I am a great fan of The Blues. Music that is, not the feeling. Although I’ve had my most profound thoughts while under the influence of the blue mood. But today I hold a vigil for one of the great players of Blues music, the king of the Blues Mr. B.B. King (aka Riley B. King). As I write this, I am aware only that Mr. King is in a hospice and I’m not sure he’ll ever come out alive. You never know. The man is 89 years old. Great innings if you ask me. I wish we all could live forever, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. I’m not getting into any religious debate about us going on after death. All I know is that when Mr. King leaves us in the flesh….inevitably….you shall not see him again in concert.
That’s how I first saw him ‘Live’ in 1972. At a mob run hotel in north Toronto, Canada. Dinner and a show with my then girlfriend. I had BB’s records, on vinyl and cassette tape back then, and wanted to see the great man live. He would have been in his late forties by then. I followed him in the 1960s, but only on vinyl. Everyone raves about his Live at the Regal album from 1965 (recorded at the Regal Theatre in Chicago in 1964). I preferred his Live and Well album from 1969 with one side live and the other recorded in the studio. I must have played that over and over until the grooves wore through. Then I bought Completely Well when it came out a little later containing The Thrill is Gone. Had to wait years for the CDs of both to be released.
Those two albums cemented my listening relationship with the great man. They were responsible for my lifelong, from the age of 18, obsession with Mr. King’s music which goes back to the 1940s and especially in the 1950s. I knew little about the man, just his music. No internet back in the 70s that I had access to and the only info on anything could be found at libraries and in book stores. I was too lazy back then to bother. I had other important things to do that involved the opposite sex, so finding out about Mr. King came only from stories I heard here and there from super fans. That all changed in the mid 1990s when a friend bought me ‘Every Day I Sing The Blues: The Story of B.B. King’ by David Shirley. Not that well written, but factual. And just a couple of years ago in 2012, Guitarist Magazine came out with an issue all about Mr. King with an hour-long DVD documentary on his life….interviews with the great man and well-known fellow musicians adding their comments. A treasure.
All very enlightening. One thing comes through anything I’ve seen and read. B.B. King is a legend in his own time and a gentleman always. He began life in the Mississippi Delta as a sharecropper. His wanderings took him to Memphis where he honed his guitar skills while DJing at a radio station. He was known as the ‘Beale Street Blues Boy’, later to be shortened to BB. Mr. King truly paid his dues during the 1950s and even through the 1960s. Then his big hit came with ‘The Thrill is Gone’ and he never looked back. The power of his voice and his unique style of playing the guitar he calls Lucille, stand out above so many others. The power has been there even into his 80s. Mr. King is presently 89, his 90th, if he makes it, will be on September 16th. Don’t count him out.
B.B. King has not only done well himself. He has championed a number of Blues musicians and others over his long career. Young musicians have benefitted from Mr. King endorsing them or having them play with him on stage. He has helped a lot of people. He sang The Thrill is gone with the likes of Pavarotti and many others and has released a Hip Hop version of the same tune. The man has been around. A series of albums came out in the 1990s with B.B. King hosting some of the greats like Eric Clapton. Anyone who is anybody, musically speaking, has worked with or performed and recorded duets with B.B. King. I love it all.
Blues music has been a part of my upbringing thanks to my dad. He gave us a solid foundation in the 1960s with the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. But he never liked electric Blues. That was left to me to discover and then play. The versatility of the electric guitar has given the Blues that extra push into mainstream music. The Blues today is as popular in countries like Japan and Sweden as it is in Britain and America. Blues Festivals are held all over the world each year to keep the music alive. It still has a great following. Every so many years, Eric Clapton holds a Crossroads Festival in America to raise money for a rehab centre he has in Antigua where musicians who need help can go. He invites some of the top guitarists to join him to play the Blues and its derivative music. B.B. King has played at a couple of them. He always gets the biggest applause. He is respected by everyone everywhere. A tribute indeed.
My eldest daughter is a professional singer/songwriter these days. We have sung some Blues together in the past. We were quite well-known in our local areas for me accompanying her while she sang Tracy Chapman’s ‘Gimme One Reason’. She has a powerful voice and loves singing the Blues. In 1997, when B.B. King was 72 years old, I took my daughter to see the great man at Massey Hall in Toronto. We were way up high on the left, facing the stage. My daughter was mesmerised. The man came out on stage and had to sit that night as he has for some years now because of a medical condition. His singing and playing seemed as powerful to me as they had back in the hotel years before. After the performance, he stayed onstage and greeted people who came to the front to get a closer look. That touched my daughter. She is a fan for life.
I have heard people say they were disappointed while attending one of BB’s concerts in recent years. They say he has become quite forgetful and misses cues and such. But like I always say, you are seeing a legend who keeps touring for the love of it and for his fans. Give him a break. When the great man goes, I’ll call my daughter and we’ll have a moment of reflection together. The world may never see the likes of such a man again. He has touched so many lives in so many ways and somehow remains as humble now as he was in the beginning. Not a false humility mind you. Just the kind that knows a gift has been given and ought never be abused. And so I hold this vigil for this great man. The Thrill is still with us. May he continue to be so.
EPILOGUE: It is with great sadness that I learned of Mr. King’s death. As far as I can tell, he died at his place in Las Vegas. I have a T-shirt with the logo of his Blues club in that city. I shall treasure it. It was brought back by one of my guitar students who loves the Blues. She has been learning Blues riffs from me and plays a mean solo for The Thrill is Gone. I’m sure Mr. King would be proud. Goodnight Mr. King. We’ll miss you.