Friday, May 22, 2015

Remembering a King

Last Friday, like many of you, I woke up to the news that B.B. King had passed away the night before.  He passed away about twenty minutes before last Friday's post went live.  Two weeks before that, there was an announcement on King's website that he was under hospice care, so most of us were probably prepared for the worst when we heard that.

Even though the inevitable happened two weeks later, it was still a jolt.  For so many blues fans......heck, ALL blues fans......B.B. King has been the face of the Blues for as long as we can remember.  For me, I can remember seeing him on the Tonight Show one night when I was probably six or seven and couldn't sleep.  All I can remember of that first experience is his sharp tuxedo, his booming voice, those Doc Severinsen horns blaring, the way he clapped his hands to the beat (the back of his right hand hitting the front of his left hand), the funny faces that he made when he was bending the strings, and those sweet sounds coming from his guitar.

Later on, when I was watching one of my favorite shows,  Sanford & Son, he was a guest star.  He played "How Blue Can You Get," which remains one of my all-time favorite songs, mainly based on this performance.  At that time, I was probably ten or eleven, but I thought that was the coolest song....I mean, who my age had ever heard a song about a woman trying to give seven children back.  Whenever I hear that song now, I still think of that scene from Sanford & Son.  I think I found out that King was born in Mississippi from that episode, too, so the fact that we had a home state in common made him that much more interesting to me.

In the late 70's, I can remember one of the TV record companies offering one of those 3 LP/2 8-Track or Cassette collections of King's greatest hits.  That was the first time that I'd heard a lot of these songs, and even though they were mere snippets of the songs, they stuck in my mind.  I would have probably sent a self-addressed stamp and money order to get this set if I'd had anything to play it on back then.  That was probably the widest exposure I had to his music at that point.

When I started listening to the blues on a regular basis, I picked up a couple of B.B. King albums in my first round of purchases.  Of course, when you went to the record store, there were lots of B.B. King albums in the racks.  He had a lot of his regular albums still in print, plus a few budget compilations, on MCA Records, his label at the time.  Plus there were also some budget albums that captured his earlier could really find these in convenience store racks or in truck stops and such.  The first ones I picked up were Live At Cook County Jail and a collection called Great Moments with B.B. King.

Later on, I stumbled onto King's earliest recordings when I started doing the mail-order thing.  The U.K. label Ace had several collections of King's earliest recordings for RPM or Kent Records from the 50's and early 60's.  Even though I enjoyed the later recordings that King did for ABC (later MCA), those early recordings were incredible.  Up until that point, I had no idea just how long King had been toiling away.  His career lasted over 65 years!  There were several qualities that enabled King to stand out among the crowd for so long.

1)  His inimitable guitar work.  No one played guitar exactly like B.B. King.  Nobody could bend those notes quite like he did with that piercing vibrato sound.  It was instantly recognizable when King did it.  No blues guitarist has spawned more imitators.....that's not really the right word, more like disciples, followers, than imitators.  Nearly every blues guitarist over the past 50 - 60 years owes a huge debt to King.....Luther Allison (you could hear King doing "Bad Love" pretty easily), Albert King, Freddy King, Eric Clapton, Long John Hunter, Carlos Santana, Otis Rush, Jimi Hendrix, Little Milton, Robert Cray, and so many others.  King probably played less guitar than any other so-called "Guitar Hero"........he took short, crisp, concise solos, and he said as much or more in those few notes as most other guitarists did in a five - ten minute stretch.  Even his instrumental tracks were a model of taste and precision.  So, sit back for a few minutes and listen to King and his main lady, Lucille, play the blues.

 2)  His incredible voice.  Influenced in equal parts by blues, R&B, and gospel, King's voice was as much a force of nature as his guitar work.  He squeezed every ounce of emotion out of every lyric he ever sang.  In his early years, he was capable of the highest highs and the grittiest "down-lows," usually within a few seconds of each other on some songs.  Like his guitar work, his vocal style has been imitated, but never duplicated.

3)  His versatility.  If you get a chance, check out the box set, The Vintage Years.  What an incredible collection of songs!  King had a huge number of hits during his years with the Modern set of labels (which is the focus of this box set), and they are represented here, but there are also tracks that find King doing soul, gospel, doo wop, and even rock & roll.  He incorporated these musical styles into his brand of blues, though his sound remained distinctively B.B. King.  After King signed with ACB in the early 60's, he continued to blend these sounds into his blues, along with a generous portion of pop music and funk music, beginning in the 70's, when he had hits like "The Thrill Is Gone," "To Know You Is To Love You," "I Like To Live The Love," etc....Those last two were recorded at Philadelphia using the band that backed 70's hitmakers like the O'Jays and the Spinners.  He even recorded several times with the Crusaders, scoring with "Hold On" and "Better Not Look Down," backed by the jazzy Houston group.  In his later years, he covered a number of the R&B/swing legend Louis Jordan's tunes.  He was always working, always experimenting with new styles while retaining his own sound.

4)  His live performances.  Probably nothing got the word out more effectively than his live shows.  For years, he gigged an average of 300 nights a year, playing all over the world.  His numerous live albums stand as testimony to his incredible stamina, durability, and resiliency.  There are several of these albums that are indispensable......Live At Cook County Jail, Live in Japan, Blues Is King, and of course, Live At The Regal.  The latter collection captures King at his best with a tremendously enthusiastic audience that hangs on his every word and his master showmanship is on full display.  Despite the accolades that it represented him at his very best, King always insisted that it was more of a TYPICAL B.B. King performance than anything else.  In other words, that's the way he did it every night in every town.

When I saw him several years ago, he was in his late 70's, midway through his struggles with diabetes, forced to sit in a chair, facing an audience of less than 200 people (you read that correctly.....apparently there were some problems with publicizing the concert).  King might as well have been at Carnegie Hall.....he gave everything he had to that 200-person crowd, who loved every minute of his performance.  He played well over two hours, and this was after he did a fairly extended meet-and-greet autograph session with endless kindness and patience.  As much as I liked him before I saw him perform, I loved him for the time he took to that small group of fans.....making every one of them feel important.

5)  Actually, that's the fifth thing that put King a cut above the rest.......his incredibly kind and generous nature to his fans and admirers.  All I really need to cite for this example are his annual B.B. King Homecoming event that he did in Indianola and his annual appearances at the benefits honoring the late Medgar Evers in June of each year.  This allowed King the opportunity to perform in front of the people that he grew up with and their families and it was probably the only chance that many had to see him.  In a way, it was probably as big a deal to him to get to play for them as it was for them to actually see him perform.  From what I understood from talking to Mary Shepard (longtime owner of Club Ebony) at his museum several years ago, King only insisted that his band be compensated for their performances at these events......he never took any money himself.

Speaking of the museum, if you are in the neighborhood, or within a couple of states, and you're a fan of B.B. King, you MUST take a couple of hours and visit.  It's an absolutely wonderful experience.

It's hard to say just where the blues would be as a musical genre without the long and enduring presence of B.B. King.  Sure, the music would still be played, but how many people came to the blues via B.B. King that probably would not have ever heard it otherwise......who were exposed to the blues via his appearances on TV shows (the Tonight Show, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show, Married.....With Children, etc....) or his numerous TV commercials (McDonald's, Toyota, Frito-Lay, the One-Touch Ultra diabetes monitoring devices)?  Did you ever consider how many people were prompted to test for diabetes based on King's aggressive campaign against the disease?  He showed many (me included) that you were able to live with it and continue to thrive with just a few changes in lifestyle.

When I heard that King had passed away, I was sad for a few minutes, but then I was actually relieved.  I had really been sad a few months earlier, when he began having problems on stage and it was obvious that he was struggling with his health.  .When it was announced that he was under hospice care, I really felt low.  After he died, well.......I will close by sharing what my cousin posted on Facebook when he heard the's more profound and eloquent than anything I've said so far.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't see this as a sad moment. I truly feel so fortunate that I was around at the time this man was on this Earth. He lived an incredible, FULL life and gave this world so much!

R.I.P. B.B., and thanks for everything!

Previous Friday Blues Fix posts that featured King are listed below:    

The King of the Blues Comes Home - A look at King's annual Homecoming Festival, plus our correspondent Joe discusses his favorite B.B. King album.

Mount Bluesmore;   Yours truly's Mount Rushmore of the Blues.....featuring the four all-time greats in the genre.

Aging Gracefully:  A look, from a couple of years ago, at some of the Blues' elder statesmen.

Blues Legends - B.B. King:  A short bio of the King of the Blues, with a selected discography of essential listening.

It's All About Respect  A look at King's final tour and some personal thoughts.

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