Sunday, May 17, 2015

Remembering B. B. King

It felt momentarily like a light went out in the world when Riley B.--"B. B."--King (b. September 16, 1925, near Itta Bena, Mississippi) passed away last Thursday. One of the consummate and best known musicians of his generation, he excelled as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist in a range of musical genres, though he was without a doubt most renowned for his skills as a bluesman and as a pioneering instrumentalist who influenced several generations of blues, R&B and rock & roll guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. His skillful use of vibrato in his solos, and his style of singing, which matched restraint and deep emotion, are unforgettable once you have heard them. It is no surprise that he gained the nickname "The King of the Blues" and that he was considered one of the "Three Kings of the Blues," along with the late Albert King and the late Freddie King.

King grew up in Indianola and Kilmichael, Mississippi, the home of many of the greatest artists working in the blues, and sang in the church choir as a child, his immersion in church music evident to the very end. Self-taught on the guitar, he began performing as a traveling guitarist with the King John's Quartet while still a teenager, and eventually began to make a name for himself on the radio while playing in Memphis, Tennessee, another major home for the blues and black music. While DJing at WDIA radio station in Memphis, King gained the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy," which became "Blues Boy" and then the lasting "B. B." by which he would be revered by music lovers across the globe. Although he began playing on an acoustic guitar, he would eventually shift to an electric guitar and develop the style that grew into his trademark.

By the 1950s King had formed his own bands, started composing, recording and touring the US, and garnering fame with the then burgeoning genre of rhythm and blues. Among his major hits from this era were "Woke Up This Morning," "Whole Lotta Love," "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Sweet Little Angel," and "Please Love Me," a number of which were later covered to great acclaim by other musicians. King founded his own record label in Memphis, Blues Boys Kingdom in 1956, allowing him to record and promote other important R&B and blues musicians. As his fame grew, he reached new audiences, appearing as the opening act for the Rolling Stones 1969 tour, recording with U2, Clapton and others, and charting on the R&B and pop charts, but he never lost his deep connection to blues or his distinctive performing style, as recordings and video clips up to the end of his life attest.

B. B. King received a Grammy Award in 1970, the National Medal of the Arts from President George H. W. Bush in 1990, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2006. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, Rolling Stone ranked him #6. On May 1 of this year, he announced that he was in hospice care, having battled complications caused by diabetes for several decades.

We have his music, though, so that light still burns. Below are a few clips of King performing, from the late 1960s through 2011. They take me back to my childhood and adolescence, when my father would put his records on, sharing his love of the King's music and pointing out one of the sources of the r&b and rock & roll I was listening to. RIP, B. B. King, and do watch and enjoy the YouTube lips.

B. B. King giving what he felt was one of his best recorded performances

Sounding Out (1972)

B. B. King, live in Africa

B. B. King on Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual, in 1968

B. B. King performing "The Thrill Is Gone," in 1971

B. B. King and Buddy Guy, performing "I Can't Quit You Baby"

B. B. King, with Stevie Wonder and John Legend, performing "The Thrill Is Gone," in 2009

B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Vaughan, performing "Rock Me Baby"

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