B.B. KING, 1925-2015

Beloved, massively influential blues legend B.B. King passed away on Thursday in a Las Vegas hospice at the age of 89. As the news of his death spread, tributes from musicians who’d been inspired by the King of the Blues began popping up all over social media. Here's a sampling:

Eric Clapton: “I just wanted to express my sadness and to say thank you to my dear friend B.B. King. I wanted to thank him for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave me as a player over the years and for the friendship we enjoyed. There’s not a lot left to say because his music is almost a thing of the past now—there are not many left to play it in the pure way that B.B. did. He was a beacon for all of us who love this kind of music, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart. If you’re not familiar with his work, I would encourage you to go out and find an album called B.B. King: Live at the Regal, which is where it all started for me as a young player.” 

Lenny Kravitz: “BB, anyone could play a thousand notes and never say what you said in one.”

Slash: "Devastated by the passing of BB King. My favorite blues guitarist. & a truly wonderful man. RIP BB." 

Snoop Dogg: “B.B. King you gone but you ain’t forgotten—we love you baby.”

Buddy Guy: “This morning, I come to you all with a heavy heart. BB King was the greatest guy I ever met. The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings… man, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar playin’ world. He could play so smooth, he didn’t have to put on a show. The way BB did it is the way we all do it now. He was my best friend and father to us all. I’ll miss you, B. I love you and I promise I will keep these damn Blues alive. Rest well.”


New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, whose occasional pieces on popular music are unfailingly insightful, posted a remembrance this morning on the magazine’s site. What follows is the meat of it.

[T]he single best concert by a guitar player I have ever heard was B.B. King in 1970 at the Place des Nations, an outdoor stadium in Montreal left over from Expo 67. He was playing on the same bill as Bobby (Blue) Bland, and he held a largely French-speaking crowd rapt for more than two and a half hours playing and singing his inimitable blues.

Singing wonderfully, with a clean, sophisticated style touched by Nat Cole’s vocals (though I didn’t know that then), it was his guitar playing that mattered. The crowd was there, in part, because the music he played was like music we already knew, the electrified blues that had become our teen-age lingua franca. We knew vaguely that he had helped to invent it, but we knew the imitators much better than we knew the source. King was not at all showily virtuosic—any number of young Englishmen who were, shamefully, much easier to hear in those days, and doubtless sold more records, from Alvin Lee to Mick Taylor, were “faster,” more dexterous, “heavier,” as we would have said approvingly. But in an instant it was plain that no one made a guitar talk as B.B. King did, as an extension of his entire soul, an instrument of human expression more than adolescent finger-mania. The sound of King’s guitar, no matter how often imitated—and, on the surface, as with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, it sounded obvious, all that single-note shimmering—remains one of the inimitable sounds in American music. It had a clipped, precise, syncopated, pin-striped-suit quality, not usually swooping or weeping or sliding. His first thoughts came in small, neat sentences. He would play a chorus in that way, then pause and play a complementary, related phrase with a more groaning intonation. He did the same thing in his singing, the first phrase often bouncing and hip in that Nat Cole manner, the next growling and muddy.

That tension in his music—it was, in retrospect, I suppose, a play between a jazz ear and a blues hand, and even between the city and the country—paid off in a quality that I recognized at once that night, though I might not have known the word for it. It was the thing that marked him off from all those earnest English pasticheurs: B.B. King swung. It was no accident that he liked to play with big bands whenever he could, though his forces were sometimes reduced on records. Like Ray Charles, his contemporary and in some ways his only equal, who was similarly addicted to playing with a big band, King had a lot of forties jazz mixed into his sharecropper soul. “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Hummingbird,” the two string-aided hit records he had right around the time I heard him, were as pretty as they were powerful.

What I didn’t know, but would learn later, was what a rough road King had taken to the stage. It was rough not just in the predictable sense (no blues player had an easy life in American entertainment) but because he was a blues player who came of age in a time when even African–American audiences—especially African-American audiences—had moved “past” the blues. (Years later, he talked of having been booed once, playing on the same bill with the great Sam Cooke.) The two hair-raising recordings from the mid-sixties that he left behind, Live at the Regal and Blues Is King, which I bought after that concert and listened to religiously with friends for six months, were, I realize now, not the kind of folk utterances from an organic urban culture that us pale-wintry Canadians imagined them to be, but the last fruits of a period of crisis and transition within black American music. Those records, which I listen to again now, stand as summits of a music more synthetic in the best sense—more knowingly made of many styles—than I knew at the time, but they sound no less moving for the knowledge. There is not a lot of justice in American life, and practically none in American music, but the fact that the final decades of B. B. King’s life were touched by recognition, wide and unstinting, is, no matter how sad his death may be, a very good reason to feel, still, thrilled.

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