*Sometimes, an aspect of your life goes amiss and you don’t want to think further than your personal woe.
Occasionally, if only temporarily, you want to live in your gloom; wallow in your regret. Happy? Fuck happy. At least for the time being, your refuge is a pit of sorrow. The only thing you want other than a remedy for the pain is some measure of fraternity in your suffering.
That was B.B. King’s job. King–born Riley B. King; the B.B. stood for “Blues Boy”–specialized in songs without a happy ending. Misery loves company, and King supplied a faithful musical companion to the emotional ache. Cheating women, conniving men, bad finances and otherwise black-hearted individuals and lousy predicaments–King created a woebegone soundtrack for them all. B.B. King played and sang The Blues.
King, who passed away May 14 at age 89 from complications due to diabetes, was torchbearer for a musical genre that on some level is the DNA of almost every form of modern American music. You’ll find more than just traces of the idiom in pop, jazz, rock and roll, and hip hop and of course, rhythm and blues.
Indeed, if the blues were a parent, then so-called R&B would be the often mutinous kid to whom elders would comment, to the point of annoyance, “Lord, you look and sound so much like your daddy.”
When I was a child, the blues sounded like old fashioned music for grown folks. I had no idea that the British acts I embraced in the mid ‘60s—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and guitarist Eric Clapton, among others–were all biting hard off the blues. I ignored real blues.
Until I heard B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.”
I couldn’t exactly ignore it—in Oklahoma City I was listening to white, Top 40 radio, and King’s version of the Roy Hawkins/Rick Darnell song, a hit for Hawkins in 1951, was such a big record that it was played in rotation with pop songs like The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close To You,” B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come).”
Some purists referred to the churning, melancholy “Thrill” as “blues lite,” mostly because of Bert DeCoteaux’s burgeoning string arrangement, a rarity on a blues recording. To them, it wasn’t anything like the unvarnished, steamrolling Live At The Regal, King’s landmark 1965 ABC album. But B.B. wasn’t ever exclusively gut bucket blues, or as he described his more hardcore readings, “way down the alley.”
In any case, “Thrill,” which would end up the biggest hit of B.B.’s seven-decade career, back then put a new spotlight on the blues and its contemporaries, including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert King, Freddie King, and Little Milton.
Despite his well-deserved “King of the Blues” moniker, the ever humble King dismissed the idea that he was the first and last word in the genre. During an early 2000s interview, he offered that plenty others sing and play the blues better than him, the distinction being he just does his thing “his way. “
But what a “way.” The extended title of one of King’s most popular tunes, “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother (and She Could Be Jiving, too)” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIW4ARVbhrw) might draw a chuckle.
The lyric is spare: “Nobody loves me but my mother/And she could be jivin’ too/ Nobody loves me but my mother, And she could be jivin’ too/Now you see why I act so funny, baby /When you do the things you do.”
However, King’s trademark authoritative growl effectively conjures the embitterment and pain of dysfunction profound: If a man questions the love of his very own mother, what kind of woman can he capable of choosing in life? That’s the blues.
Of course, it was King’s innovative guitar playing on which he built his legend. Almost every modern guitarist proficient in soul, rock, jazz and pop styles has gotten something either directly from listening to King or from another player influenced by King.
Imitated but never quite duplicated, the man who didn’t play chords could rip it up real good. King’s fabled high note—whether played in a short squeal or the piercing, crying, sustain—illustrated the impassioned magnificence in the economy of played notes.
So famous was King as a musician, that people who don’t know his work, know the name of his beloved guitar, a series of modified Gibson ES-355s that he christened Lucille.
The name came in the winter of 1949 in Arkansas, after two men fighting in a club in which King was performing knocked over a barrel half filled with kerosene–lit to heat the place—and set the building afire.
Everyone ran out, including King, who ran back in to retrieve his guitar. Those two men died in that fire, brawling, King learned the next day, over a woman named Lucille. After that, King named his guitars Lucille as a vow to never again run into a burning building for material things…or fight over a woman.
King made a great living wailing in song about the toils of the broken relationship but kept his personal life out of the headlines. Twice married, with different women he is said to have fathered some 15 children who gave him more than 50 grandchildren.
A certified private pilot since 1963, until he turned 70 King used to fly himself to many of the estimated 250 concert dates he’d perform annually.
He believed in sharing his stage with guest musicians, especially star guitarists, big and small. King knew what it meant to them to play with him and he was generous with his light. Go to You Tube and witness King’s performances with a variety of great pickers. And notice that when it’s King’s turn, he plays with a masterful passion–and most important, a patience–that the other player, no matter how gifted, simply can’t emulate.
King didn’t always sing the blues (or even always listen to them, being a “huge Sinatra nut”); he sang about pleasantries as well. However, it was the blues that made him an international superstar and household name—a name that was licensed to launch a national chain of successful restaurant/bar/live music venues. Imagine a Mississippi bluesman in TV commercials for a variety of products; appearing on mainstream TV shows for much of his career. That was B.B. King.
There’s the old, affectionate cliché that insists when creative artists leave this plane for the hereafter, they continue doing what they were known for on earth. However, while he ain’t exactly singing “Happy,” I’d like to believe that B.B. King no longer has the blues.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]