When B.B. Was King
B.B. King died last week here in Las Vegas. He was 89.
I saw B.B. King perform three times. I always loved his music, even when listening to the blues wasn’t particularly fashionable.
Indeed, the blues is not now, nor has it ever been, mainstream music. It’s the wailing howl of the economically disenfranchised, the voice of the social outcasts, the sorrow of broken hearts, and the lament of persistent loss. And yet, quite often, it’s both amusing and uplifting. One figures that life really isn’t really so bad after all, especially when contrasted alongside the song’s hero who somehow loses his job on the same day he catches his lady in bed with another man. While B.B. King put out relatively few best-selling records, for millions of listeners his blues was a deeply biographical soundtrack. If nothing else, it certainly provided incendiary kindling for rock n’ roll, soul, and R&B.
What a life his was. Whether he was struggling to land paid gigs in small nightclubs throughout the segregated American South during the 1950s, or packing casino showrooms all the way up until his final live performance late last year, B.B. King never departed his musical roots. He was always the real deal — both on and offstage — an authentic American icon who transcended all boundaries of gender, genre, geography, generation, and race. B.B. King’s audiences came in black and white, male and female, young and old. He had admirers all over the world, including far too many impressionable fellow musicians to list. Music lovers who probably struggle to identify even a single great bluesmen, still know and revere the name “B.B. King.” Indeed, that name has became virtually synonymous with the unique sound that originally flowed out of the muddy Mississippi Delta and the sweltering cotton fields where the hardships of daily life came to inspire the blues.
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, widescale adulation of B.B. King spawned countless followers and wannabes. Sure, there were plenty of other musicians who played the guitar better. Other vocalists sang better, too. But no one else was quite the total package as B.B. King, short of a small clique of his contemporaries — including Bobby Bland, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and a few others — each in their own manner giving the blues a timeless omnipresence.
Aside from dining several times in his Southern-cooking themed restaurants (“B.B. Kings” has become a popular franchise with locations in both Las Vegas and Memphis) I’ve seen B.B. King play his guitar, “Lucille,” on three separate occasions. Here’s my recollection of those cherished memories:
2007 (Buffalo Bills Casino — Primm, NV) — B.B. King took center stage at a casino located on the Nevada-California border and drew a full house on a Saturday night. Given his chronic obesity and persistent diabetes, the great bluesman was forced to remain seated during the entire performance, which surprisingly didn’t distract from the energy of the show. B.B. King was at his very best, not so much while picking through most of his song catalogue, but when engaging the audience with his fondest memories. He told several stories about being on the road for nearly 60 years and gave listeners a tutorial on exactly when and where he first played various blues classics. He also reminisced about playing with many other blues greats and seemed to enjoy sharing this genuine love of the music. One sensed complete sincerity in B.B. King’s devotion to craft and love of his profession, something that sadly seems lacking in some many, much younger live artists who achieve success and then burn out way too early. That night, B.B. King — while certainly aged and in his early 80s — looked like he could go on and play the blues forever.
2002 (“Bluesfest” — Memphis, TN) — At times, there’s a stunning difference between seeing a legendary musician playing to the masses versus performing in front of a far more intensely dedicated audience that’s widely familiar with the musical genre. Most performances later in his career, had B.B. King tailoring his live performances for unsophisticated ears, feeble attempts to meet the expectations of ticket buyers who know the words to “The Thrill is Gone,” but that’s about it. He was required to play his standard hits and the better-known classics and rarely had the opportunity to venture too far off the musical track. Accordingly, many live shows became utterly predictable, as is the case with many acts with a rich musical archive to chose from. Yet, King came onstage in Memphis during the annual “Bluesfest” celebration at a park off of Beale Street and jammed with many local musicians on and off again for several hours. It was obvious that the songs were unrehearsed. But King interacting with everyone else became pure magic. One of my favorite memories was seeing a young kid, who couldn’t have been more than 12-years-old, playing a mean blues guitar and then jamming side by side with B.B. King — the youngster matching the legend note for note. Of course, watching King’s face as the boy plucked the paint off his own guitar doing the blues was the best part of the show. The entire outdoor crowd went wild.
1987 (Tarrant County Convention Center — Ft. Worth, TX) — This was a surprise appearance by B.B. King and became instantly memorialized as one of his best-selling live performances, even though the song that was recorded wasn’t his. Back then, rock group U2 was in their heyday, coming off “The Joshua Tree” release. They toured the U.S. in 1987, filming a live concert documentary which later became the two-album set titled, “Rattle and Hum.” U2 refused to play in Dallas (and several other American cities) due to the Apartheid disinvestment boycott, and so their show was instead shifted to another venue which was a bit of a dump, called the Tarrant County Convention Center in downtown Ft. Worth, 30 miles west of Dallas (then again, blues should be played in dumps, not flashy NBA arenas, right?). I saw U2 play the first night and then they announced that a second show would be added. Surprisingly, I was able to get two tickets and sat four rows back from center stage. About two-thirds of the way into the show, Bono asked for quiet and then introduced his special friend. B.B. King came out from the darkness and the place went wild. Next, Bono mentioned that the group had been rehearsing in Memphis a few weeks earlier and wrote a special song with B.B. King in mind. They had never performed this song live before, and certainly B.B. King had never done the tune before either. In an impromptu jam session, “When Love Came to Town,” was performed and recorded for the live album, with various members of U2 going back and forth with B.B. King — who both sang and did a guitar solo. That was a magical moment to witness, especially from about 30 feet away. Not a bad show, seeing U2 with a surprise appearance by the great B.B. King.
B.B. King may have passed on, but just as certain, his music will endure and be cherished for generations to come. So long as one of his songs is within earshot, the thrill will never be gone.
Note: Photo courtesy of BBKing.com