Sunday, May 17, 2015

The King is dead, long live the blues

BB King by Naiel Ibarrola

BB King has died, and it feels like the end of an era. There are artists who seem to have been "always there"; in King's case, he was already playing when my father was a toddler; when he released his first hit, "Three O'Clock Blues", Elvis was 16. He's also the last world-wide known bluesman to have come from the cotton fields of Mississippi, where he was born in 1925. He certainly is the last bandleader to have gone from playing the "chitlin' circuit" to packing the most select venues in the world.

It is the end of an era.

BB King is an oddity for many reasons: he is known around the world, his name forever embedded in our popular culture, and he has achieved this with a poor showing in hit listings. "The Thrill Is Gone" made it to number 3 and 15 on Billboard's R&B and pop charts respectively. In 1969. The definitive leap into the mainstream may have been thanks to U2's Rattle and Hum, a film plus album where King was included in one song, "When Love Comes to Town". King was subsequently invited to be the opening act for U2 in their 1989 world-wide tour. Over 25 years ago.

But King toured. A lot. In 1956 he did 342 one-nighters with his own big band (he reduced the size of the group the following year). He stopped performing only a few months ago because it was physically impossible for him to perform, and only death has stopped him from returning to the stage. His average yearly gig count is somewhere between 200 and 300, for over 60 years. Charles Sawyer, his first biographer, wondered back in 1980 whether King would achieve, as he neared his golden years, the cultural status of a Louis Armstrong, someone not only immediately recognizable, but a pop figure with unimpeachable musical and showmanship chops, unanimously loved. Whatever doubts there might have been about this—including King's, who was prone to self-doubt—were dispelled a long time ago.

Sax player George Coleman, today a NEA Jazz Master, played, for twelve brief but intense months, in King's band in 1955 and 1956. He joined on alto sax, and was a veteran of the tenor instrument when he left, having learned the larger horn on the job. As he told in an interview, the band never missed a gig, and the musicians were always paid on time (and handsomely, according to King himself). Other members of King's orchestra who "made it" in the realm of jazz after those Memphis days include Hank Crawford and Phineas Newborn, Jr.

It'd be easy to romanticize over the origins of King's work ethics, but his having worked the cotton fields must surely account for something. In this interview he also explained how he hired musicians: "about 75% man first, you know, gentleman; and 25% musician [...] If he's just a good guy, I can tolerate the other part". After so many years in the business, not a single person has uttered a bad word about him, not even hardened record-business people like the Biharis (for whose labels he recorded during his first decade), or Sam Phillips (who recorded him in his legendary studio, in Memphis).

Regarding his artistic direction, King maintained a hard-headed determination to keep to the blues. When, for instance, the rock'n'roll tsunami rolled over—mostly from Memphis, where he was based—he just let it pass. Not only he stuck to the blues, but he felt the need and worked to dignify the genre, in front of both white and black audiences, which he tried to reconcile with their own musical legacy. The most visible facet of this was his slick appearance and dapper attires, following the gentlemanly models of Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. 

BB King's bonhomie, added to the staggering number of miles he's left behind, explain his rapport with audiences throughout the world, with people who, in most cases, he wouldn't be able to hold a conversation with. This video from 1970 is a good example on how he could work a tough audience. There are many stories, too, about his patience and his willingness to say hello to anyone wanting to meet him, always humble and never forgetting how he privileged he was to have reached such a status.

He was wrong. We were the privileged.

May he rest in peace, and long live the blues.


Musically, there's not much to be said besides what has already been said, and what's available on records and videos.  In these, King explains all sorts of details about his guitar playing, from strings and amplifiers, to scales and chords.

King was a really great guitar player, especially regarding dynamics, which he controlled with laser-like precision to maximum effect. He was also enormously influential, but, like Delmark Records' Bob Koester once said, listening to the blues and ignoring the vocals is like going to the opera to listen to the orchestra. Don't miss BB King the singer, with his beautiful light tenor voice and his generous sprinklings of melisma.  


For some reason, possibly related to rights and where it was recorded, this is the most readily available BB King you'll find, because it's been bootlegged to death. Still a good recording, it was made on January 28, 1983, at the Palais des Congrès, Cannes, France. You can listen to it on Spotify.

The excellent documentary Life of Riley can be watched here.


Some concert footage and interviews:

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