captured the incendiary brilliance of both men in their pomp, it remains fascinating to hear two of the all-time greats go toe-to-toe supported by a truly all-star cast. Let’s start at the beginning…
1. Riding With The King
A bait-and-switch twin-guitar intro hits you with an immediate key change to kick things off, leading into the midtempo stomp of this shiny new-millennium take on John Hiatt’s 1983 blues-rocker. It also shows from the outset how Clapton and King’s twin lead vocals harmonise satisfyingly together.
The arrangement is roomy enough for the musical focus to switch unhurriedly between piano, Hammond, Wurlitzer and female backing vocals, as well as the strident pentatonic bends of the two headliners, as well as the tasteful guitar stylings of Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II.
2. Ten Long Years
We’re all the way back to 1956 for the first of five cuts selected by Clapton from King’s back catalogue for the album. Interestingly, when compared to the original, out of the two it’s EC who sounds more like the young BB King here: he chops out clean, cutting staccato lines with a badass tone that evokes the mood of King’s reverb-drenched original performance perfectly. In contrast, King opts for higher-register slide-guitar-imitating bends while the band adorns the jam with Chicago-style embellishments.
3. Key To The Highway
Initially, Big Bill Broonzy’s eight-bar-blues staple was one of the two songs King didn’t want to do. Come Rain Or Come Shine was the other and both appeared on the final record, so it’s a tribute to Eric’s powers of persuasion that King not only played on the cut at all, but played acoustic, too. The trading of vocals and meandering leadlines are beautifully separated in the mix and hearing the way the pair approach the unorthodox changes is a joy for blues nerds.
4. Marry You
Texan guitarist Doyle Bramhall II (the son of Clapton’s former bandmate) wrote this brooding wah-infused soul strut with his wife/bandmate Susannah Melvoin and other bandmate Craig Ross two years before this version. Melvoin adds backing vocals and King’s ever-excellent voice soars out of the speakers, but apart from some spirited soloing, it’s an expertly delivered but pedestrian MOR outing for two of the blues’ most legendary names.
5. Three O’Clock Blues
King had his first hit in 1951 with his version of Lowell Fulson’s Three O’Clock Blues, restlessly alternating soulful crooning with barbed guitar licks over a bed of soporific horns. This much more expansive version swaps out the horns for organ and piano but Clapton and King, taking it in turns on the mic, still infuse the lyric with the same weary yearning. BB steals the show with his raw solo – bending the strings with the effortless authority that only someone who’d played the song for half a century could truly pull off.
6. Help The Poor
BB included this Charles Singleton song back in 1964 as part of his legendary Live At The Regal setlist. This updated version doesn’t stray far from the original, preserving the pushes of its Latin rhythm and its minor-key moodiness but weaving in a cameo from another Texan – Jimmie Vaughan – who sprinkles the tune with the tasteful fingerstyle licks that are his trademark.
7. I Wanna Be
I Wanna Be is the second song from Doyle Bramhall II’s 1999 album Jellycream re-recorded for Riding With The King. This version is slowed down a touch and has some of the dirt cleaned from under its fingernails, but BB seems to enjoy rising to the challenge during the jam-like trading of guitar solos between EC, Doyle and himself and the song fades with Clapton unleashed and in full flight.
8. Worried Life Blues
This eight-bar blues standard, written by Maceo Merriweather in the 40s, had been previously recorded by both King and Clapton. With ever-presents Steve Gadd on drums and Nathan East almost imperceptible in the mix, this is the closest approximation of a true duet on the album. With Eric holding down rhythm in the left speaker and BB busy adding accompanying blues runs and turnarounds in the right, the pair alternate verses and Clapton breaks out a snappy solo in the instrumental sections that travels way back in time.
9. Days Of Old
Another vintage BB King track, from 1958, the uptempo Days Of Old gets the live ensemble treatment here and Fairweather-Low, Joe Sample et al offer up a perfect substitute for the horn stabs of the original. Clapton bottles the spirit of King’s fluid intro hook and staccato Q&A licks that leapt out of the original recording, while King carves out his own space to deliver an animated, instinctive riposte – this overlapping exchange is among the album’s finest guitar moments.
10. When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer
King’s 1954 adaptation of this Sonny Boy Williamson slow-burner from 1941 shines the spotlight firmly on the King Of The Blues, as he belts out not-quite-repentant heartbreak within a superbly layered mix that packs in three supporting guitarists, a pianist, bass, drums and organ without sacrificing the overall dynamic.
11. Hold On, I’m Comin’
BB’s blues holler is the perfect match for this pent-up Isaac Hayes-penned hit from 1966. Slowing the tempo and relegating the infectious circular-horn-line earworm of the original to a backing vocal, Clapton and King bend the song into a bluesier form that exploits the ever-ascending chord progression for a masterful Q&A guitar conversation over the outro – you suspect it went on for another five minutes after the fade.
12. Come Rain Or Come Shine
Riding With The King is nothing if not eclectic, and its unexpected finale (before the two encores that the Anniversary edition adds) is a sentimental, jazzy standard from 1946 musical St Louis Woman. The contrast of clean-toned electric-blues lines over the warmth of the string arrangements works well enough, and it’s a gentle stroll down a musical avenue that you rarely hear either artist visiting.
13. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
The first of two unreleased bonus tracks on the Anniversary edition is a take on a hardy Delta blues perennial, recorded by Muddy Waters, Cream and many others. King and Clapton’s rendition is less hell-for-leather than most and finds EC donning his slide to pick out an impeccable interpretation of the song’s hook on an open-tuned Dobro, while BB rolls off the treble and adds harmonica-like counterpoint. It’s a satisfyingly fresh approach and why it wasn’t included in the original release is a mystery.
14. Let Me Love You Baby
The second of the unreleased tracks on the Anniversary edition of Riding With The King (although a version of it did appear a Japan-only bonus track at the time of the original release) isn’t a retread of the timeless Willie Dixon composition, rather a new version of King’s own 1964 Kent cut, Let Me Love You.
Piano bass fills out the low end and amid washes of strings, BB delivers his passionate vocal and guitar fills before handing over to EC for a strident string-popping solo. Listen out for the studio banter between Clapton and King at the end of the song, too…
Riding With The King 20th Anniversary by BB King And Eric Clapton is out on 26 June via Reprise Records on CD and black and blue vinyl editions, or via streaming services. See ericclapton.com for more info.