Happy Birthday B.B. King: An Appreciation
September 16, 2015 would have been the 90th birthday of Bluesman B.B. King. Sadly, we lost Mr. King on May 14, 2015 due mainly to complications from diabetes. On May 15th, I wrote an obituary piece in another publication praising Mr. King as a healer and a gentleman because of my various interactions with him over the years. B.B. King was always a gracious man and his music always made me feel better. Additionally, he consistently inspired me as a Blues musician.
In honor of Mr. King’s first posthumous birthday we need to consider his impact on the world at large thru his guitar playing, his singing, and his songs.
B.B. King started his recording career in 1949 with his first recordings for the Nashville based record label Bullet Records. They did not chart or sell well. His recordings for the Los Angeles based record label RPM fared far better. In 1952, he had a number one R&B hit with fellow Bluesman Lowell Fulson’s “3 O’Clock Blues.”
B.B. King’s early guitar work was influenced by musicians such as Fulson, Elmore James, and the Father of modern electric Blues guitar playing,T-Bone Walker. His singing owed a great deal to his early experience singing in the baptist church of his youth and to such Blues shouters a Roy Brown and Jimmy Rushing.
But I feel, as do a lot of musicians, that B.B. King started to truly inspire Blues and Rock musicians with the records he put out after signing with ABC-Paramount, later MCA records, in 1962. The records that B.B. King put out after 1962 demonstrated a pronounced finger and wrist vibrato on his fretting hand. He called this technique “twinging” in a conversation with me one time.
He praised the slide guitar work of his cousin Booker White as an inspiration for his style. I mentioned to B.B. in this same conversation that I learned slide guitar from his cousin who was an inspiration to me also. B.B. King never played slide guitar because he said he had “stupid fingers.” He more than made up with his vibrato guitar technique.
The sound of B.B. King’s guitar was a huge influence to musicians as varied as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and many others. In all essence, if you bend a guitar string B.B. King’s influence comes out in your playing whether you realize it or not.
There was a definite influence of the church in Mr. King’s performing style. B.B. would sing and then solo on his guitar creating a “call and response” atmosphere with his playing and singing. This is very similar to the interaction between a pentecostal preacher and his congregation.
While special attention was always paid to B.B. King’s guitar playing one should never ignore his rich, declamatory voice and the sincere, always from the heart and the sincere songs he wrote or covered.
Attending a B.B. King concert was always like attending church for me and I would always come away feeling cleansed and inspired. B.B. King’s cousin Booker White told me during a lesson once that the lesson of the Blues was accepting all of your life. I took that to mean that you accept the troubles and the triumphs with equal measure. I always found that level of dignity in the music of B.B. King.
From the late 1960’s until his death in 2015 were a series of firsts in B.B. King’s career. From his top 20 pop hit of his version of Roy Hawkins‘ “The Thrill is Gone” to his 1988 collaboration with U2 “When Love Comes to Town” to having his signature guitar, “Lucille” manufactured and distributed by Gibson guitars, among many accomplishments and awards. B.B. King played for American Presidents and Popes. Until his late eighties, almost until his death, he still played around 250 shows a year.
Ultimately, B.B. King was America’s Ambassador of the Blues to the world at large, a mentor to many aspiring and professional Blues, Rock and Jazz musicians. He was most importantly a truly giving and noble man. It is still difficult to imagine the world without B.B. King. But we will never have to imagine the world without his music.
My Five Essential B.B. King Albums:
- Live at the Regal (1965)
- Completely Well (1969)
- There Must Be a Better World Somewhere (1981)
- Riding With the King (With Eric Clapton) (2000)
- One Kind Favor (2008)