There is a story I love to tell to my songwriting clients. It goes like this….
BB King had a massive hit song called “The Thrill is Gone”.
It launched his national and then international career to make him the most widely recognized ambassador of the blues.
He recording the song in 1969, with a string section and a production palate that would appeal to a mainstream (read “white” into the word mainstream) audience. The song took him from being a national, somewhat marginal blues artist to an international superstar. He opened for The Rolling Stones US tour that year as well, which certainly helped.What many people don’t know is that he did not write this song. His signature hit was written in the 1950’s by 2 writers, Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell.
The other interesting fact is that BB King was born in 1925 making him almost 50 years old when his mainstream international career began.
Some would argue that “3 O’Clock Blues” or the song “Everyday I have the Blues” or his deal in the 1940’s with a major label or his songs recorded with Sam Philips, before “The Thrill is Gone” was recorded, were indications of a steady ascension to stardom but they would be mistaken to think that.
I remember hearing BB King in 1970 and for mainstream listeners, outside of blues fans in the US particularly, this was a new artist with a new song, period.
BB King was 50 years old playing a 20 year old song and taking the world by storm.
Today you would probably hear from music industry insiders that this could not happen today and they are correct…if by today you mean the business that they used to work in.
It is hard for me to imagine still taking anything they have to say seriously when Youtube and Spotify are the new reality and the internet is so far beyond the control of any of these industry insiders that I hear speaking on panels at music conferences and workshops.
It reminds me of what it might sound like to hear a group of dinosaurs discuss the ice age, as if we were still in it, just because it’s wintertime.
What can happen, outside of these music pundits limited perception is actually where this story becomes valuable to the rest of us.
BB King brought a marginalized genre to a mainstream audience by blending a traditional established piece of writing with a production element not normally found in that genres music but really valued by mainstream listeners.
Orchestrations were what mades a piece of music sound like it belonged in the public ear. It showed investment, made the piece sound like it should be taken seriously.
That trick, in a variety of applications, has been done thousands of times now…but we don’t seem to add it to the narrative for some reason….
For example, Eric Clapton put Bob Marley (and reggae as a style of music) on the map by recording “I Shot the Sheriff”.
Paul McCartney used elements of a Scott Joplin ragtime piece to build the piano performance for “Lady Madonna.
The intro to “Stairway to Heaven” is constructed from the intro of lots of previous compositions using a compositional technique called voice lead. Particularly, Baden Powell’s “Samba Triste” written in 1959 when Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was 15 years old…..”Samba Triste” is definitely a jazz piece and Page took this compositional convention to a rock audience with great success.
All of these recordings display risk, all are synergies of style and production or genre and presentation.
When artists ask me what they should do today to stand out to become famous and get some hits, all I can think about is Justin Beiber joining forces with Skrillex and rebuilding his career and it is the same story…