Friday, May 15, 2015

Remembering B.B. King of the Blues

by Bill Doughty

Reading books on weekends (or while working on the Navy Reads blog) can be enhanced with some music on. This weekend it will be the blues.

Riley B. King died May 14 in Las Vegas. The King of the Blues was 89.

I heard my first B.B. King album at 17 in 1971, "Live at Cook County Jail."

When I discovered the music of B.B. King and his guitar Lucille I was already into the electric blues of Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Cream, and of course Led Zeppelin. B.B. was the pure heart of stage-band blues who captured hearts with "The Thrill is Gone."

But it was his Live at Cook County version of "How Blue Can You Get," written by Leonard and Jane Feather, that gives me chills every time I hear it. Funny, audacious, powerful: 

   "I gave you a brand new Ford, but you said 'I want a Cadillac.' 
   I bought you a ten dollar dinner, and you said 'thanks for the snack.' 
   I let you live in my penthouse; you said it was just a shack.
   I gave you seven children, and now you want to give 'em back."

   I've been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met. 
   You know our love is nothing but the blues. 
   Tell me how blue can you get"

You have to hear his Cook County performance as he belts out these lines backed by his tight band.

B.B. King was renowned for his generous spirit and positive perspective. He was said by one biographer to "worship education and lament his lack of schooling," having survived the Depression and life as a sharecropper, picking cotton as a child and young man. His influences were the Count Basie Band, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Django Reinhardt and especially T. Bone Walker.

As an artist he communicated universal messages of love and pain through his music.

B.B. King performs at Harvard's Lippmann's House in 1980.
In 1980 the King of the Blues visited Harvard University's Lippmann House at the invitation of Bulgarian journalist and Nieman Foundation for Journalism Fellow Bistra Lankova and biographer Charles Sawyer, author of "The Arrival of B.B. King."

King performed "for love," according to Sawyer.
"What followed was a unique and purely magical performance. He played five songs, singing without a microphone while his audience listened, in complete thrall to the greatest blues singer and guitarist of all time, who was sitting across the room from them, giving them a private concert. The power of B.B.’s voice was enhanced, not diminished, by the absence of a sound system because of the intimacy he achieved in the confines of a small, acoustically dampened space."
You can read about B.B. King's unique example of King's commitment to the blues, and listen to his performance – in a library, captured on a small recorder. The acoustic dampening comes from the books, no doubt. Among the songs King does in the nearly-unplugged venue are "I Like to Live the Love (that I Sing About)," "How Blue Can You Get" and "The Thrill is Gone."

According to David Ritz, another writer who collaborated with King on his autobiography "Blues All Around Me," King's move to Memphis in 1946 at the age of 21 "changed his life – and the course of American music."

Ritz wrote this in 1998 about B.B. King in liner notes to the great bluesman's Greatest Hits:
"His devotion to the urban blues he loves so deeply has insured the genre a distinct place of acceptance and honor. King is a man of honor, an artist whose lifework bears the stamp of integrity, passion and honesty. He has blessed our culture with a blues, born in despair and nourished in faith, of singular and stirring beauty."
The thrill is not gone.

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