Ralph Stanley: 1927-2016

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by Todd

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High and lonesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. When bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley left this world on June 23 after an extended battle with cancer, the man took with him a spirit and a sound that, though it may echo in a thousand lesser hands and voices, has no hope of being replaced.

Like the recently departed Merle Haggard, Prince, and David Bowie, Stanley’s small physical being contained a talent and drive that seemed beyond the merely human. Like some mythological Greek deity, entire universes of music routinely sprang from his head and fell to earth, impossibly strange gifts for us mere mortals.

Born in 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley and his guitar slinging brother, Carter, began blending the folk traditions of their home region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the mid-’40s. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” was both faster and harder-edged than the music of acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe. Stanley’s wickedly-accelerated banjo style and high, rough-hewn voice helped take the musical genre of the mountains to new audiences.

To my ears, too much of today’s bluegrass music focuses on the dazzling technical expertise of its instrumentalists at the expense of songcraft. For all his fleet fingered skill on the banjo, “Dr” Ralph Stanley (as he was known to fans) never showboated, never tried to overwhelm audiences with 20 minute, blazing solos. His was a music of loose limbed rhythm, deep blue melody and voices intertwined like strands of mountain laurel.

All of those talents were still very much in evidence almost six decades later when I had the good fortune to catch Stanley in concert in 2008 at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.  Backed by a fine band that included his son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, the 81-year-old tore through a lean set of originals and folk and gospel standards with the elan of a man half his age.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, Stanley also proved he still retained an impressively rude sense of humor. While encouraging the audience to show their appreciation for the band, he quipped, “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard.”

Although the march of time had slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,”Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”

The audience that night was larger than one would have expected for an octogenarian performing songs older than most of their grandparents. But by that time Stanley wasn’t just another bluegrass performer — he was the guy who sang “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

As he had in the movie, he sang the song a cappella that night in Roanoke Rapids. With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

The diminutive legend seemed to catch a second wind during the last few songs of the show. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the concert the following day:

“Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and closing the night with a sped up, punk rock-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left the audience’s younger members nodding in appreciation.”

I expect anyone who takes the time to discover Ralph Stanley will have the same reaction. Hopefully, today’s listeners can put aside any lingering prejudices about his song’s hillbilly, backwoods origins and simply hear them for what they are — soul music in excelsis.

A cockeyed take on fatherly advice

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on July 5, 2016 by Todd

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Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” may be the best country album  ever to include an R&B horn section, strings, sheets of psychedelic guitar and a cover version of one of alternative rock’s most beloved hits.

The fact that Simpson’s latest release is also the only country album to include all those elements does nothing to diminish the remarkable beauty and soul to be found therein.

For anyone who’s kept up with Simpson’s career thus far, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” should come as no surprise at all, following as it does on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2014 release, “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.” But where that previous album featured songs that pondered the significance of “reptile aliens made of light” and transcendental realms of consciousness, Simpson’s latest was inspired by a far more traditional subject — fatherhood. The entire album, in fact, was constructed as a way to pass on the hard knowledge Simpson has gained over the course of his 37 years of sometimes hand-to-mouth living.

Listeners searching for a set of clichéd bromides to pacify their youngsters would do well to stay far away from Simpson’s version of fatherly advice.

“Go and live a little, Bone turns brittle, And skin withers before your eyes,” he urges on the scalding “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).”

Simpson, a Navy veteran, also addresses the age-old ritual of the young being  sent off to war, and a society that equates violence and callousness with manhood.

In “Sea Stories” he describes a new service member as “Just another enlisted egg, in the bowl for Uncle Sam’s beater.” Simpson imagines the young man’s battle with drug addiction, which results in his dishonorable discharge.

“You’ll spend the next year trying to score

From a futon life raft on the floor

And the next fifteen trying to figure out

What the hell you did that for”

And then he drops the unexpected denouement:

“But flying high beats dying for lies

In a politician’s war”

The song that immediately follows, a midnight soul cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” takes that work’s critique of unthinking consumer culture and cross pollinates it with the Bee Gees classic “To Love Someone.” It’s a startling move that could have been deeply embarrassing in lesser hands. Simpson’s reading, however, sounds as natural, as inevitable, as a child’s first words.

Of course, all the inspired lyrics and hip song choices would mean little without an equally potent sound to brace up the whole affair. In that  pursuit, Simpson is aided in no small part by both his ace touring band and The Dap-Kings, the swaggering R&B horn section perhaps best known for their work on Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album “Back to Black.” The combination concoct a dense, rhythmic brew that is at once brighter and more seethingly alive than anything he’s tried before.

With the recent passing of country contrarians Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, Simpson is one of the few musicians left standing who seem willing to not only meet the music’s storied traditions head on, but also cast them aside completely when it suits his restless vision. In the process, he’s proven himself to be one of the few country artists whose albums are anticipated with the same sense of ‘What will he come up with next?’ wonder as progressive rock and rap acts such as Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar.

Whatever direction Simpson chooses to go in the years ahead, he’s already left most of his peers far behind. With a voice like pine tar and dust and a mind like a tornado, it’s bound to be a fascinating journey.

Saying goodbye to an electric talent

Posted in Uncategorized on May 16, 2016 by Todd

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Prince Rogers Nelson, his Royal Badness, the genre shattering Purple One from Minnesota, was the last true rock star worthy of that title. There is simply no other living musician who comes close to embodying his almost supernatural combination of instrumental and songwriting prowess, showmanship, forward looking fashion sense and unflagging work ethic. And that’s to say nothing of his very real, and very vital, eccentricity and mystique, that sense of otherness that seems to envelop many of the most talented among us.

I missed out on the heyday of much of my favorite music from the past. I wasn’t even born yet when the Rolling Stones released “Honky Tonk Women” in 1969 and I was barely out of kindergarten when punk finally broke through the morass of stadium rock in the mid-’70s. But I was damn sure there in 1983, sitting in front of the TV in my parent’s living room, when Prince and his band, The Revolution, appeared on the ridiculous pre-MTV pop music show Solid Gold to lip sync their way through one of his earliest and greatest hit singles, “1999”.

I was 12 years old, my parents were out of the house, and I remember stopping whatever it was I had been doing to stare at the TV when those first, orchestral synth riffs came leaping from the screen. Clearly, this was something new, and if the song itself didn’t make that clear enough, the musicians themselves certainly did. The female keyboard player, who sang the first verse, writhed suggestively in some sort of barely there latex outfit; her counterpart on the opposite side of the stage jammed away in a green doctor’s smock and sunglasses. And then there was Prince himself, decked out in that iconic purple trench coat and the funkiest jerri curl ever seen, already clearly a mega star, if only in his own mind at that point.

This band was male and female, black and white and…whatever Prince was; frankly it was hard to tell. For me, and I’m sure for many others watching that night, this was a Moment, one of those rare instances when something genuinely distinctive and modern crystallizes right in front of your eyes.

A little over a year after his Solid Gold appearance, Prince was, arguably, the most famous musician in the world, with both a number one album and movie, Purple Rain, and a growing reputation as one the most gifted players and performers in the world. At least for me, Michael Jackson simply could not compare.

I couldn’t have intellectualized it at the time, but this Prince character had somehow synthesized a lot of disparate elements of music and fashion that were part of a loose New Wave/ post-Disco scene at the time, everything from the electronic experiments of Kraftwerk and Devo, to Parliament Funkadelic’s synth infected funk and the minimalist punk stylings of The Ramones. At the same time he was also a throwback to Little Richard (the scream, the hair and makeup), James Brown (the dancing and funk jams), and Hendrix (that insane guitar facility), musicians who also prided themselves on being performers par excellence.

He was also, unlike many performers who find massive success, determined to test himself and his audience. This is, after all, the guy who stripped the bass part from maybe his greatest song, “When Doves Cry” at the last minute, despite protests from his music label. And when’s the last time you heard something as weird, stripped down and freaky as “Kiss” on the radio?

It speaks volumes about the man and his talent that musicians from every branch of the sound spectrum have offered their appreciation for Prince in the wake of his death on April 21 at age 58. A few hours after I heard the news of his passing, I read a comment to the effect that the world had lost its finest singer, guitarist, drummer and performer on the same day. That’s hyperbole to a certain extent, but not by much. If you don’t believe me, just watch any of his live performances that are available on YouTube, or the Saturday Night Live special that was given over to his appearances on the show over the years.

On the stage, the man simply burned. Just consider that much of the Purple Rain album, including the majestic title track, was recorded live. I’d go so far as to say that Prince may very well have been the most gifted guitarist since Jimi Hendrix and probably the single greatest showman American popular music has ever seen. He really was that incredible.

And he was sharing that gift until, almost literally, the very end. Which makes it that much sadder that he should end his days alone in an elevator, having apparently overdosed on pain medication prescribed for injuries sustained over years of performing

A larger than life rock star who was also a diminutive, extremely shy man. A fabulously wealthy celebrity who chose to remain in his home city most of  his life. An utterly enigmatic diva and, apparently, one hell of a basketball player. Male, female. Rock, pop and funk.

Prince contained multitudes. We’ll never see his like again.

David Bowie was a performer for the ages

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on February 8, 2016 by Todd

 

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It’s been a tough few months for the music world. The losses have come fast and hard: former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland; Lemmy Kilmister and Phil Taylor of Motorhead; Eagles guitarist and songwriter Glenn Frey; former Rainbow and Dio bassist Jimmy Bain; and most recently, Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White.

But personally (and this surprised me) it’s the death of David Bowie that has had the most immediate and lasting impact.

The news of his passing hit me hard and strange when it came over my cell phone’s news feed in the early morning hours of Jan. 11. I had spent the better part of the previous evening listening to the single “Lazarus” from Bowie’s new album, “Blackstar” and combing through his back catalog of music and videos, a treasure trove of the classic, the bizarre and the woefully misguided that I had become newly fascinated with in the wake of his reemergence. Before I went to bed that night I made a mental note to order “Blackstar” and several other Bowie albums.

When the news came through around midnight, it felt like a bad joke: an artist who I had admired but undervalued for years, whose work I was finally ready to dive into, was gone, suddenly and without explanation, on the eve of a triumphant return to form.

Like most kids who came of age in the 1980s, my first exposure to Bowie was the video for the song “Ashes to Ashes,” which was played in heavy rotation on MTV during its formative years. Though I was too young to have any idea of his impact on the music and culture of the previous decade, one look at the fantastically strange sight of Bowie’s skeletal frame traipsing through a 21st century wasteland dressed up as a decadent European mime was enough to seal those disturbing, hypnotic images in my mind forever.

Like his character in that video, Bowie traveled through the entertainment world of the 1970s like a detached and homesick observer of the waste and folly of all human endeavor, his own included. But as singular as he was, Bowie was also a product of his time. He was part of a generation of punks, soul ramblers and English blues freaks, visionaries and wordsmiths rooting around in the past and tunneling through into the future. He was  among the fools and mutants too weird for their times who found something holy and created their worlds anew.

For Bowie, that new world involved not only music, but performance. He used his training in mime techniques and fascination with Japanese Kabuki culture to foreground what musicians have always done but rarely acknowledged: create characters for the stage that are far more interesting than their everyday selves.

Of course, Bowie’s day-to-day existence during the 70s was fairly eventful as well. With his scarlet bouffant and shaved eyebrows, he was both repellent and beautiful, a cadaverous alien without race, class or sex who existed on a diet of cocaine, milk and red peppers. And he looked as comfortable in a dress as he did in a leather jacket.

But while the press and most fans focused on Bowie’s otherworldly otherness, they often missed the very human sorrow and yearning, not to mention the sheer songwriting skill, of his best work. Listen to any of his great early songs like “Man Who Sold the World,” “Life on Mars?,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” or “Changes” and what you hear is a deeply empathetic soul trying to make sense of the confusing tangle of 20th Century culture, with its soul deadening technology and information overload.

But ultimately, whatever Bowie represented in the past is not nearly as important as what he was in the end — a man who used the enormous creative powers he had been gifted with to take an unflinching look at impending death—that ultimate unknowable mystery—with warmth, rude humor, and not an inconsiderable amount of anger.

I don’t know if “Blackstar” is a great album, but it is possibly the most perfect album for its time and circumstances. A hypnotic mesh of digital witchcraft and propulsive alien jazz, its mad, swirling pools of saxophone, bass, drums and guitars are both deeply unsettling, darkly humorous, and oddly beautiful. It may be the most challenging, deeply felt music of Bowie’s career.

That’s no accident. Bowie knew he was dying and that knowledge seems to have freed him. “This way or no way,” he cries in “Lazarus.” And in  “Dollar Days” he offers this remarkable look at the closing down of life’s possibilities, even as the will pushes on.

“It’s all gone wrong but on and on

The bitter nerve ends never end

I’m falling down

Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you

I’m trying to

I’m dying to”

In the end, the plastic showman, the celebrity worshipping soulless actor turned out to be the most honest, most real and bravest talent of his era.

The world is a brighter and far more interesting place for his having passed this way.

A modern take on the music of ‘old, weird America’

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on November 16, 2015 by Todd

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The term “Americana” is one that gets tossed around quite a bit these days, usually in reference to music, hovering somewhere just outside the mainstream, that embraces aspects of traditional country, folk, blues, bluegrass or rock and roll. While musicians as talented and diverse as Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch, and Old Crow Medicine Show have been welcomed under the Americana umbrella, other artists with visions either too idiosyncratic or unsettling have been left stranded in the genre-less neither regions of the music business.

Athens-based musician Don Chambers, who performs as a solo artist and with his band Goat, is clearly obsessed with the same seam of old-time music as many of Americana’s most popular acts. Yet Chambers seems to inhabit a world that’s far stranger, less rooted and more prone to upheavals of sound and meaning.

American roots music filtered through a warped stained glass window, the ruckus Chambers and his willfully untraditional cohorts create incorporates banjo, pedal steel guitar, blues rhythms and country-folk melodies. But Chambers’ version of roots music also includes 1970s punk and hard rock, ’80s avant garde jazz skronk, and the droning trance music of the Mississippi hill country. Combined with a lyrical bent toward Southern Gothic exotica, the influences merge into a loud, visceral, and at times oddly beautiful noise far removed from the polite musings of Chambers’ more commercially successful contemporaries. This is music to satisfy the id as well as the superego, often at the same time.

Over four albums with Goat and several solo releases, Chambers has proven himself the spiritual kin of American eccentrics like Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, William Burroughs, and Rod Serling. He’s also tapped into the raw, otherwordly spirit of early twentieth century country artists Doc Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb, two of the finest purveyors of music that captured what journalist Greil Marcus famously described as the “old, weird America.”

Chambers is certainly capable of surreal observations, like this verse from “Friar’s Lantern”, about two friends seeking the source of a ghostly light over the Louisiana swamps:

“Ghosts and dogs rustle in the pines,

And hum in the underground pipelines,

Adam flashed his headlights on deer meat strung up in the vines

Blood on the Texas Gas pipeline sign”

But he can also snap off a hard-eyed ode to stubborn perseverance, as in “Straighten the Bones” off 2011’s “Punch Drunk”:

“He found himself falling flat against the world, arms pinned back, his face took the full weight,

He took that as a dare, he took that as a dare got up, chin out, arms back,

He dove forward, he wanted to see how the world reacts — it flinched.”

In interviews, Chambers has talked about growing up in the small town of Florence, S.C., where he attended a Southern Protestant church four to five times a week. During his early teenage years, he  was allowed to listen to little besides white gospel music and the occasional Johnny Cash song. That background often finds its way into his music, in the form of repurposed Biblical imagery and close harmony singing. But Chambers has also grabbed hold of those other, forbidden sounds with a fury.

I once saw bluegrass great Ralph Stanley perform before a crowd of politely enthusiastic tourists at an elegant, mid-sized theater. Stanley played up the part of the affable legend for much of the show, turning over large sections of the performance to his supporting musicians. But during the last 15 minutes, a strange light came into the old man’s eyes and he raged as fiercely as any rock performer I’ve ever seen. The aggressiveness of his attack, not to mention his off color jokes, left many in the crowd visibly stunned.

There’s that same feeling in the music of Don Chambers, a man who embraces the sounds of the past while simultaneously taking a clawhammer to the very notion of “traditional” music.

Chambers and his bandmates may never be as well known as the current darlings of Americana, but I’d wager their art will eventually seep down into the rich loam of this country’s musical landscape, buried treasure for those with ears for the ancient and eyes for the future.

Songs of the South

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2015 by Todd

07022015-TW-Bent NotesWith all the talk recently about the true nature of Southern identity and the importance of a piece of cloth whose meaning changes with each passing generation, I decided to use this month’s column to look at a group of songs that deal with four very Southern topics: religion, race, family and, for lack of a better term, stereotypical redneck idiocy.
I chose these songs because they manage to steer away from the standard take on these timeworn tropes and instead offer an eccentric, sidelong glance at the familiar, sometimes from deep in the heart of Dixie and other times from the perspective of a wide-eyed outsider. Whether these songs make listeners laugh, cry, or reach for their fully licensed, Constitutionally protected firearm, I hope they at least agitate some brain cells and start a few arguments.
“Southern Thing” (Drive-By Truckers) – Hailing from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, the Truckers delved into the contradictions inherent in the Southern experience right out of the gate. “Southern Thing” is the most straightforward look at the racial and historical contradictions of the region the band has ever offered.
“Ain’t about no hatred, better raise a glass
It’s a little about some rebels but it ain’t about the past
Ain’t about no foolish pride, Ain’t about no flag”
Lead singer Patterson Hood, whose father played bass alongside some of the finest black soul singers of the 1960s, summed up his tangled feelings on the subject with what would become the most quoted lyric of his career:
“Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the Southern thing.”

“Burning Hell” (John Lee Hooker) – The late great Mississippi bluesman was known more for his drinking and carousing songs than his meditations on the afterlife. When Hooker did address religion in his songwriting, however, it was with a defiant, nearly enraged voice. “Burning Hell” ranks among the boogie maestro’s most focused, intense performances.
“I don’t believe, I don’t believe in no heaven
I don’t believe in no hell
When I die, where I go, nobody knows”


“Rednecks” (Randy Newman) – With it’s litany of dumb Bubba stereotypes and liberal use of the “n” word, Newman’s tale of race baiting politics and class resentment is polarizing to say the least. Is the man satirizing the way Southerners are viewed by their Yankee cousins or laughing in their faces?
“We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We’re too dumb to make it no Northern town”
While the song slyly points out that racism is hardly confined to the South, it’s lasting impression is one of sneering anger.
“We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
We don’t know our *** from a hole in the ground”


“Play It All Night Long” (Warren Zevon) – Speaking of stereotypes, the “Werewolf of London” singer delved into the deep end with this tale of alcohol, incest, guns, and… Lynyrd Skynyrd. The lyrics are dire enough that it would be impossible for me to reprint the verses in a family newspaper, but the chorus of this cartoon blast of bile gives a good indication of its general embrace of the horrific.
“Sweet home Alabama
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long”


“Granny” (Vic Chestnutt) – The late Athens, Ga songwriter’s quiet meditation on family and loss, “Granny” follows a young boy as he observes his grandmother during her daily routine, watching and asking questions as she prepares some pimento cheese, cleans blackberry seeds from her false teeth, and tells him about his deceased grandfather.
“Granny, Oh Granny
Where did your husband, my grandaddy go?
Where did your husband, my grandaddy go?
She said he went off to heaven just before you were born”
Like a haiku, the song uses a minimum of words and notes to call forth the mystery, sense of peace, and underlying sadness a child experiences in the presence of a grandparent. After three almost dirge-like verses the song lifts as the grandmother offers a prayer for her loved one:
“She said, you are the light of my light and the beat of my heart.”

B.B. King: 1925-2015

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags on June 10, 2015 by Todd

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Like most people born after the 1960s, I can’t remember a time when the music of B.B. King wasn’t part of the world, an element, like late evening summer rain showers or sweet tea at dinner, that was simply part of the natural order of things, unspoken but essential. And that music, those singing, liquid notes, always signified one thing, perfectly: the blues.

In reality, King’s music was far from preordained or traditional. It was pulled together, note by note, from sources ancient and modern into a seamless whole that emanated from the man with deceptive nonchalance and grace. To put it simply, what most people think of as the blues didn’t exist before B.B. King, who passed from this Earth on May 14 at age 89.

King’s rise to fame reads like some mythic origin story dreamed up by a music obsessed fiction writer. Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 on a cotton plantation near the town of Itta Bena, Misissippi. As a young boy, King sang in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael, Mississippi, where he was raised by his maternal grandmother. When he was 12, he was given his first guitar by famed bluesman Bukka White, his mother’s first cousin.

In 1941, King became an avid listener of the “King Biscuit Time” broadcast out of Helena, Arkansas. The radio show featured Delta blues artists and fueled the budding guitarist’s desire to leave his life as a plantation worker and take to the road as a musician.

In 1946, King followed White to Memphis, Tennessee. Three years later he issued his first single, “Miss Martha King” before recording a number of songs with local madman Sam Phillips, who later founded Sun Records and recorded many of the finest blues and country artists of the day, including a shy teenager named Elvis Presley.

Even at this early stage, King had already mastered his inspired mix of the traditional and the modern: the jazz innovations of guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and saxophonist Lester Young; the amped up snarl of T-Bone Walker; the old time country blues of his former home state. What emerged was a new music of fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato, and a new way forward for a sound that had previously seemed locked in the past.

By the 1960s King was at the height of his powers, having gained a new, younger and paler audience thanks to the blues revival sweeping America, as well as the vocal admiration of British rock superstars such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, who he would tour and record with throughout his career. In 1964 King recorded the exquisite “Live at the Regal” at a date in Chicago. The album is still considered one of the greatest live performances ever captured.

While his guitar artistry has been rightly celebrated, what’s rarely mentioned is that King was not only one of the most innovative blues instrumentalists but one of its greatest vocalists as well. In fact, he often described his guitar playing as an extension of his singing. “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing,” he once told a journalist.

One of the best  examples of King’s power as a live performer was documented by music writer Stanley Booth, who attended a guitar battle in the late ’60s between the already legendary performer and a talented newcomer, Albert King, at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

“And then, just as it becomes clear that only something as decisive as a knockout can win,” writes Booth, “B.B., who had been standing idly at the side of the stage while Albert put down riff after driving riff, begins to hit the strings of his guitar, sweet Lucille, as hard as he can, one note at a time, playing a blues chorus so strong and high and wild that the audience, shocked, becomes silent; then he pauses, takes two steps forward to the mike, and sings: ‘My brother’s in Korea, baby, my sister’s down in New Orleans.’ The last part of the line is drowned out by the screams of the audience, who had forgotten, in the heat of the guitar duel, that B.B. is not only the master of modern blues guitar, he is also the founder of entire schools of blues singers.”

King’s touring schedule over seven decades of performing was virtually unparalleled. Often performing over 250 dates a year, he never seemed to lose the joy of playing for appreciative audiences that he’d displayed since his earliest days in Memphis. He kept playing until last October, when complications from Diabetes finally forced him to set down his beloved Lucille, the guitar he’d once rescued from a juke joint fire.

King was laid to rest at the Bell Grove Baptist Church in Indianola, Miss., where he spent his teenage years working in cotton fields. It’s a tired cliche to say the music he brought out of those fields will live on forever, but I believe it’s the truth just the same.