Some years ago, I was playing a road game in the van that I often like to play. Everyone takes turns coming up with fill-in-the-blank statements and everyone else has to finish the statement as quickly as they can without thinking about their answer. I began one round by saying “The greatest live performer of all time is…” and my brother Ben immediately shot back… “B.B. King”. Nobody could really argue with that statement, especially not anyone who had ever seen B.B. King in concert.
All kinds of people have something to say about B.B. King. Why shouldn’t they? He played for people in every corner of the Earth. He averaged way over 200 concerts a year for decades. So many people have heard him, seen him and felt his presence in this world. You don’t need me to tell you his biography. That information is everywhere on the internet and in the library. I will however, recommend that you read his autobiography. It came out about 15 years ago. It’s a great read. You really get the personality of the man. There are tons of great stories and he’ll hip you to some of the wonderful music that he was into when he was coming up. From BB, I learned about T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson and Louis Jordan, just to name a few.
I became aware of B.B. King at a very young age. I saw him playing on TV and his picture was in a book called The Guitar Handbook, that my mom had given my older brother for a gift. A couple of years after that I saw a British documentary about B.B. on PBS. I loved the way his music sounded and felt. I loved his singing and the sound of his guitar. I loved the fact that he toured all over the world all the time, practiced every day and just wanted to play more and more. I felt the same way. I still do. I got my first B.B. King album in tenth grade and ever since then, I’ve picked up just about every B.B. King lp or 45 that I’ve come across in yard sales or used record stores wherever I happen to be wandering. B.B. was the headliner of the Newport Jazz Festival Tour that came to the Jones Beach Theater in New York two years in a row during my junior and senior years of high school. I went both times with a bunch of music head friends. We’re still talking about the year it poured rain during his set. The amphitheater was half empty and the old master improvised on his cranked up electric guitar for an hour plus, pulling out some of the most inspired, searing, experimental stuff any of us ever associated with B.B. King or blues guitar.
When it all comes down
Look for me and I’ll still be around
My feelings about B.B. King are probably shared by a few million people: There’s a lonely, longing and yet somehow joyful place that I’ve always been able to feel, deep down in my chest. I ignore it a lot, when I’m just trying to get through the day and get things done. BB King’s singing and playing always remind me that that place is still there, deep down inside. His music lives there. For my entire life, there has always been this giant shining presence, joyfully, soulfully, confidently wailing. Whatever the rest of us were up to, he was on some stage somewhere in the world, crying, kicking ass and cracking up with laughter all at the same time. Like so many others, I’ve taken so much comfort in knowing that he was out there.
Let’s listen to the Music of B.B. King…
Do yourself a favor and resist the greatest hits packages when it comes to digging into the music of B.B. King. Please don’t rely on Spotify to educate you either. You’ll want to dig deep. When I got into B.B.’s music, I had to track down old vinyl records in used record stores and then hope that they were great all the way home to my record player. Luckily for you and me, we can now get a taste for just how wonderful some of these records are on any one of a zillion Youtube clips. I’ll give you a few examples.
B.B. King started recording circa 1950. Some of his greatest singing was done when he still sang with the high range of a young man.
“Bad Luck” 1956:
Some of his coolest, most adventurous guitar playing was done before he had ever “crossed over” to the larger, whiter market.
“Early in the Morning” 1957:
He made a whole album’s worth of guitar instrumentals in the early 60’s.
“38th Street Blues” 1960:
He made several beautiful straight-up soul records in the 70’s.
“Hold On (I Feel Our Love is Changing)” 1975:
Though he’s most known for recordings backed by big bands with horn sections, his personal favorite of his own albums was “My Kind of Blues”, recorded at Chess Records in Chicago with a small group.
“Driving Wheel” 1961:
He made funky, dance records that most people probably don’t remember.
“The B.B. Jones” 1968 (dig the writing credits):
…I could send you links until the wee hours of the morning:
“Three O’Clock Blues” 1950:
…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
My home is in the delta
Over the course of his long, hugely successful career, B.B. King became known as the “Ambassador of the Blues” because he traveled to so many places, bringing with him what was at it’s core a very African American and deep Southern art form. Some “purists” might tell you that B.B. King’s blues were urban, polished and therefore not as directly from the source as the music of some more rural delta bluesmen. I love the rural, pre-war blues. I listen to early blues all the time. I’ve even written about a few of the older blues artists in previous posts. So let’s get something straight right here: B.B. King didn’t invent the blues. He didn’t invent the blues on electric guitar either. Many of his most famous songs were recorded by other people first. No one could or should survive on a blues diet of BB King alone. There are countless wonderful blues artists that came before, during and after B.B. King. I urge you to go out and learn about and listen to as much of the blues as you can. But guess what… Once you do, B.B. King will still be wonderful. He was a marvelous singer, guitar player and band leader with a voice, tone and style all his own. His songs were built upon a deep, heavy groove that only knew how to swing. And regardless of the urbanity and jazz that made it’s way into his music, his roots in the Mississippi delta (where he was born and raised) are never lost.
Most of all, I just want to say thank you to B.B. King for singing his heart out with his voice and his guitar, for crying those blues and making all of those hearts joyfully ache and all of those butts joyfully shake across the world for so long.