B.B. King

He was the blues

Print edition : June 26, 2015

At Madison Square Garden in New York, in August 2007. Photo: RAHAV SEGEV/NYT

At Avery Fisher Hall in New York, June 1992. Photo: MONICA ALMEIDA/NYT

With (from left) Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark Jr. on February 21, 2012. during the "In Performance at the White House" series, hosted by President Barack Obama, to celebrate blues music and in recognition of Black History Month. Photo: CHRIS KLEPONIS/REUTERS

The iconic Lucille is taken down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, in a farewell procession in honour of B.B. King on May 27. Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht/AP

For nearly seven decades the great bluesman B.B. King (1925-2015) strode the music world like a colossus, attaining the unquestioned adulation of fans and musicians alike, and serving as an influence to those who would subsequently shape the course of popular music.

“First I sing and then Lucille sings,” said the great B.B. King, referring to his guitar, easily the most recognisable guitar in the music industry—a gorgeous custom-made Gibson which B.B. christened Lucille after the girl who caused the biggest bar fight he had ever seen. For nearly seven decades, B.B. and Lucille strode the music world like a colossus, attaining the unquestioned adulation of fans and musicians alike, and serving as an influence to those who would subsequently shape the course of popular music. When on May 14 this year Lucille fell forever silent with the death of the man who could make her sing, a major chapter in the world of music was closed. For B.B. King, the last of the great bluesmen to emerge from what is now almost the mythical landscape of pre-Second World War Mississipi, was not just the “King of the Blues” as he was universally hailed; he was the blues.

Born Riley King on September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, the man who would be acknowledged as one of the greatest musicians of his era worked in a cotton plantation from the age of eight, picking cotton at 35 cents per 100 pounds. When he grew older, he worked on a tractor. Right from childhood, he was hooked to the blues, listening to the great delta bluesmen in records. When he was 14, he bought his first guitar with his wages, and when work was over he would go into town to find a place to play. Sometimes, in a single day he would make as much as $50 in tips, whereas in the plantation he would earn $22 a week. “Now you see why I started playing the blues,” he later joked.

In late 1948, he left the plantation and hitchhiked to Memphis. Hanging around in the legendary Beale Street, and watching the famous bluesmen strut their stuff, young Riley decided that he would play the blues for the rest of his life. The first job he got was as a disc jockey in the WDIA Memphis radio station—the first radio station in the United States for African Americans. It was there that he got the name B.B.— short for Blues Boy. But he did not confine himself to the radio for long and turned his attention full time to playing music.

In 1951, he got his first hit record, 3 O’ clock Blues. In the next few years, more hits followed, including Everyday I Have the Blues, Ten Long Years, Sweet Little Angel, and so on, and B.B. became immensely popular in the Chitlins Circuit (the venues in which African-American artistes could perform during the days of segregation). As he toured and recorded, unbeknownst to him his reputation became a legend and spread beyond the Chitlins circuit. Though white blues musicians, including John Mayall, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, were hanging on to every note he was playing, it was not until he stood on stage in front of a packed house in the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1968 that B.B realised that his music had crossed over to the mainstream. As the famed impresario Bill Graham introduced him on stage as the “King of the Blues”, the largely white audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation before he had even played a single note. The great grandson of a slave in Mississippi had the world at his feet. B.B. stood humbly on stage, with tears in his eyes. The next year he recorded what remains his most enduring hit, The Thrill is Gone.

In the tradition of the Mississippi bluesmen of the bygone days, B.B. toured constantly throughout his life, averaging more than 200 nights a year. In fact, in 1956 alone he performed on 342 nights. After turning 80, he decided to cut down on his tours. But even then he was on the road playing 100 nights a year. The stage was practically his living room. He would banter endlessly with the audience, regale them with jokes and anecdotes, and of course, keep them awestruck with his performance. In fact, people would go to hear him talk as much as to hear him play. Always a big man, he cut a larger-than-life figure on the stage with his glittering suits and his flamboyant, outlandish style. No one but B.B. could have pulled it off in those clothes; but then no one but B.B. made obesity look appealing. In his later years, with the further expansion of his girth, he would mostly remain seated, with Lucille perched lovingly on his lap. Some of his greatest works were actually those he recorded live, like Live at the Regal (1965), which connoisseurs believe to be one of the greatest blues albums ever recorded, and Live in Cook County Jail (1971).

Most inflential guitar player

He admitted that he hardly ever played chords, and he could never play and sing at the same time—“first I sing and then Lucille sings”—but he could tell in just four splendid notes what another guitarist would take five minutes to communicate. He was, in short, one of the greatest and most influential guitar players that ever lived, a pioneer of techniques that would give shape to rock music in the future and guide the blues to its next higher plane. He could bend a note, sustain it, make it shimmy and shake before gently putting it to rest—it was as though each note he played had a life of its own, and B.B. was just setting it free. There are gadgets for all these tricks and effects —pedals and tremolos and other equipment—but B.B never used them. He never needed to when he had his magical hands—his “clumsy fingers”, as he put it with his customary self-deprecation. He would simply strike a note and shake his hand like a bird flapping a wing to get those long quivering sounds, which was one of his trademarks.

Every generation of dedicated guitar players in the past 60 years has looked to B.B. for inspiration, guidance and understanding. Icons and legends of the instrument from Clapton to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan have revered him as a master.

Every successive generation of rock stars has attempted to validate its credentials by playing with the King—Eric Clapton in his Riding with the King and U2 in Rattle and Hum. “He was a beacon for all of us,” said Clapton after B.B.’s death. Yet for all the adulation and respect, B.B. miraculously remained a humble man of enormous self-respect and dignity. Once, John Lennon had told him that he wished he could play like B.B. Years later, recalling the incident B.B. chuckled and said, “I didn’t believe him.”

In the blues, where the mythification of the artiste was an integral part of the art form itself, B.B.’s persona was grounded in reality. He was no haunted, shadowy figure like Robert Johnson in flight from hellhounds on his trail; nor did he have the spooky quality of Skip James with his bleak, mysterious lyrics and ghost-like voice. Rather, in B.B. one saw the ultimate amalgamation and culmination of all the styles that made up the blues. He had it all—the power and intensity of Howlin’ Wolf, the finesse and style of Muddy Waters, the hollerin’ anger of the plantation worker, and the sweet melancholy of one who has transcended the pain of persecution. He carried in that magnificent, powerful voice the entire legacy of the blues, from the time the first black man got off a slave ship with scars on his back to the weary plantation worker sitting outside his shack watching the sun go down.



“When I first got the blues

They brought me over on a ship

Men were standing over me

And a lot more with a whip

And everybody wanna know

Why I sing the blues

Well I’ve been around a long time

I’ve really paid my dues.”

( Why I sing the Blues)



He was the greatest bluesman alive, and with his death the curtains came down on a key tradition that formed the root of rock ‘n’ roll music.



Lucille

He did not just sing the songs, he felt the songs from the core of his being, and he could make the listeners feel it, too. Close on the heels of his vocals would be Lucille, singing, screaming, moaning, snarling, whooping with delight and taking flight and soaring higher than a kite at the bidding of her master’s fingers. Wherever B.B. went, Lucille went with him. To him she was more than just a guitar. Often after singing a verse or line, he would say “and now Lucille’s gonna sing for you”. Lucille would inevitably come up in his long conversations with the audience during live shows, and he even wrote a song about Lucille, a song in which Lucille did most of the singing, while B.B. just talked about her—“I’m crazy about Lucille/ Lucille took me from the plantation/ Or you might say brought me fame.” Lucille was an extension of B.B. It was his other voice, an essential and inseparable aspect of his personality—the consort queen of the “King of the Blues”.

Yet it would be a mistake to confine him simply to the blues. So versatile was his musicianship and singing, so dynamic and exploratory, that he was equally masterful in performing jazz standards and collaborating with artistes of a diverse range of genres, from gospel to rock to soul to funk. His supreme craftsmanship allowed him to blend and complement any kind of music and yet retain his unique sound and bluesy roots. “Cause Lucille don’t wanna play nothin’ but the blues.”

For B.B.’s own influences were not only the great Mississippi bluesmen he heard in his childhood, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lonnie Johnson, his own cousin the legendary Bukka White and others. He was also keenly affected by the jazz music of that period—particularly Duke Ellington’s big band, the great Charlie Christian who died too soon, and the two-fingered gypsy wizard of swing, Django Reinhardt. In his music one heard the perfect synthesis of the raw intensity of the blues and the finesse of jazz.

No bluesman has ever received the kind of honours and awards that B.B. got in his lifetime—15 Grammys, medals from heads of states, honorary doctorates from prestigious institutes, even a museum on him. But that is not where his legacy lies; nor does it find reflection in the generous flow of tributes from the biggest stars of music after his death. Somewhere, in an obscure corner of the world, a kid after listening to Live at the Regal makes up his mind to learn to play the guitar—and that is where B.B. King lives on forever.

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