Yesterday marked the passing of a blues legend. BB King passed away at the age of 89. This is a photograph I took of him playing with Eric Clapton in England, original on film, taken with my old trusty Nikon.
There’s something different about the passing of BB King. For those of you who don’t know, I met BB King several times over the course of my life. I know everybody now is mourning the loss while also celebrating his life and legacy but, somehow, it just feels different when you know the person. Of course, BB King was wonderful with his fans. I’m sure there are many fans out there who have many fond memories, probably ever better ones than I, of BB King.
Not many people can say they once bounced on BB King’s lap, but I can. Now, before you go thinking bad thoughts, let me explain. I was four years old when I first met BB King. My aunt, you see, was a huge BB King fan, way back from before I was born. When I was four, she had gotten tickets to go see him in concert somewhere out on Long Island, NY. This was back when I still lived in Queens. (Boy, am I going back in time, or what?) The day of the concert, as luck would have it, there was a big blizzard. Almost all of New York was snowed in. The baby sitter called to cancel on account of the snow. Believe me, in New York, this almost never happens but it did that night. So my aunt called up the theater and asked if the show was going to go on or not. They said, yes, in fact, the show was going to go on. BB King was there and ready to play. Sitter or not, my aunt was determined to go, so she packed all of us kids into the car and we drove very slowly out to Long Island. When we got there, the theater was not full, probably on account of the weather, so they let us all in. It was my first time going to a “nightclub.” They severed me something called a “Shirley Temple cocktail” which was probably just overpriced juice, and I got to see BB King play live in a small theater. In fact, this is one of my earliest memories. I can still remember being in that dark club, the chairs around a table, sitting there with my feet not touching the ground, listening to the music.
For those of you who don’t know, BB King liked to come out and talk to people at the end of his concerts, and this night was no exception. He came around, table by table to chat with all of us. When he got to our table he sat down and asked if he could talk to me. They put me on his lap, he pulled my pig tails and made me cry (well, not really but, heck I mentioned I was four years old at the time, right?) That was my first encounter with BB King and it would not be my last, although he didn’t make me cry (or pull my hair) after that.
Many years later, I ran into him in Austin. I had gotten a flat tire and made it to Sears just in time, just before they closed. As I was pulling into the parking lot, I saw this big honking tour bus and thought, wow, what they heck is that? I met him cutting through Sears on his way from the bookstore. BB King, you see, learned how to read as an adult but wound up being a lifelong reader. He was walking out with an armful of books. I spoke to him only briefly, he wished me luck with my car and told me he was playing in Austin that night. I’ve also seen him play in New Hampshire with Robert Cray and in London, pictured here with Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt.
While I’ll miss him personally, he’s also been quite an inspiration to me on an artistic level. Now, I don’t play the guitar like him, that’s not what I mean, but I have picked up a few tricks from watching him over the years. For starers, he’s very good with his fans. He always stopped to talk to people who took the time to appreciate his art. That’s important to an artist. Respect your patrons. Get to know the people who appreciate your work. It’s not just good business sense, it makes you a better person.
Something else I’ve learned from him…if you watch him when he played, his whole face would light up when he played his guitar. He had this beaming smile every time he picked up and started playing his guitar. Even if you didn’t know him, you could tell he was really very happy. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing, as Joseph Campbell would say he was, “following his bliss” and it really showed. You can tell when you do something you’re supposed to be doing because it makes you happy and that happiness beamed from within him. I’ve never seen anybody else so happy singing the blues and I probably never will again. You might think that blues music is sad and, why yes it is, but it’s also cathartic. There was a jubilance about his playing. It’s hard to describe but you will spot it too if you watch him play for a bit.
There are also some things about BB King you might not know. For example, did you know that he couldn’t really play the guitar and sing at the same time? It’s true. He almost never did that. On occasion, he would forget and actually do both but then he would catch himself and go back to the one at a time bit. Technically speaking, BB King was not a great guitar player at all. Many “experts” will tell you that he was actually lacking in technical skills. Of course, many “experts” will also tell you that bumble bees cannot fly. It’s a great theory on paper but reality had other plans. Many guitar players will rank BB King as one of the best guitar players who ever lived.
They say that BB King was not technically such a great guitar player because he could not play musical chords. It’s true, he didn’t play musical chords. What he lacked in chords, he more than made up for in tone. BB King probably had the best guitar tone you will ever hear in your lifetime (mine too for that matter.) BB King had a singing guitar tone with some really great vibrato. Eric Clapton once said that he tried to play vibrato like BB King and it took him an entire year of practice just to get almost good enough to be able to start thinking about incorporating vibrato into his work. And he’s Eric Clapton, imagine how long it would take the rest of us?!?
BB King was not a technician but he had a great spirit, a wonderful charm, a passion for music, and a gift for tone. If only I could paint like that! That’s what really made him such a great artist. You don’t have to excel at every aspect of your art, no, but he did something so well that he could not be denied. That’s the mark really of a true artist.
So, even if you don’t takeaway anything from the King of the Blues, BB King himself, I hope you have a new appreciation for his music and his legacy. I was saddened to hear of his passing but he’s left a wonderful legacy, sharing the gift of music with very many people. The thrill is not gone, in fact, it’s just starting for some younger folks who might be now just be discovering his legacy, so tonight I say long live blues music and long live the legacy of BB King.
Rest in Peace BB King, you will be missed.
Until next time…