There aren’t many people who are instantly tagged by their initials, but the King of the blues, B.B., is certainly one of them. But it wasn’t always that way. Slamming around in teenage garage bands in the Sixties, like most kids, I knew nothing about “real” blues– the kind played by black people before I was born– until white guys like Eric Clapton started covering them. I’d never heard of B.B. King until The Beatles name-checked him on a song from their “white album,” but he and others like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker soon got a boost from the Caucasian rock gods who revered them.
I found out for myself when I bought his 1971 “Live at Cook County Jail” album. B.B. caressed his “Lucille” like Count Basie played piano; they both knew that what you didn’t play was as important as what you did. And could the guy entertain! He wrung every pang of heartache, hope and even comedy from songs like “How Blue Can You Get?”:
I gave you a brand new Ford,
and you said, “I want a Cadillac”
I gave you a ten-dollar dinner,
and you said, “Thanks for the snack”
I let you live in my penthouse,
and you said it was just a shack
I gave you seven children,
and now you want to give them back!
I final got to see B.B. about 35 years ago at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The evening kicked off with the Kansas City All Stars, a red-hot combo of old alums from Basie bands. Then this ensemble stayed on and backed B.B. for a fusion of his music and theirs like I’d never heard from the Blues Boy. Even though in his 50s by now, B.B practically burst the seams of his sportcoat with passiona, foot-stamping and pounding one fist into another open palm when not coaxing Lucille. Then, he and the All Stars remained on stage to back– are you ready– Ella Fitzgerald. This combination almost levitated the audience into Lake Michigan. If I’ve ever witnessed more musical magic, I can’t remember when.
I saw B.B. once more 15 years ago at the Madison Blues Festival. I have to say it: he was clearly past his prime, weakened by the diabetes he’d been fighting for years. Though still palm-pounding, the blues colossus now had to sit much of his set, and short workouts on Lucille were mixed with long dialogues and audience participation numbers. The crowd loved it, but as a musician I recognized this as set padding– this guy was obviously tired. To me, the performance was a swan song for a 74-year-old legend about to enter retirement.
Imagine my surprise when B.B. continued touring almost nonstop right up to the end, as eternal as the blues themselves. Despite his illness, he cheerfully barnstormed until 89, doing what he– and we– loved. I can’t make any waves in the ocean of tributes to this former Mississippi sharecropper that have poured forth sharecropper poured, except to add my voice to the chorus– long live the King!