Intellectually, of course, it doesn’t make any sense thinking that Riley B. King — B.B. to you, me and everyone else on the planet — would live forever. But you don’t approach the blues as an intellectual exercise. It’s all about feeling, about emotion, and as a long-time master of the emotional palette that makes the blues what it is, B.B. King created a sound that seems like it’s always been there, constantly in the ether, so long a component of the air we breathe, it’s hard to see where it really began.
For most of us, we’ve never known a world without him. He was always there, present, available. Even when we didn’t actively listen and pay attention — and if we’re honest, we know perfectly well that was most of the time — it was damn fine just knowing he was around, like oxygen and a woman’s smile and the blue blue blue of the sky above.
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A career that would last 65 years got its beginning not that long after he did, in September 1925, in the plantation town of Itta Bena, Miss. Raised by his maternal grandmother, he sang in the church choir in Kilmichael, Miss., and either bought his first guitar for $15 or was given a guitar by his cousin, blues great Bukka White. Whichever way it happened, it was an iconic beginning, a powerful marriage that would change the course of American music.
Between 18 and 21, B.B. started the adventure of life on the road, circulating around Mississippi and traveling to Memphis, where he was mentored by Bukka White. He went back to Mississippi and later went to Arkansas, performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, Ark. (Albert King hailed from there).
His big break came in 1952, when B.B. recorded “3 O’Clock Blues,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. A string of other hits followed — “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Please Love Me,” “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer” and “Whole Lotta Love,” as well as songs that would become more recognized staples of his playlist for decades (like “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Please Accept My Love”).
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BY THE 1960’s, the ascendancy of the blues as a musical influence was well underway. Thanks to any number of young UK musicians eager to stake their claim on the British invasion, the blues was as big a full-on cultural influence as it would ever be. This worked to B.B.’s advantage. He toured constantly throughout the decade, opened for the Rolling Stones and had a crossover hit with “The Thrill Is Gone,” which took the R&B and pop charts by storm.
And by the late 60’s, and certainly the 70’s, the regimen of non-stop touring he started years before had taken hold for good. All due props to the one-time Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown, but B.B. could rightly lay claim to that title too: A 1998 Rolling Stone story by Gerri Hirshey estimated that King had played more than 15,000 concerts. And that was 17 years ago.
Rolling Stone elsewhere reported that King “spent more than 65 years on the road, playing more than 300 shows a year until cutting back to around 100 during the last decade.”
He turns up on a 1970 album working with Duke Ellington. He opened for the Rolling Stones at the 1969 Madison Square Garden show that led to the live Stones album “Get Your Ya-Yas Out.”
He worked with U2, recording “When Love Comes to Town,” a duet with Bono, on the band’s “Rattle and Hum” album.
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How strange it’s been, over the years, to see what’s become of that audience. I wrote this for msnbc.com back in 2003: “It’s one of the enduring ironies of popular culture that the blues — the music that figures so centrally in the very existence of rock — is so consistently ignored by the buying public. Sales of blues records have declined in recent years to under 4 percent of total recorded-music sales, according to 2001 data from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.”
A B.B. King discography
Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2011 that “the blues exists on the margins of American cultural life, a quaint reminder of what once was, a sound with a colossal history, a diminished reality and a tenuous future.”
This assessment, almost certainly a fact, makes B.B. King’s passing that much more bittersweet. With his passing, we’re witness to the passing of blues’ most relentless, gracious and omnipresent ambassador, the man whose name and style personified the genre for generations.
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HE WAS one of three Kings of the blues — Albert King and Freddie King were the others — but in many ways, B.B. eclipsed them all, along with everyone else who ever dared to play the blues. Clapton, whom a lot of people thought was God back in the day, knows what’s what about B.B. “He was a beacon for all of us who loved this kind of music,” he said in remembrance video on Facebook, “and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.”
But the blues remains, monster sales notwithstanding, as something it’s always been: a music with a place in the American heart, soil and soul.
B.B. King funeral set for May 30
In order to make sense of B.B. King, and to make sense of the blues at all, you have to come to grips with where it’s from, a birthplace hard by the Mississippi River, the American Nile. B.B. understood early on what, in 2003, I called “the river’s place in the national imagination, its hold on the soul.”
“Say ‘Mississippi,’ and ‘the blues’ might as well be in the next breath,” I wrote. “That music and life in the fertile Mississippi Delta are so inextricably intertwined, some might say there's no difference between them, certainly not to fans of American music.”
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“Blues is an unsentimental music,” the author, essayist and jazz musician Stanley Crouch told me in August 2003. “It's a music of great sentiment, but it's unsentimental. That separates it from R&B, which has a quality of sentimentality. It definitely separates it from rock, which has a hysterical sentimentality, or from rap, which is a testament to the decline of music education in the public schools.”
“Blues is a lot of things: It's a sedative, a form of exorcism,” Crouch told me. “One achieves freedom from the blues by confronting the blues. If you can express it with a certain level of emotional and musical eloquence, you will be somewhat liberated from the thing that's hounding you.”
And when what’s hounding you is nothing less than the pressures of modern life itself, the necessity of the blues becomes all too obvious. Whether we’ve got the good sense to recognize it or not.
YOU KNOW this when you watch B.B. playing at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010. Witness the deference to the master, shown in the faces of everyone on that stage. Clapton. Robert Cray. Buddy Guy. Ron Wood. Johnny Winter. Not a six-string slouch among ‘em.
But watch B.B. himself, playing a sound, a music, a history that’s as natural for him as breathing. Hear that tone you've heard forever. Listen to that voice, that smoky, resonant emotional barometer steeped in joy and pain. Watch that lovely flutter of his fingers on the fretboard. Nothing extraneous, no frills or showboating, and the barest ghost of ego. Only the necessity of the music.
Since he passed a week ago, you could count a number of tributes to B.B. bearing the headline THE THRILL IS GONE. There’s been more than a few already. With B.B. King’s passing, amid a rock-and-roll-besotted culture ignorant of or indifferent to its own history, it’s fair to wonder how many people experienced “the thrill” in the first place.
But no. Millions did. If you saw him live, you certainly did. If you’ve listened to any of his outsize discography, you got it too. If you did either one, you already know just how big a hole there is today in the music world. It’s a hole in our hearts we’ll never fill ... not least of all because, for too many of us, it’s a vacancy we don’t even know we’ve got.
Image credits: B.B. King top: Richard Drew/Associated Press. B.B. King in Germany 1971: Heinrich Klaffs. B.B. King at White House, December 2008: The White House.