2009 AFP

BB King lived, loved and laughed the blues

The music legend rose from picking cotton in Mississippi to conquering the world with his beloved guitar

Blues icon B.B. King has died, aged 89. Known for his throaty voice and sublime, single-note guitar work, he was a master of the form.

King’s career started in the center of the last great inflection point of American popular music, when big band jazz gave way to amplified rock and roll. In his decades-long career, King performed with musicians as diverse as Duke Ellington, The Rolling Stones and U2. He was an inductee of the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the National Heritage Fellowship and the Kennedy Center Honors, just to hit the highlights. His many hit recordings include “3 O’clock Blues,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “When Love Comes To Town,” and his trademark single, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Riley King was born in 1926 on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, the great-grandson of a slave. The first African-American blues had only been recorded six years previously, and 1926 was the year that one of King’s heroes, Blind Lemon Jefferson, first had a hit blues record, popularizing the form. King’s mother died when he was 9, followed by his grandmother, in whose care he’d been placed. As a boy, he worked in the fields picking cotton. At nights, he sang gospel with his family. A local preacher taught him some chords on a guitar.

“We belonged to the Sanctified church,” King told Southern documentarian William Ferris. “Now as far as I’m concerned, in the Sanctified church, the people can sing about as well as anybody you ever heard. The Baptist church, they didn’t want you to bring a guitar in. So I didn’t really dig the Baptist church too much.”

It didn’t hurt that King’s cousin was Bukka White, who would come from Memphis to visit. White sang with a raspy field holler similar to Charlie Patton. “I remember the holler,” King once said. “Holding the reins of a mule pulling a hoe through them cotton fields. Yeah, I think the holler is where it all started.”

King listened to music voraciously, from his aunt’s Blind Lemon Jefferson records to the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet on the radio. He snuck out to places like Club Ebony to hear jazz players such as Charlie Parker. He also began singing on street corners.

“There were so many times when you played that people just gathered around you,” King remembered. “They didn’t have to give you money. If they gathered around you, you had a feeling of security. You had a feeling of being liked or loved. That was something I never did have quite enough of in my early years.”

King learned something else from this experience: the people who requested gospel songs didn’t tip, but the blues fans did. “I started going to church with our group,” King said. “We would sing, and they would pass the basket or the hat. People would say, ‘Bless you.’ But if we would sing at a juke joint someplace and play, they’d have some guy standing at the door: ‘You can’t come in here unless you pay.’ I liked that pretty well.”

This was around the same time B.B. King heard a record that changed his life. “One day in the early 40’s, during the war, I heard a song by a guy called T-Bone Walker,” King recalled. “That was the first time that I had ever heard blues on an electric guitar. T-Bone Walker was singing ‘Stormy Monday.’ I felt that I would die if I didn’t get an electric guitar after that.” By 1946 he had one.

Besides the occasional release of music, Mississippi offered little else but drudgery and occasional racist violence. In 1946, King moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with Bukka White. Already experienced at performing on the radio, King appeared on Sonny Boy Williamson’s program in West Memphis a couple years later. This led to steady gigs and finally a show on WDIA, an integrated station, as a performer and disc jockey. It was here that he got the name “Blues Boy King,” which he later shortened to “B.B.” King was allowed to play any records he liked, and he did. As well as his blues favorites, King showcased the joyous jump of Louis Jordan’s jazz, the meticulous phrasing of electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian, and the mellow voice of Ella Fitzgerald, who phrased like a saxophone. As he became more proficient, King incorporated these sounds into his own work, playing his guitar fluidly over the rhythms he heard all around him: swing, shuffle and boogie.

In 1949, at a club in Twist, Arkansas, two men knocked over a kerosene heater during a fight, setting the place on fire. King, who was performing, got out safely but went back in for his guitar, as the building started to collapse around him. “The next day we found that two men got trapped in rooms above the dance hall and burned to death,” King told Ferris. “We also found that these same two men were fighting about a lady, and we learned that the lady’s name was Lucille. I never did meet her, but I named my guitar Lucille to remind me never to do a silly thing like that again.” All of King’s many subsequent guitars – mostly hollow body Gibson electrics – have been so named.

Lucille was B.B. King’s companion, confidant and accompanist. He wrung fiercely emotional notes out of the guitar in between vocal phrases, sometimes only while playing the root note of the chord. King’s instrumental authority came from the quick vibrato of his left hand, which he developed while trying to reproduce the tremulous sound of Bukka White’s slide playing, a technique he called The Butterfly. “I swivel my wrist from my elbow, back and forth, and this stretches the string, raising and lowering the pitch of the note rhythmically,” he said. “With my other fingers stretched out, my whole hand makes a fluttering gesture, a bit like a butterfly flapping its wings.”

This was the sound that launched a thousand blues and rock players, including British rock legend Eric Clapton, who remembers King as “a beacon for all of us who love this kind of music.”

King recorded and performed tirelessly, playing an average of 200 dates a year well into his seventies. He is said to have played 342 concerts in 1952 alone. He received increasing adoration, even by the “young haired white people” who attended his concerts in the late 1960s. Like anyone else, they responded to the emotional honesty of King’s music.

“I think young people like blues,” King told Ferris. “They associate blues with truth.”

Ferris, a white man also born on a Mississippi plantation, nominated King for an honorary degree at Yale in the mid-1970s, where Ferris was a young professor. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a friend of Ferris’ and later Harvard professor and executive producer, writer and host of PBS’ “Find Your Roots,” was impressed.

“When Mr. King’s citation was read,” Gates remembered, “he pulled his famous guitar, Lucille, out of her case and blew thousands and thousands of Yalie’s and their proud families away. One can safely say that this was the first time that the blues had entertained so many ‘Old Blues’ at one time!”

“The blues are the three Ls,” King once said, “and that would be living, loving and, hopefully, laughing – in other words, the regular old E formation on the guitar with the regular three changes. The blues are really life to me because all my friends, everything around me, the music that I hear, everything leads me back to the feeling of the blues…In fact, everything that I’m connected with – life itself – is the blues.”

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