|Thank You, Mr. King
In his 1966 book "Urban Blues", dedicated to the memory of Malcolm X and
sporting a photo of B.B. King on the cover, Charles Keil wrote: "I doubt that
more than a few thousand white Americans outside the Deep South have ever
heard B.B. King's music. If one first-class citizen in a thousand could identify his
name, I'd be very much surprised."
That was 17 years after King's first recording ("Miss Martha King"), 15 years after
his first number 1 hit ("3 O'Clock Blues"), and one year after the release of what
would become his most celebrated album ("Live at the Regal"). It was also one
year after the Bihari brothers' record plant and offices avoided destruction in a
neighbourhood torched during the 1965 LA riots by simply forming a picket line
outside with the sign "B.B. King's Record Company".
Whether such a tactic would have worked around the time of B.B.'s passing in
2015 is anyone's guess, but 49 years after the publication of Keil's book, it is
certainly difficult to picture King as anything other than an international institution
– with the President of the United States of America himself paying tribute with
the words "the blues has lost its king, and America has lost a legend."
According to AllMusic.com, there are 82 B.B. King albums out there on CD,
cassette or vinyl – plus 402 different compilations. Let me rephrase that:
between 1956 and 2015, there have been 484 B.B. King albums released. Yes,
that number is probably not 100% accurate, but if anything, they've missed a few
– and 2015 isn't over yet, either.
"Awards have included honorary doctorates at Yale and Berklee College of Music,
the 1990 Presidential Medal of the Arts, 1991 National Heritage Fellowship, and
the 1995 Kennedy Center Honors," lists the 2006 edition of Edward Komara's
Encyclopedia of the Blues. "He has been awarded innumerable music industry
honors: Grammy Awards, W.C. Handy Awards, NAACP Image Awards, and
Downbeat Critics' Poll. The list goes on. No one else in the blues field has ever
been so honored."
All those honours must account for at least some of the unprecedented media
attention the passing of an elderly Mississippi bluesman has received;
unfortunately, the status of a cultural icon can also mean that while everybody
knows the name, far fewer are intrigued enough to take an interest in his work.
The online blues community is still cringing at statements such as the NME's "best
known for his hits "Lucille", "Sweet Black Angel" and "Rock Me Baby", had worked
with Eric Clapton and U2" – hardly the highest chart placings of King's illustrious
career, and as for who got to work with whom... In his eulogy, Clapton himself
said it best: "I would encourage you to go out and find an album called B.B. King
"Live at the Regal", which is where it all really started for me."
Mainstream media aside, the blues community truly is in mourning. It's been said
that we should celebrate the man, his life and his music instead of being sad, but
it is easier said than done, for B.B. King's passing carries the added weight of the
end of an era – or the severing of our last connection to a time and place that's
long gone. Yes, we are lucky to still have James Cotton (79) and Buddy Guy
(78), but strange as it is to say it, they are of a younger generation. B.B. was the
one to really have lived it all.
Born in Itta Bena near Indianola, Mississippi in 1925, the young Riley B. King
picked cotton in the Delta, listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie
Johnson on his aunt's Victrola and started his singing career in a gospel group.
Reportedly, he got his first guitar from Bukka White, his mother's first cousin; he
certainly got some tips on how to handle it from Robert Johnson's stepson
Robert Jr. Lockwood, who – again reportedly – was never that pleased with the
progress King was making. In fact, the booklet accompanying Ace Records' 2002
boxed set "B.B. King: The Vintage Years" quotes Lockwood as saying: "His timing
was apeshit, and I had a hard time trying to teach him."
Indeed, King never did play straight Mississippi blues – by the time he met
Lockwood, he was fashioning his single string lines more after Charlie Christian
and T-Bone Walker, while his musical vision already encompassed Louis Jordan
and Duke Ellington. Even his earliest inspirations had hailed from out-of-state:
Blind Lemon from Texas, Lonnie Johnson from New Orleans, and Johnson himself
would go on to claim in a 1963 Val Wilmer interview: "My style of singing has
nothing to do with the part of the country I come from. It comes from my soul
B.B. King worked with Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson II and
peddled Pep-Ti-Kon both over the airwaves at WDIA and on the road, essentially
the star of his own medicine show. He recorded for Sam Phillips in Memphis and
for Chess Records in Chicago while maintaining a touring schedule of more than
300 concerts a year. And as stated in the opening paragraph, B.B. King was still a
favourite of black audiences when Muddy Waters & Co were already playing
mostly for young white enthusiasts – his crossover came with "The Thrill Is Gone"
in 1970, all minor key and violins...
Of course, unless you're a European rock guitarist, the blues is rarely a minor key
affair all the way, and playing major scale runs over minor accompaniment
became something of a trademark for King. For 20 years, I've outlined the "blues
boxes" on the fretboard for my guitar students as follows: "The first one's for the
T-Bone Walker/Chuck Berry stuff, the second is the Albert King box – and the
next one is where you get your B.B. King..." A gross oversimplification for all of
them, I know, but how do you explain a sound? Very few of them owned a B.B.
King album, yet they all instantly recognized the distinctive notes and bends.
In Keith Shadwick's 2008 Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, it reads: "Possibly the
world's most recognizable blues artist, B.B. King has shown a willingness and
ability to adapt his music to new styles and tastes, all the while maintaining his
musical integrity." And it is true, even though I would think that if you can
recognize B.B., you should have no trouble spotting the likes of John Lee Hooker
and Albert Collins. But yes: whether he was singing Christmas carols, updating
Dr. Clayton tunes or obliterating Bono's vocal presence on U2's "When Love
Comes To Town", B.B. King was always audibly B.B. King. Over his 60-year
recording career, the production values underwent considerable changes – but
the King always came out on top.
That said, there are very few guitarists out there whose careers have been
documented as thoroughly as his and it is intriguing to follow King's musical
development from record to record, from a T-Bone clone to the idiosyncratic King
of the Blues. It is also interesting to note that despite his lifelong association
with a guitar called Lucille, King wasn't always playing a Gibson ES-355 – most of
his RPM sides were cut with a Fender Telecaster and there are early photos and
even album covers of him with git-boxes all shapes and sizes. As guitar legend
Otis Grand stated in a 2014 interview: "I saw B.B. play a borrowed Strat in
London and he sounded exactly the same as he always does with his signature
ES-355. So it isn’t the instrument – it’s yourself that makes the tone."
Some of B.B.'s big band arrangements may have had more to do with Sinatra
than New Orleans, but that's the way he liked it. The lyrics he sang were for the
most part "family-friendly", with old blues numbers cleansed of their double
meanings and political and social commentary kept at arm's length – at least until
his 1969 rewrite of "Why I Sing The Blues", originally recorded in 1956 with very
different words – but that's the way he was. If there is one blues artist whose
name, sound and image are known everywhere around the world today, it's
B.B. King. And if the blues itself is still around in 2015, it is largely thanks to him,
Thank you, Mr. King.