Friday, May 15, 2015

BB King Makes The Passage 1925-2015

BB King, that icon of blues and R&B has gone to the Lord, at the age of 89.

The news isn't unexpected, since he had diabetes and was in poor health generally. According to his lawyer, Brent Bryson, BB King went peacefully, dying in his sleep at his home in Las Vegas.

BB King was more than just an incredible guitar player and singer. During his career, which went back to the 1950's, his amazing performances influenced virtually anyone who played guitar. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mike Bloomfield, Robbie Robertson, Elvin Bishop, Mick Taylor, Billy Gibbons, Peter Green,Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Cray were just a few of the musicians whom he inspired and in some cases mentored. To say he changed the face of music is to state the simple truth.

Riley B. King grew up in the Mississippi Delta, on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi in the Roaring Twenties, the time of the Great Flood and the black migration from the south to the north and west. There, he heard the sounds of people like Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw and his cousin Bukka White, music he later integrated with his gospel singing roots into his own unique sound. At the age of 23, he was appearing on Sonny Boy Williamson's King Biscuit Flower Hour on KWEM in Arkansas, a show that could be heard all over the South and even as far north as Canada if you were lucky.

Later, BB went across the river to Memphis, the northern corner of the Delta where he got himself a spot performing and deejaying on WDIA. That's where he discovered the electric guitar courtesy of T-Bone Walker who was a guest on BB King's radio show.

A couple of years later he was recording for the Bihari Brothers' L.A. based label, with most of his tracks being produced by none other than Sam Phillips, who also recorded a number of other bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf, Pat Hare and Ike Turner, and later went on to form Sun Records...where one day, a skinny, black-haired white teenager with the unusual name 'Elvis' walked through the door.

BB King was a regular on what was then called the 'chitlin' circuit - small to medium sized black clubs and social halls - ever since his first real hit, "Three O'clock Blues" in 1952. He was young enough to be able to deal with the extended touring involved and in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the revolution electric instruments and amplification brought to popular music.

It was around this time BB switched his guitar permanently from Fenders to various models of Gibson's ES ('electric Spanish' ) semi-hollow bodied guitars. The one below is, I believe,  an ES-345 SV with stereo wiring or an ES-335, the non-stereo version. Both utilize a Varitone, a switch to change the mid-range and treble on the guitar for different tones.

 B King always called his guitars 'Lucille, ' a reminder of an incident on the chitlin' circuit where two men got into a fight over a woman named Lucille. One of them knocked over a lamp and set the club on fire, and BB ran back into the blazing club to retrieve his guitar. He called all of his guitars Lucille ever after.

BB King's real break came in the sixties, when the rock and roll guitar idols began mentioning his name in interviews as an influence, The Rolling Stones took him on tour with them in 1969 and he had a major 1970 crossover hit, "The Thrill is Gone" and a TV appearance on Ed Sullivan that brought him into the mainstream. Here's a fragment:

Just as he had for decades, BB continued to do his 300+ shows a year, slowing down only a little as age and illness crept up on him.

I ran into him three times, once on the road, once backstage after an incredible show with Bobby Blue Bland and Albert King, and once at his night club in Los Angeles. He was always gracious and friendly well beyond the usual show biz norm once he had sussed you out and realized you just wanted to say hell or, talk music or guitars and weren't trying to put the arm on him for something.

BB King went off peacefully, thank G-d, and his music will live forever.

We've lost quite a few wonderful musicians lately, and when someone like BB King leaves the building, it breaks a chain that goes all the way back to the Delta where it all started.That is a very grievous loss, because in many ways, music is sort of a conversation between musicians, which is how it grows and changes.  BB King was a huge contributor to that conversation. and sadly,  there aren't many new ones coming along whom are part of it,  whom are connected to that tradition, or have the talent to keep the flame kindled even if they were.

And that loss saddens me no end.

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