I was saddened by the news of the great blues guitarist BB King’s passing recently in his sleep at the age of 89…I had the privilege of seeing BB King literally dozens of times in his prime….He was a featured performer at both Bill Grahams Fillmore Auditorium and Chet Helms the Avalon Ballroom, and in the Summer of Love era ALL the bands played 2 full, complete sets every night, so it was like a double shot of the blues every time he appeared on stage to an always rapt and appreciative audience…
BB King played songs in the old Southern delta blues style, and he always sang and played impeccably about a long past bygone era, one of smoky small crowded clubs, deep in the South, the so called “chitin’s circuit” before mostly all black audiences….But even after he gained prominence, you could still feel, almost hear, the sounds of noisy ice tinkling in the glasses of small Southern nightclubs and animated conversation, the heat of a crowded small club on a Saturday night, the raw energy of the audience… But when he got going the attention was always on him…His music was evocative, powerful and compelling, he drew you into his music…
He had this unique way of seeming to make his guitar “talk,” almost like Peter Frampton, but without any gimmicky techno equipment, just the power of his playing while he was singing….His face was so expressive while he bent the strings of his guitar solos on long extended jams you would swear the guitar was talking…He had large fingers but he always nailed each and every note precisely, firmly, and with a definite power that mesmerized me, and everybody else in the audience that was privileged to hear him…
He sang songs about the blues, love and betrayal and revenge and heartbreak, all the things that he himself experienced as he traveled throughout the country with his beloved guitar “Lucille”….BB King stayed true to the blues format, while many of his contemporaries and close friends like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino shrewdly adapted their styles to the new music called rock and roll….
BB King was content to play the music he was most comfortable with his entire career, he was a blues master, and his influence was profound….Once discovered, he had a string of R & B hits in the 1950’s and this exposure further heightened his popularity to a legion of aspiring up and coming rock musicians….
He was idolized by the 1960’s British invasion, people like Eric Clapton especially, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and dozens of other popular British musicians were hypnotized by his soulful blues picking…Clapton was so powerfully influenced by King’s relaxed, but deeply emotional and deeply felt, style that in 2000 he recorded a blues album with King titled Riding With The King. It was a homage from a musician fans had called “God” to a real blues god. Eric Clapton always idolized BB King….
A new generation of musicians embraced King when U2’s Bono wrote When Love Comes To Town and not only featured King on the album 1988 album Rattle and Hum, but actually toured the world with him. It brought King to a new audience when it reached No.2 on the US pop and rock charts.
He also had a top ten hit with “The Thrill Is Gone, ” but his strongest influence was in the legions of all the new young blues guitarists all over the world….American musicians like Mike Bloomfield, Steve Miller and Stevie Ray Vaughn were also heavily influenced by BB King, and to see him live and in person like I did so many times I now realize for the unique privilege it was….
BB King was able to play the blues so well because he truly lived them, he was a man of his time, and he always remained faithful to himself…. He had the unique ability, like all great artists, he was able to encapsulate the experience of an entire generation in his powerfully emotional, technically perfect, rhythmically rocking style of playing…..
There will never be another BB King because he was a true original, a trend setter, not a trend follower although he was always willing to share his knowledge and discuss guitar playing with any musician who cared to talk with him; he had “conversations” with a very young Jimi Hendrix, for example, but he also affably and enthusiastically jammed with almost every prominent musician of his era….
Besides seeing him in concert so many times, I have one indelible memory of BB King from the 1960’s….One time I was riding the 22 Fillmore bus in San Francisco through what was then a black ghetto and I looked around the bus and sitting near the back, I actually SAW BB King, right there on the bus on some personal business! He did not have his guitar Lucille with him and BB was always a very stylish dresser, dressed to the nines with thick rings on his fingers….
I saw him, and he saw me, but I was too much in awe to say a word to him, I think he was just trying to blend in anyway and I wouldn’t dare risk making a fuss and disturbing his anonymity….After all, he was the King!