I have been dreading this day for months, because I knew that when I heard that legendary bluesman B.B. King had died, it would hit me almost as hard as if I had lost a member of my family. He has long been one of my musical heroes, and when Adrianne and I first saw him perform live, I knew instantly we were in the presence of towering genius.
What is it about B.B. King that has drawn me so close to him, and causes me to grieve his loss so deeply?
Well, of course, there was his artistry. His rich, earthy, truth-telling, commanding voice couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. He not only had the ability to make us care about the stories he was singing, but he also made us feel the depths and heights of their emotions — whether it was lost love (“The Thrill is Gone”); deep down Memphis blues (“It’s three o’clock in the morning, can’t even close my eyes; I can’t find my baby, and I can’t be satisfied.”); jamming with the greats (Eric Clapton, U2, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, even Luciano Pavarotti) or the deeply devoted and repentant spiritual (“I was there when they crucified my Lord. I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword.”).
And then there’s B.B. King, the greatest blues guitarist of them all. He named his guitars Lucille, and with “her” he had the ability to paint more colors in your heart and mind than any other guitarist I’ve ever heard. I’ve put two videos below (a trailer for the documentary film made about him, and the original studio version of his greatest hit, “The Thrill is Gone”), and if what you hear in his playing doesn’t send chills up your spine, sit down and check to see if you’re still breathing.
But for all that, I think finding out who the true man was gave me the secret to how I’m feeling about his death. As great a talent, artist, singer, songwriter, and guitarist as he was, he was a consummately humble man. His humility in spite of his great gifts made you realize how gently strong and mightily gentle his spirit was. I never met him, but I get the feeling he was an easy human being to love as well as admire.
In a 1986 interview, here’s how King treated the adulation and fame:
“When people give me all these great compliments, I thank them, but still go back to my room and practice.
And a lot of times I say to myself, ‘I wish I could be worthy of all the compliments that people give me sometime.’ I am not inventing anything that’s gonna stop cancer or muscular dystrophy or anything, but I like to feel that my time and talent is always there for the people that need it.
And when someone do say something negative, most times I think about it but it don’t bother me that much.”
The praise and gratitude have already begun to pour in from all of the greats in modern music who were so very influenced by him. Rolling Stone magazine has already posted today an article about the “10 Legendary Acts That Wouldn’t Exist Without B.B. King,” which included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream (Eric Clapton has called King “without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced”), Santana, The Allman Brothers Band, and more. And all the while that influence was happening, King was blithely unaware of it, and greatly surprised when he found out:
“Some of my friends will tell me from time to time, Eric Clapton said this or Jimi Hendrix said this. I spoke with John Lennon once, after I had seen in I believe it was Life magazine where people were asking him questions, saying ‘What is it you would like to do?’ and one of his things was to play guitar like B.B. King.
That’s when I started to find that a lot of the young musicians had been listening to me. I didn’t know, and for the life of me sometimes I still wonder why! (laughs)
I’ve had my feelings of doubt, I think, in music. To think that there are people that learned to play by listening to my music, those dark days wasn’t dark after all.”
So now it’s time to put your headphones on, click these two videos, and let B.B. King — “The King of the Blues” — sing directly to you.
The obituaries and tributes are flooding in, but I think the best one I’ve read so far today was that from The New York Times, which is what I’ll leave you with.
By Tim Weiner — May 15, 2015 — The New York Times