(16 September 1925 — 14 May 2015)
It was the dead of winter (1949) in one of the many juke joints in Twist, Arkansas. The crowd was tapping their feet, warming up to the twelve bar blues when a fire broke out in the middle of the dance floor as the kerosene pail kept in the hall was knocked over as a result of a fight between two men. As the fire began to spread, everyone, including the young Riley B King, who was performing there, made a run for the exit. Once outside, BB, as he would later be known as, realised that he had left something inside. He dashed back into the flames and emerged with what would be his companion for life —his guitar; he named it Lucille, after the woman’s name for whom the men had fought over. Lucille became his companion for the next six decades, until he passed away peacefully in his sleep on Thursday night in Las Vegas. BB King was one of the greatest performers of his as well as our times and he leaves behind a towering legacy for the world of music.
The corpus of BB King’s music and the sheer number of years it lasted is intertwined with the history of the blues, the history of the African-American community and the history of America itself. As a kid, he witnessed the lynching of a black man for a petty offence; he pioneered the Memphis blues scene; saw the emergence of rock and roll; shared the same hotel as Dr Martin Luther King Jr when it was bombed; stayed in motels and ate at restaurants segregated for blacks on his tours in the ’40s and ’50s; saw the blues getting sidelined and simultaneously being embraced by non-conformist white ‘hipsters’; became the ‘King of the Blues’ and performed at the White House, sharing the stage with the first black American president.
Born to sharecroppers in a cotton plantation in Mississippi, King’s initial years were marked by hard work and toil. One of his first inspirations was his uncle Bukka White, a bluesman of some renown, who would come to visit King’s family at the plantation. Later, King would give a reference to his growing years and a glimpse of what music meant to him, in a song dedicated to his guitar Lucille: Lucille took me from the plantation /Or you might say brought me fame…. The bond that BB shared with his guitar revealed a significant aspect of the blues tradition; that of the guitar as your companion, a powerful instrument of expression and change, possessing a dialogic quality of facilitating a conversation between the singer and the guitar. BB stuck to this traditional aspect in his own way. He would say: “I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.”
BB honed his signature sound in his years in Memphis. It would come to be known as the Memphis blues. It was here that he developed his signature tremolo technique which would be an essential part of his sound in the years to come. Interestingly, the technique came around because BB would find it difficult to play the bottleneck (slide) style of guitar, the sound of which he loved.
BB King has been felicitated with many an honour and has been ranked among the greatest guitarists in the world in various polls and rankings. Although BB received these honours gratefully, he would be frank about his self-assesment, saying: “there’s been so many who can do it better’n I can.”
BB was catapulted to the big stage with his incorporation of the electric sound to his guitar playing. He recorded his first breakthrough hit — ‘Three o’ Clock Blues,’ in 1951.
“Before BB, everyone played the guitar like it was an acoustic,” explains Buddy Guy. BB combined elements from gospel and country blues and gave them a jazzy twist. His rendition of the Roy Hawkins song The Thrill Is Gone would become one of the biggest hits of his career. It became an essential part of King’s performances thereafter and a favourite of the crowds. The decades that followed saw him play fewer notes and a more minimal style.
King had the ability to make the few notes he played sound extremely versatile. He would start with a mellow pluck which would become a tad heavier in the next bar and then progress into a succession of loud assertive cries. As British blues guitarist Eric Clapton says, “BB had a certain melodic sense unique to himself.” It was this uniqueness that put him in all the ‘halls of fame’ and made him a performer like no other.
With a career spanning 65 years, BB had already become monumental property around a couple of decades back. Since then he was performing for a world which already knew the flavour of his music to some exactness, and couldn’t get enough of it. Even till his seventies, BB averaged around 200 shows a year, performing in venues across America and the world. A tireless entertainer, his performances had that rare quality of ease which came so naturally to him. It was reflected in the way he interacted with his audience. They, both BB and the crowd, shared a bond with each other; of having the blues at some point of time in life. As BB sings in the song Everybody’s had the Blues: Everyone’s has had the blues at some time / And been used, I ain’t lying…’
King’s interest in moving along with the times was evident when he shared the stage with musicians who had themselves been influenced by him. He played along with the likes of Eric Clapton, guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa, Guns & Roses guitarist Slash, Irish band U2, the young John Mayer and many more.
In his later years, King would perform sitting on a chair, owing to a severe back problem and weak knees, but at times the tension built by Lucille would be too much to take for sitting down, and King would rise to enthral his crowd with a bursting solo. This is the spirit of ‘the chairman of the board of blues,’ that has a particularly contagious quality.
As millions would have tuned into his songs at the news of his death, they would have encountered the same unmistakable spirit of BB King that leaves an indelible mark across blues and rock music history and will continue to linger for times to come, making sure that the thrill lives on long after it is gone.