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August 06, 2008

"The Thrill Is Gone"

By: Bernard Chazelle

Gladys Knight is magnificent.

BB King, the ultimate bluesman, has had more influence on rock guitar than anyone else. He absorbed like a sponge everything that came before him: especially, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and Lightnin' Hopkins. To learn American music, playing on Beale Street in Memphis in 1948, as BB did, beat going to Berklee or Julliard. (BB King often said: "Yes, I went to college: I went to Beale Street College.")

"Thrill" is a blues in Bm. Otis Rush is a big minor-blues aficionado but he's an exception. Blues guitarists tend to play the blues over major chords. So here's the "paradox." One associates minor with sadness and major with joy. The blues is sad, right? So why in the world are most blues tunes in major keys?

Two answers: first, the blues is not a sad genre (unlike hip-hop) -- it's a music about love, pain, and hope; second, the blues scale is neither major nor minor. It is full of those "blue" notes (flatted 3rd/5th/7th) that don't quite fit into a standard Western scale. The minor-major tension of the music is the blues' signature. In "Thrill," of course, the third is resolutely minor so there's no tension there. To even hint at a major third would kill the tune.

BB opens at 0:35 by descending to the minor 3rd from one step up. He repeats the same move but starting from the "blue" flatted 5th. At 1:03, Gladys uses the same approach from a 6th up. In other words, she reaches the tonic (an octave up) from the 9th, again hinting at the corresponding blue note. This was a favorite Creedence Clearwater Revival device. Then she does the same motion again, except upward now from the flatted 7th. Inflecting sounds around diatonic notes goes back to West Africa. So does polyrhythm: Robert Johnson and early blues pioneers loved carrying different rhythms in parallel: a very hard thing to do. The idea got lost when the blues moved North to Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. Only in late bebop was the idea reintroduced.

What makes the blues non-Western? I'll address that in another post. Meanwhile, enjoy Gladys and BB!

PS: I dedicate this tune to scientific editors everywhere. I once wrote an advocacy piece in computing theory with a friend of mine. The title was: "The Thrill Is Gone?" The copy-editor scratched the title and wrote "Is the Thrill Gone?" I returned the galleys with "No, it should be 'The Thrill Is Gone?'" He replied: "But it's not grammatical." I said "I know." He then wrote "But we can't publish something that's not grammatical." I said "Did you ever hear the song?" He replied "What song?"

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at August 6, 2008 09:05 PM

I love love love Gladys Knight's voice, and it's especially nice to hear it here out of the context one usually hears it in, because try as I might, I just don't tend to like her recordings with the Pips. I find them overproduced and lacking in real emotion, and the Pips themselves always sound to me like a bunch of wimps.

This is great. Thanks, Bernard.

Posted by: ethan at August 6, 2008 10:00 PM

Though I do not understand a thing about musical notes, I know when I hear music that I like.
BEAUTIFUL is the word-the voices and the music bet 1.58 and 2.27.
Many many thanks.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 6, 2008 10:11 PM

BTW, when you say, "The Thrill Is Gone?" does an invisible exclamation mark accompany it or follow it?

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 6, 2008 10:17 PM

Thanks. Nice post. And an interesting analysis of the major/minor "thang". Mind I hope you don't mind if I add to it a bit...

Power rockers will tell you they play "the 5 chord" (R/5/R), leaving out the 3 so it's NOT major OR minor, because that gives the soloist more room.

Jazz players will tell you they play "the sharp nine" (R/3/5/b7/#9) so that it's BOTH major AND minor, because that gives the soloist more room.

I love the contrast: two completely different ways of achieving the same effect.

I also love the reminder: If the question is "Is this Major or Minor?", the answer could well be "YES!" or "NO!"

Posted by: Winter at August 7, 2008 12:55 AM

I'm not even sure B.B. was the most influential King, let alone blues guitarist. I mean Freddie influenced everybody... Clapton, Beck, Page, SRV, Mike Bloomfield... and without Albert there simply wouldn't be an SRV. Or Clapton, for that matter; listen to the solos from 'Crosscut Saw' and 'Strange Brew' back to back. That ain't B.B. he's aping...

Posted by: Junior at August 7, 2008 02:24 PM

Junior: Sorry but they're not in the same league.
With no BB, you have no Freddie, and especially no Albert (who stole everything from BB).


Clapton played with Freddy a lot and SRV always wanted to sound like Albert. True. And the two Kings did introduce new sounds, new licks, a new style. No doubt about it. Their influence was enormous, especially among white guitar players new to the blues.

But BB King invented it all. Without BB, you have no modern blues/rock. He got the guitar vocabulary down for posterity. He does not dominate Freddy and Albert: he completely towers over both of them. (Especially Albert, who was a limited player. Unlike say Hubert Sumlin, a great player much more influential than the lesser Kings.)

Clapton? I've never heard a single line by him I cannot trace back to BB or Sumlin. But Clapton's vocabulary is greater than both AK and FK.
SRV is very much Albert K. With some of the same limitations. Bloomfield was a Chicago guy. Died too young to mature as a player and find his own voice. Don't get me wrong: I love Bloomfield. I learned his solos note for note. He was a great intuitive player, but with little musical sophistication.

"Strange Brew"? That's early Clapton. It took years after Cream for Clapton to learn and digest BB's vocabulary. Check out more recent Clapton stuff, and it's 100% BB. Literally!

Same with Buddy Guy.

BB King invented the vocabulary. Then great players made poetry out of it. So I am not saying he did it all. I am saying he's the daddy of them all.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 7, 2008 06:49 PM

I distinctly remember the first time I heard "The Thrill is Gone", lying in bed at night before sleep, listening to my "clock radio", the window of my second-floor bedroom open. No sound but that song, I guess the original recorded version (by BB King), playing quietly. The shock, the pleasure (hey, the thrill) of hearing something so haunting, lyrical, and lovely for the first time. Though I'd heard some bluesy things, like Cream etc., I hadn't heard in them the emotional directness coming from this song. Maybe today I'd think the strings were a little sappy, but then it was magic, and that's the way I still hear it, pretty much.

Posted by: Ken Clarkson at August 7, 2008 08:49 PM

Playing blues over the major chords isn't really a
paradox at all. The blues came from the Delta region where guitars were open tuned to the major (usually G like the banjo). This way only one finger
can be moved down the fretboard to make the 1 4 5 standard blues go-around.
Tune your guitar to open G and then play it with a slide. You will easily see how natural it is to flat the 3 and 7 in the slide.

Posted by: Paul Avery at August 8, 2008 12:18 AM

Paul: It's not a paradox once you move away from Western notions of music. Within the diatonic scale, the blues doesn't exist.

Also, Delta players didn't flatten the blue notes because it's easy. They did it because that's how they liked it. Slide is unfretted so you can inflect as freely as you want. But you don't have to. A Western musician would not flatten these notes. Never happened in 5 centuries of Western music.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 8, 2008 12:54 AM

Bernard: I don't believe I used the word "easy".
I said "natural", which it is considering that West African a Celtic folk music is based on the pentatonic scale--both major and minor, not the diatonic.

Also, even though the slide is unfretted, the frets
are still used as guides. I play the fiddle by finger position. Yet I would be lost if I disregarded the frets on my guitar when I put on the

Playing and theory are two different things,
my friend.

Posted by: Paul Avery at August 8, 2008 09:28 AM

Please, excuse the early morning typos.

Posted by: Paul Avery at August 8, 2008 09:35 AM

Paul: Exactly. The pentatonic does not fit into the Western model and the minor/major distinction is artificial in the context of the blues. My point is that this is by choice, not because the instrument lends itself to it.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 8, 2008 11:09 AM

While experts discuss the theory, I am smitten by the song ( had never heard it before, my loss ) and found another fabulous rendition without Gladys Night (sorry, lovers of GN's voice!)--wow-could not sit still listening to the music.

BB King - The Thrill Is Gone 1974 Live Kinshasa (Zaïre) 1974

MANY THANKS again Prof Chazelle for posting this song.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 8, 2008 12:20 PM

Rupa: Thanks for the link.
Wow, how cool is that?!!!!!!!

Did you catch Ali at the beginning?

Rumble in the jungle!

Damn, I feel nostalgic now.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at August 8, 2008 01:38 PM

Prof Chazelle:
Who could miss Ali? Yes, of course I did see 'The Greatest'. Gosh, I wish I was in the audience and could have heard the whole concert!
Thank YOU! But for your post, I would be missing something wonderful.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 8, 2008 02:54 PM