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MUSIC : Lucky Despite Blues : B.B. King feels fortunate to have a wealth of musical friends, some of whom will visit Universal Amphitheater with him.

April 02, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

Blues artist B.B. King is promising "a very special project" for his next album. How else to describe a re cord powered by the blues talents of John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Albert Collins, Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor, Robert Cray and Katie Webster, among others?

"I'm a very lucky person," King says of the players and singers that he has gathered for the recording. "I think I'm one of the luckiest persons still alive."

The record's working title is "Playing With My Friends," which is also the name of a song that Cray has written for the album, due out by the summer from MCA Records. But it could just as easily be the standing title of King's career over these last few years, when it hasn't been unusual to find the singer-guitarist collaborating with talents as varied as Stevie Nicks, Joe Sample and Bonnie Raitt.

"I've always played with a newer generation of people since the '60s," said King, who will nevertheless perform Saturday with veterans Bobby (Blue) Bland and Millie Jackson at the Universal Amphitheater. In 1988, in fact, King made an unexpected return high into the pop charts when he teamed with U2 for the torrid rocker "When Love Comes to Town."

"What U2 did was make a 180 out of my career in a positive direction," King said. "It's not unusual now to walk down the street and hear pre-teen-agers say, 'Ah, that's B.B. King.' Prior to that it was 'B.B. who?' "

That's certainly an exaggeration, particularly since King long has kept a high profile through regular album releases and an average of 200 concert appearances every year. He had his first big hit, "3 O'Clock Blues," in 1951.

The Mississippi-born artist, along with the electric guitar he named Lucille, has since enjoyed some crossover pop success for his soulful blues sound through a mix of genres, from gospel to jazz to country. And the stinging single-note playing style he developed through his own appreciation of the guitar work of T-Bone Walker and Django Reinhardt ultimately inspired such later players as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.

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But even with a repertoire that includes such rousing signature works as 1969's "The Thrill Is Gone," some purists have frowned on King for breaking away from the old blues traditions, such as his longtime preference for horns over the usual harmonica accompaniment.

"I may be a little different from some of the other guys," he said. "So be it. I'm me. I'm sort of middle of the road. Blues purists don't give me any trophies.

"When I go into the studio I do the best I can do, and then leave it to the critics to criticize," King added. "I've had people say that I changed too much, and then there are others that say he never changes, he's doing the same thing all the time. After 74 albums I don't believe any of that.

"I'd hate to feel that I'm playing the same way, same thing, from the time I was 20 and now that I'm 67. I'd like to think it's changed, even if not for the better."

He laughs, adding, "hopefully it's for the better."

After more than 40 years at it, King says, he has more to offer, more to say through his music. "Oh man, it's like a whole world of knowledge. . . . So you can't stay the same."

King will land at Universal supported by three horn players, a second guitarist, pianist, drummer, percussionist and bassist.

"I think it means more to me to perform today than it did in the beginning," King said. "Now I feel that I'm not only having fun but I'm doing something beyond that, like carrying the music to places that don't usually hear the kind of music we play.

"I stay busy most of the time," King adds. "That's the name of the game."

WHERE AND WHENWho: B. B. King, with Bobby (Blue) Bland and Millie Jackson.

Location: Universal Amphitheater, Universal City.

Hours: 8:15 p.m. Saturday.

Call: (213) 480-3232.

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