When the legendary blues singer and guitarist passed away on May 14th music lovers the world over mourned his passing. What was it that made BB King the ‘King of the Blues?’
“B.B. King bent the strings on a guitar like no one else, and we all owe him something now. Every guitar player that’s not known and well-known is playing something that man created on a guitar.” — Buddy Guy
The world is full of musicians. Good, ones, bad ones, professional, amateur; musicians everywhere. Which is great, the world needs musicians. Every once in a while though a musician comes along who isn’t just another, that singular kind that brings something so powerful to the music they play that it affects the way the music is played by everyone else. Louis Armstrong did it with jazz, and BB Kind did it with the blues.
Riley B. King was born on a Mississippi corn plantation to parents Albert and Nora Ella on September 16th 1925, although from the age of 4 he would be raised by his maternal grandmother Elnora Farr after his mother eloped with another man. His mother’s first cousin was the blues singer Booker ‘Bukka’ White and unconfirmed stories claim he gave King his first guitar when he was aged 12. What is know for sure is that in 1948 he ended up in West Memphis, Arkansas and began establishing himself as a singer, although at this point he was still playing acoustic. It was after meeting and hearing T-Bone Walker that he was convinced the electric guitar which was then still a fairly new instrument was the way forward, later noting “Once I’d heard him for the first time, I knew I’d have to have [an electric guitar] myself. *Had* to have one, short of stealing!”
Signing with RPM records in 1949 King, who by now had adopted his ‘BB’ moniker deriving it from the nickname ‘Blues Boy, his first major hit was ‘3 O’clock Blues’, a song which began with some searing, laser-like guitar notes unlike any heard on a blues record before. The tone was full, rounded, and kicked like a mule. King’s fluid single-note style, coupled with his use of space and his belief in never playing 3 or 4 notes when one really good one will do are evident right from the start. It’s style that would influence and help transform the way electric guitar was used in the blues. King never sang and played at the same time, instead alternating between the two as if in conversation.
Over the coming years King established himself as one of the hardest working men in the business, however it was in the late 60’s and 70’s that he would reach the most successful stage of his career largely thanks to the British blues scene which had exported the music back to America boosting its popularity at a time when it had come to be seen as slightly archaic. King’s style was hugely influential on the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jeff Beck, and subsequently almost every blues and/or rock guitarist who came after to some degree.
In the 1980’s King’s collaboration with U2 ‘When Love Comes To Town’ helped bring him to the attention of yet another generation of music lovers. King never stopped touring and recording, performing up until October of last year. He had the good sense to never lose the absolute essence of who he was and what he did in those years, remaining true to his vision of the blues until the last.
I want to leave you with three performances that exemplify King’s stature as not just a musician but as a performer too. The first is taken from a concert in Cook County Jail in 1970, the audio of which was released as an album the following year. It shows him in perfect control of the rowdy audience from the moment he steps on stage.
The second is a real treat, King live in Zaire, Africa in 1974 as part of the concert that accompanied the infamous ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ boxing encounter between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. It’s King at his peak and his performances of ‘Why I Sing The Blues’ and ‘Sweet Sixteen’ are particularly powerful.
Finally, from just last year this performance of what was probably his signature song ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, showing that even in his 80’s he could still bring the fire. King lived to perform and even at this age he was still performing 150 or more shows a year.
As I said, there are lots of musicians in the world. And then there are those like BB King. When his death was announced on Friday morning it was as if everyone who loves this wonderful thing called music knew that someone special had left us, even if they weren’t particularly familiar with what he did. King was a touchstone, a marker point in musical history. There aren’t many like that, who achieve that kind of stature. We should be very grateful we ever had him at all. Farewell Blues Boy, you may be gone but the thrill will stay with us a good long time.