Saturday, May 23, 2015
If you've ever heard his music, you'll never forget it. If you ever met B.B. King in person, you'll never forget it. B.B. King was truly unforgettable not just because he was the King of the Blues but because he remained a loving and humble spirit throughout his stunning 67-year career.
B.B. is universally acknowledged as the most important electric guitarist of the last half of the 20th century and I think his humility sometimes obscured that fact. He wasn't flashy, he wasn't boastful. But if you heard the first few notes of a B.B. King song, you recognized it immediately The resonance of his guitar riffs and his commanding vocals ripped right through you. Buddy Guy, a far flashier blues guitarist, famously described B.B's skill this way: "We've got all kinds of special effects on guitars now. You can push a button. B.B's special effect was his left hand."
Like most of the great blues masters, he was born in the Mississippi Delta as Riley King, struggling through the vicious systems of share cropping and segregation as an orphan during his teen years. Moving to Memphis in the mid '40s represented the turning point in his life and career. He learned the foundation of blues guitar from his cousin, celebrated country blues musician Bukka White and became a popular Memphis DJ, dubbed Beale Street Blues Boy. It was later shortened to B.B. From the start, B.B. knew how to make his guitar Lucille sing and talk like no other guitarist. Named for the woman who inspired a fight that ended in a fire in the Arkansas juke joint he was playing, Lucille symbolized the emotional connection B.B. maintained with his music and with his audience. You could listen to the notes that he coaxed from Lucille and swear it was a message to you personally. You could hear his heart-filled voice, formed with gospel music, and feel salvation. B.B. was the King of the Blues not because he had earned 15 Grammys and 74 Billboard entries, but because he was the genre's most convincing ambassador, reaching stages and hearts that had never been touched by blues before.
I'll always remember when I met B.B.decades ago, backstage after a Chicago concert. He was mobbed by fans and autograph seekers but he insisted on speaking to everyone. Being a music nerd, I couldn't stop myself from asking him to sing the jingle that had first made him famous in Memphis as the Pepticon Boy. Instead of being annoyed, he threw his head back and laughed, saying that I was too young to know anything about that. But he grinned and sang the jingle for me, his eyes twinkling as he was transported back to his early days.
B.B. King has lots of hits,with the searing, "A Thrill is Gone" being his signature tune. I love all of his music, especially the seminal album, "Live at The Regal," recorded at the legendary Chicago club but also" Sweet Little Angel," "Three O'Clock Blues" and "You Upset Me Baby." These songs speak to me with the simple eloquence and emotional power that are blues hallmarks. But my favorite B.B. King tune is "Never Make A Move Too Soon". The 1978 classic combined the incomparable jazzy rhythms of The Crusaders with B.B.'s blues shouts for hip-shaking, party blues.
He explains his career in my favorite lines: "I've been from Spain/to Tokyo/From Africa/To Ohio/I never tried to make the news/I'm just a man who plays the blues." Noted for playing an average of 300 shows a year and never claiming his well deserved title of King of the Blues but simply thanking people who crowned him, B.B. was an inspiring man. His kindness and humility serves as an example of what a leader and an icon really means. His music lives on and he'll always be King of the Blues.