I awoke this morning to the following text, short but eloquent in its sadness: “We lost B.B.”
B.B. King – the King of the Blues, the artist who more than any other took blues from the juke joint to the concert hall – died last night. He was 89.
As I write this Friday morning, I realize I have not felt such a loss over a musician’s death since Frank Sinatra died 17 years to the day earlier. B.B. introduced me to blues through his epic “Live at the Regal” and I had the opportunity to see him live half a dozen times. I even interviewed him once in the late ‘80s, a singular thrill in my journalism career.
Here is a concert preview I wrote in advance of B.B.’s 2006 New Year’s Eve show in Stockton.
In its statement earlier this month announcing that B.B. King was among this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, the White House made special note of King’s legendary guitar prowess.
That was certainly proper. After all, it is his remarkable six-string skill – as practiced on a series of guitars named Lucille – that has enabled King, as the statement said, not only to thrill audiences, but also to influence generations of guitar players.
In truth, however, those momentous achievements are overshadowed by the third qualification in the White House statement. King, it said, “helped give the blues its special place in the American musical tradition.”
Translated, that means King played a key role in making blues accessible to all Americans. His sound, his look, his desire and ability to play for audiences outside the rural South and inner-city North brought the power and passion of blues to our popular culture. King led the drive that enabled white America to embrace black blues; that he did so without in any way bastardizing the music’s roots is a testament to his natural talent and warm personality.
The success of King’s efforts can be seen Sunday when he rings out 2006 at the Bob Hope Theatre. At 2,000 seats, the downtown landmark is a larger venue than most blues musicians can ever hope to play. For King, it’s likely a bit smaller than he’s accustomed to.
Blues existed long before Riley B. King entered the world on Sept. 16, 1925, in Itta Bend, Miss. The music had grown out of the traditions and trials inherent in the African-American experience. By the time King began playing 60 years ago, each part of the country had developed an indigenous style with the Texas blues of T-Bone Walker distinct from the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters distinct from the Detroit blues of John Lee Hooker.
King encountered a different sound when he moved in 1947 to Memphis, one as gritty as the others and yet more rooted in R&B. And King began playing those blues, both as a performer (his big break came when he appeared on Sonny Boy Williamson’s local radio show) and a disc jockey (that’s where he picked up the nickname B.B., for Blues Boy).
King scored his first hit in 1951 with “Three O’Clock Blues.” The song is, in many ways, a typical blues workout, a middle-of-the-night lament for lost love.
The sound, however, is all his own, King’s expressive, yearning vocals playing out over a tight rhythm section and his own trademark stinging guitar licks. There’s no denying the anguish at the heart of the song, yet there is also a polish present, one often absent from other blues records of the day.
King enjoyed great success with that sound on the R&B circuit in the 1950s. He toured constantly – one year King played 342 one-nighters – and recorded a series of blues gems that included “Woke Up This Morning,” “You Upset Me Baby,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “Sweet Sixteen” and “Please Accept My Love.”
Those songs would form the core of King’s live show when the blues boom of the mid-1960s led the baby boomers to discover this remarkable American music. King was in an enviable position – he was not only hailed as a guitar ace at a time when rock audiences were beginning to embrace lead players, but he also recorded the landmark “Live at the Regal” just as that same audience was turning from singles to albums.
By the late ’60s, King was the rock generation’s favorite blues star. He performed regularly at folk and rock festivals and shared the bill with pop bands. There were television appearances and even a crossover hit, 1969’s “The Thrill Is Gone.”
King wore a suit on stage and sometimes a tuxedo. He began playing casinos in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe.
By the end of the 1970s, King was an established presence in American show business. Where artists like Hooker and Waters were still touring clubs, King was playing theaters, visiting the Soviet Union and winning Grammys.
That pattern has remained. King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three years later. He worked with U2 on “Rattle and Hum” and appeared on “The Simpsons.” His most recent album, last year’s “80,” is a Sinatra “Duets”-like project that finds him collaborating with such stars as Elton John, Van Morrison, Sheryl Crow and John Mayer.
What attracts those musicians is the special blend of blues passion, gifted musicianship and giving personality that is B.B. King. It is a combination that has enabled King to take blues to places many thought it would never reach; it is a combination that has made King, quite literally, a national treasure.
Want to keep up with the best in Bay Area jazz and blues?
Subscribe to me: Have our jazz and blues Examiner columns sent to your inbox. Click the SUBSCRIBE button on this page. It’s free. (And I won’t spam you or give out your information.) Bookmark me: http://atombash.com/jazz-music-in-oakland/brian-mccoy. CONTACT ME FOR YOUR JAZZ AND ARTS GRANT WRITING NEEDS