B.B. King: 1925-2015


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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: