May 11, 2015: The day the blues died (column)
On Your Right
Legendary musician B.B. King has passed into history; we are poorer for the loss.
B.B. King, whose first name was actually Riley, is what a less cynical and self-absorbed time would have called an American success story. Born at Berclair, Mississippi, into a sharecropping family in 1925, he lived through the height of Jim Crow in one of America’s most racially oppressive states. His mother left when he was four; he and his siblings were raised by a grandmother and an extended family. He was a child for most of the Great Depression. But he did more than survive; he thrived.
By the time President Truman desegregated the federal government, undoing Woodrow Wilson’s great experiment in resolving racial conflict through separation, King had a steady gig at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis, and a local radio show. According to some, this is where he acquired the nickname “B.B.,” short for “Blues Boy.” It was also where he met bluesman T-Bone Walker, who showed King what an electric guitar could do in the right hands. Music has never been quite the same.
By the time “Brown v. Topeka Board of Education” buried Jim Crow education, B.B. King had a number of hit songs and was performing almost nightly across the country. He had a recording studio and his own label, and was working with several emerging musicians. In the tumultuous 1960s, he recorded what he thought the best blues album he’d ever done, “Live at the Regal,” in Chicago’s Regal auditorium. He’s right. In fact, it may be the best blues set recorded by anyone, ever.
In 1969, B.B. King opened for the Rolling Stones in their U.S. tour. This might seem an odd pairing, but it isn’t. Both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger acknowledged King’s powerful influence on their music, as have others as disparate as Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughn. This is part of King’s real and lasting genius.
Blues is uniquely American music. We created it, with its simple, vivid melodies and melancholy themes born of desperate lives and hard times. B.B. King worked for 70 years to introduce it to people who had no inkling of its history or power. In many ways he was a bridge between older bluesmen like Willie Broonzy, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who lived difficult and sometimes violent lives in a world that had respect neither for their talents nor their humanity, and our putatively more enlightened times. He never forgot his past or its stories, and his music was all the more impactful for it.
Most of today’s music, like the rest of our art, is highly processed: formulaic, product-tested, superficial, packaged with the add-on videos and comics. B.B. King was an antidote to that because he was anything but processed. To the end, his songs were raw and spoke not to the black or the white, but to the human condition: loss. Despair. Redemption. Doubt. Fear. Love. And loss, again. It was the blues, right out there for anyone to hear.
I spoke with B. B. King twice; the first time, I was renting cars in Huntsville, Alabama and his group was looking for a couple of cars to drive to Muscle Shoals for a session. The second was years later while shooting video at a Seattle arts festival. What impressed most was the character of the man. He was genial and, although a famous musician on a schedule, he didn’t mind chatting for a moment with the drudge guy. Modern politicians ought to try this: it leaves a lasting good impression.
B.B. King worked hard for more than 70 years. Recently his schedule lightened in recognition that he wasn’t a young man – but that meant reduction from live performances 300 days a year to one every three or four days, until October of 2013, when he retired – more or less. Complications of decades with diabetes finally claimed him at 89, twenty months later.
Find three B.B. King recordings: “My Kind of Blues,” from 1960; “Indianola Mississippi Seeds,” from 1970 and “Bayou Blues,” from 1999. Together, they illustrate the trajectory of one of America’s greatest musicians. Listen to them right through and know they are the product of a man who grew up in a single-parent family living in a sharecropper’s shack in rural Mississippi back in the bad old days, but who eventually changed the face – and the sound of music around the word. He, not “we,” did it. Because he thought he could, and because this is America. As you listen, think on that.
And know that, somewhere in Heaven, a choir is raptly attending to the bent-note blues of Mr. B.B. King.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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