Friday, May 15, 2015

Death of a Bluesman

"The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you."

B.B. King

B.B. King, the legendary blues recording artist, died last night in Las Vegas at the age of 89, and many in the media snapped up the obvious headline from what may be his best–known recording — "The Thrill Is Gone."

If I was still working on the copy desk, I might have gone that way, too. Some headlines are too obvious to ignore, but this one seems to be a bit overused today. Oh, well. I guess it was inevitable.

I always wanted to see him perform in person. My last opportunity was about a year ago when he performed in this area, but I was working part–time jobs at the time and couldn't afford a ticket. I realized at the time that I might never get another chance to see him.

Now he will forever be another opportunity I missed — like when I was making plans to see John Lennon the summer after he released "Double Fantasy" — the word was that he intended to go on tour that spring and summer, and I wanted to go wherever he would be closer to my home in Arkansas, even if that meant driving a long distance — but he was murdered in December. That wasn't so much an opportunity missed, I suppose, as an opportunity that never was.

As I say, King is probably best known for "The Thrill Is Gone," and that's probably an appropriate comment on the occasion of his death, but the truth is he will never be gone, thanks to the many recordings we have of his performances in the studio and on stage.

If there is another word that is linked to his name, it is Lucille, the name of his guitar and the inspiration for another classic B.B. King song, one that is well worth hearing on this day.

Whatever he was playing, B.B. King was entirely animated, changing his facial expression with every note, every chord, every lyric. I never saw him in person, but I saw him enough on TV to know that was his style. His whole body got involved in a song, not just his hands and fingers.

Lots of people do something like that, but he was an original. If you see a musician doing that these days, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts he/she was influenced by B.B. King, either knowingly or unknowingly.

He influenced a lot of people. Richard Gehr of Rolling Stone compiled a list of "10 Legendary Acts That Wouldn't Exist Without B.B. King," which is a reminder of just how much music lovers owe B.B. King. Maybe we would have gotten Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan anyway — but my guess is they wouldn't have been quite the same. Some might have been decidedly different.

Listen to a B.B. King album — any of 'em — and you'll see what I mean.

I never learned how to play the guitar myself, but several of my friends in college knew how to play, and many of them were wannabe blues musicians. They all tried to play what was clearly B.B. King style, and a few were pretty good, too, but not that good. There was only one B.B. King.

I've always been partial to "Why I Sing The Blues," a lesser–known King tune, to be sure, but invaluable if one wants to know about B.B. King the man, what motivated him.

"I've been around a long time," he sang. "I've really paid my dues."

I imagine that is a sentiment to which many people could relate.

I've seen several written tributes to King today, and they all seem to conclude with "R.I.P., B.B. King" and some sort of reference to the afterlife — usually something about how heaven has "a hell of a band" (which has become something of a cliche over the years). I have lots of questions about the afterlife. I'm not nearly as certain of its existence as many people I know — which is, I suppose, the very essence of faith.

And maybe I don't have enough. I surely don't have enough faith as far as some people are concerned. I don't know if B.B. King completely ceased to exist when he died last night or if his spirit is floating out there somewhere.

If it is the latter, I will say this. It gives a new meaning to the phrase "blue heaven."