It’s almost impossible to envision the towering legacy of the Blues without the nearly as monumental legacy of B.B. King. Along with seminal originators like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Muddy Waters, King’s titanic contributions to the genre — his life’s work, really — are all but incalculable. King, who died at home in Las Vegas at the age of 89 last night, was an artist, musician, and performer whose beating blues heart fed a bloodline that not only connected him — and us — to the musical lives of earlier generations, but lent contemporary voice to the trials and triumphs of our everyday existence, with equal parts humor and anguish.
He initially billed himself as “Blues Boy”‘ and his signature style — an alternating call-and-response approach that saw King punctuate and underline his sung verses with spare, stabbing runs on his electric guitar — became an instantly recognizable trademark. Ultimately, King’s stamina (even into his seventies, he routinely spent 250-to-300 days on the road) and unwavering dedication to spreading the gospel of the Blues translated to a nearly 70-year career bejeweled with more than 50 albums, 15 Grammy Awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and countless fans and followers around the globe. Some of those disciples included fellow guitarists such as Otis Rush, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Buddy Guy, the latter of whom he toured with well into his eighties (Buddy was a mere young sprout in his early seventies).
He was born into poverty to sharecropper parents in the Mississippi Delta as Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, and was already working picking cotton by the age of seven. But for anyone who saw or heard “The King Of The Blues,” as he came to be called, holding court with one of the many gleaming Gibson guitars he affectionately named “Lucille,” it was all but impossible to regard him as anything but royalty. An always dapper singer-storyteller of regal yet humble bearing and soulful charm, King was the Blues’ biggest and best ambassador who brought elegance and orchestras (for better or worse) to the music and put it in champagne palaces, as well as juke joints and roadhouses.
Describing the experience of seeing the man perform more than ten years ago (I covered three of his concert appearances for The Boston Globe between 2004 and 2010; my final review follows below), I wrote that calling B.B. King a “blues guitarist” had long ago become a woefully inadequate characterization. Somewhere along the rails and the trails between the place from where his music sprang and where it led, King even managed to transcend his well-earned moniker: that of a monarch grandly presiding over a sacred institution; a kingdom of song and feeling. Across the ages lit by a thousand stages, he had, in essence, become that institution. And institutions live forever.
At: House of Blues, Boston, Massachusetts, 2010.
By Jonathan Perry
Even at age 84, B.B. King works a room harder sitting down than most musicians do standing up. Well, *harder* might not be the right word, exactly. What King really projected during an elegant 90-minute set Friday, before a nearly full House of Blues, was an effortless panache and regal bearing befitting his surname – a grandeur that belied the impoverished beginnings and decades of toil and tenacity; the peaks and valleys of a million miles on the road.
Though some of those burdens were lifted long ago, they have been replaced by others (King’s battle with diabetes, which has finally forced him to a seated position on stage). What has remained throughout, however, are the songs and stories, which still speak to, and for, that remarkable history with eloquence and flair.
Surrounded by a lavishly skilled eight-piece band decked out in tuxedos – a small orchestra of brass, strings, keys, and drums – and tossing guitar picks to the audience like they were so many gold coins before he even played a note, King embodied the part of a beneficent ruler holding court in a castle that likely would not exist without him.
The last time he was here, in the winter of 2009 teamed with Chicago blues guitar titan Buddy Guy, King delivered a loose, leisurely set as long on conversation as it was on music. Not so Friday night, which was, in contrast, all crisply calibrated business – effervescent, highly entertaining business mind you, but business nonetheless.
Instead of monologues, King let one of his many guitars named “Lucille” do a fair amount of talking – and crying, and cooing, and testifying. It preened and pleaded on Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby,” and as if to persuade a lover to stay, King offered a solo whose colorful cluster of notes burst like a rapidly blooming bouquet of flowers, thorns and all.
With its piquantly lewd line about its subject spreading her wings, “Sweet Little Angel” wasn’t nearly as innocent as the title or melody suggested when B.B. first recorded it in 1956, nor when he performed it Friday evening. Likewise, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s affecting “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” wasn’t nearly as cheerful as the band’s swinging shuffle made it seem. But like all of B.B.’s best songs, a supple groove made the last request a thing of communal comfort.
The sweetly stinging showpiece, “The Thrill Is Gone,” provided a trenchant reminder of King’s prowess as a vocalist. His still-silky tenor, tinted in tones of roasted chestnut, was nearly as versatile as his more famous instrument. Also nearly as expressive as his playing – at once polished but pungent; brash and thoughtful; economical yet expansive – was the array of King’s facial expressions. These weren’t studied guitar god poses, but rather a reaction to being lost in the moment, and they reflected the emotional range and humanity that beat at the heart of the music: surprise, wonder, lust, anguish, bliss. All of it, ultimately, the blues.