In the late ’60s, noted jazz critic, syndicated columnist, producer, and writer Ralph J. Gleason hosted a series of educational television programs that featured live performances and intimate interviews with jazz and blues giants. Called Jazz Casual, the series ran from 1961 to 1968, and included 28 programs starring such greats as John Coltrane, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Carmen McRae. These amazing portraits of American musicians in their prime are now individually available on DVD.

Gleason’s show with B.B. King is remarkable. Filmed in May, 1968, the black-and-white footage captures King—then in his early forties—in his full creative glory. Wielding a sweet ES-355, King plays five soulful tunes that illustrate the full emotional range of Chicago blues. His slow and mournful “Got a Mind to Give Up Living” contrasts beautifully with the slyly grooving “Think I’ll Move to the Jungle” and the gospel-tinged “Darling You Know I Love You.”

Backed by a tight quartet consisting of trumpet, tenor sax, drums, and organ (in classic organ-trio style, James Toney pumps out the bass lines with his feet), King mixes his trademark hummingbird vibrato with surprisingly jazzy lines. These performances reveal that as a blues guitarist, King was in class by himself. Albert King, Otis Rush, and Freddie King each possessed awesome tone and ferocious power, but B.B.’s melodic sophistication and rhythmic subtlety was unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and the cameras linger on his fretboard to document it all.

Each Jazz Casual program included a chat between the artist and Gleason. In this brief segment, King talks candidly about life on the road, his early roots, and his mentors and idols. Especially revealing are his comments about the then-contemporary ’60s rock and soul scene, and the impact modern music and musicians had on bluesmen of King’s generation. King had not yet achieved the status and recognition he’d enjoy in the ’70s, and the effort it took to survive as a bluesman in the era of Motown and psychedelia is evident in his remarks.

Though there are only 18 minutes of music, every one is precious. B.B. King—King of the Blues is a potent portrait of a national treasure and belongs in every blues and guitar fanatic’s DVD collection.