Remembering Blues legend BB King
The thrill is gone, and with it, an era is over. The death of 89-year-old BB King in Las Vegas comes not only as a colossal loss to the Blues, but to American music as a whole. For over six decades, he has been one of the biggest musical icons, attracting millions with his emotion-filled voice and wailing guitar.
BB King plays at a concert for his 80th birthday on July 12, 2005 in Rome, Italy. Pic/Getty Images
Just like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, BB King has been a huge influence on practically every guitarist who attempted the Blues, both in its pure and Rock-blended forms. The list of his followers includes luminaries like Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mike Bloomfield.
Even in his 80s, he was more prolific than many, far younger musicians. Till a couple of years ago, he appeared in over a hundred shows a year, and even in his heyday, did more than 300. Despite the hectic touring schedule, he released a whopping 42 studio albums, including successful collaborations with Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Eric Clapton. Talk of stamina. There were the classic songs too. The thrill is gone, Lucille, Sweet sixteen and his version of Lowell Fulson’s Three o’clock Blues, have all become part of Blues folklore. The more serious fan would admire Sweet little angel, Nobody loves me but my mother, How blue can I get? and his rendition of Memphis Slim’s Every day I have the blues. Among his concert recordings, the albums Live at the Regal and Live in Cook County Jail are super-sellers, and his DVD, One Special Night with James Brown is a must-watch.
June 19, 1979, American Blues singer and guitarist BB King in performance. Pic/Getty Images
Born Riley B King at Itta Bena, Mississippi, on September 16, 1925, King got his name ‘BB’ as a short form for ‘Blues Boy an abridged version of Beale Street Blues Boy, which he used while DJing for a radio show in Memphis, in the late 1940s. Side by side, he also played live gigs, and claimed to be hugely influenced by Bluesmen T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jazz guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and even popular singers Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
When King got his first taste of success with Three o’clock Blues in 1952, the Blues world was ruled by the likes of Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker. The great Howlin’ Wolf was a contemporary. Both these musicians were to later create an impact on UK-based 1960s bands like the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and the Animals. By this time, two other Kings — Freddie King and Albert King — made waves, and thus the term ‘Three Kings of the Blues’ was coined.
BB King’s technique, of course, set him apart. Using a combination of bent notes and strong vibrato, he created a style that became pretty much his own. Very often, he would attribute his distinct manner to his inability to play the popular ‘bottleneck’ method like Elmore James. Interestingly, he would name his Gibson guitars ‘Lucille’ after his hit song written for an Arkansas woman, who caused a row between two men at one of his shows.
One of King’s biggest virtues was that he loved playing with the younger generation, including Slash, John Mayer, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. They all looked up to him as a mentor, a master, a magician. For an entire generation, the King is gone. Long live the King.
'You'll have something everlasting, long after there is no more BB King'
An extract from departed Blues legend BB King’s message to his fans in a DVD of his 2006 live show at Nashville and Memphis
BLUES music tells my story. Blues music tells the things that I wish I could say while I’m talking to you. I think I’ve used the word a few times…blues music is like a ‘tonic’. In my mind, it’s good for whatever ails you.
I've had people say to me from time to time: ‘You know B, my loved one… we split up. I really need to hear you.’ I guess they thought that really made me feel good, but I didn’t think it flattered me at all because that music is good for whatever ails you. And I think you don’t just have to hear the Blues because you are blue. I think the Blues can make you happy. I think the Blues can ease those pains without making you bluer. However, for whatever reason and whatever it does to you, I want you to know that this is done with love. It’s with love, because, well, I’m not strong enough in the head to explain everything in words that some of you would need to really understand it.
When I’m playing to an audience nightly, if I see one guy doing this (gesticulating a thumbs up) or one lady doing this (nodding in appreciation) or just see someone’s foot keeping with the time and tempo that I’m doing, I sometimes feel all of those people are embracing me and I also feel like my arms are like great, big rubber arms that I can wrap them around the whole audience and embrace them. You know what? I got the feeling at nights and when we were doing this DVD. I felt the warmth from the people. I believe you will feel they are embracing me and I am embracing them. And if they don’t feel like that, I wish they did.
Always remember, I love you and I am playing just for you. Oh excuse me, for us, because I’m enjoying it too.
If you watch the audience that’s with me, you’ll find that some of them understand what I’m trying to do. God knows, I believe that you’ll have something that will be everlasting, long after there is no more BB King. Lucille (the guitar) will be here for a while because I don’t plan to have her buried with me… but I want her at the grave.
(With inputs from Clayton Murzello)
Compiled by Dhara Vora & Ashmak Maity
Anjan Dutta, Musician
The King will always be in our hearts. Every time I see a F-hole semi-electric guitar, I feel the Blues. His tunes will never seize to inspire us.
Arunima Banerjee, Vocalist (The Saturday Night Blues Band)
The passing of a legend is always heartbreaking but a legend like BB King can never really die. His musical legacy will continue eternally and we will find him in his music, always.
Sunil Sampat, Co-founder Jazz Addicts
I have heard him live long back, and he made the atmosphere electric. He transformed Blues to something else, made the traditional old-fashioned Blues, modern and expanded the scope of the audience. He would always get a full house.
Rhys D'souza, Saxophonist
Every once in a while you come across an artiste whose music stays alive for generations together. He was a star, but like a star you burn out one day. His legacy will live on as he has given the world so much that will stay with us for years.