"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Music Tuesday: B. B. King, In Memoriam

It was with great sadness to learn a couple of weeks ago the great blues legend B.B. King passed away.  He died on May 14thFrom Billboard, which wrote a magnificent obituary and worth reading every word of it:

B.B. King, the last of the Southern-born blues musicians who defined modern electric blues in the 1950s and would influence scores of rock and blues guitarists, has died. He was 89.

The Mississippi-born guitarist, who had suffered from Type II diabetes for two decades, died peacefully in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. PDT Thursday at his home in Las Vegas, his attorney Brent Bryson tells the AP. In October, King fell ill during a show and after being diagnosed with dehydration and exhaustion, canceled his concert tour and had not returned to touring at the time of his death.

With his trusty Gibson guitar Lucille, King developed his audiences in stages, connecting with African-Americans region by region in the 1950s and '60s, breaking through to the American mainstream in the '70s and becoming a global ambassador for the blues soon thereafter, becoming the first blues musician to play the Soviet Union.

I don’t know what’s left to say about B. B. King.  He was truly one of the greats, a great vocalist, a great guitarist, and a great song writer.

Born Riley King on Sept. 16, 1925, in the Mississippi Delta near Itta Bena,  he was raised on a cotton farm by his maternal grandmother, Elnora. His mother died he was 9, his grandmother when he was 14. He picked cotton on a plantation in Indianola, Miss., and his first recording, made in 1940, was the “Sharecropper Record” in 1940.

King learned the guitar by studying Jefferson, Walker, Lonnie Johnson and his cousin, Booker “Bukka” White, who taught him the finer points of guitar.

“I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin’ cotton or choppin’ or something,’ ” King recalled in a 1988 interview with Living Blues. “When I play and sing now, I can hear those same sounds that I used to hear then.”

He believed gospel singing was a path to success and in 1943 joined the Famous St. John Gospel Singers, which was featured on WGRM, a gospel radio station. He sang in church on Sundays, then changed hats in the evenings to play for tips on the street corners of Indianola.

That same year he joined the Army, but his stay lasted less than three months. He spent his service days driving a tractor on a Delta plantation and his weekends at Indianola music spots soaking up the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Robert Nighthawk. At that time, he decided he would attempt to play blues rather than gospel.

I should say that King’s style of blues did not initially resonate with me when I was younger.  He used a big band ensemble more so than any other of the great blues legends, giving it a jazzy texture which struck me as out of the true Mississippi Delta blues tradition.  But in time it did grow on me.  I remember seeing King at his New York City blues club once (gosh, I wish I could remember when that was) and watching him live persuaded me over.  Forget the arrangement, he really was a great guitarist.  From Billboard:

King, whose best-known song was "The Thrill is Gone," developed a commercial style of the blues guitar-playing long on vibrato and short, stinging guitar runs while singing almost exclusively about romance. Unlike the musicians who influenced him, Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker, for example, or his contemporaries Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin Wolf whose music bore geographic identities, King's music was not tethered to the style heard at the Mississippi plantation he was born on or the Beale Street sound in Memphis where he first established his career.

He took rural 12-bar blues and welded it to big city, horn driven ensembles populated with musicians who understood swing and jazz, but played music that worked a groove and allowed King's honey-sweet vocals and passionate guitar licks to stand out. His solos often started with a four- or five-note statement before sliding into a soothing, jazzy phrase; it's the combination of tension and release that King learned from gospel singers and the jazz saxophonists Lester Young and Johnny Hodges.

Well let’s sample some of his work.

Here’s what I mean about the band arrangement mixed with his beautifully lyrical guitar riffs.

But then he could get down with traditional blues arrangement just like the best of them.

And he could just capture an emotion.  He understood that the blues are about a core emotion.

As a musician, and especially a bluesman, King had regrets in how he had not been the best father in the world.  He fathered fifteen children with several women, and he married two of them.  There is an interview (I searched but couldn’t find it) where he confesses and lives up to his mistakes.  In the end, he made peace with his sins.  I just love this Sinner’s Prayer he does with Ray Charles.

Finally one has to end a B. B. King retrospective with his greatest hit, possibly the greatest blues song ever written and recorded. 

I could listen to that song every day of my life.  B. B. you may be gone, but thrill is still there.  Rest in eternal light.

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