By now everyone knows that Riley “Blues Boy” King is dead at 89. There are some people whose absence means that things will not and cannot ever be the same. B.B. King was the face of blues music for more than half of a century, with a reputation earned by relentless touring, soulful singing, legendary playing and remarkable stage presence. The best entertainers can be summed up immediately by one image. When you see King’s Gibson “Lucille” guitar you know who it is, and who is coming.
Anybody could have written that paragraph though.
Blues is unlike other forms of music in that the more notes you play, the less it sounds authentic. The best blues players don’t use a lot of equipment or a wide variety of guitar. The technique is all in the hands, in wringing every bit of soul and emotion from every note. B.B. King was the master of timing, of teaching when to play and when not to play. And that vibrato where he swings that pinky while keeping that first finger fixed? Divine.
King created an internal tension in every lead he played. Sometimes in a song he would dedicate time to labor-intensive string bending, slowly creating rich, sobbing notes. Then he would just hold one note for one seemed like forever, finally finishing it with a flurry of activity. That understanding of his audience is something that hundreds of thousands of players have imitated ever since.
It would have been enough for him simply to be great. But its what King did after that that was even more astonishing.
King put together shows and specials and became the glue that held blues together. You could always count on his consistent performance, but it’s his chemistry with other musicians that made him irreplaceable. On any given day he could trot out Eric Clapton, whose voice would blend perfectly with his as they calmly traded licks. They would bring in a couple singers, say, Dr John or Koko Taylor for a couple tunes for a different feel.
Then out would come Buddy Guy, whose showmanship, competitiveness, and constant improvisation would immediately energize everyone. From Texas you’d have the Iceman Albert Collins with his reedlike Telecaster sound, or the earthy overbends of Albert King or Stevie Ray Vaughan. From Memphis, maybe Lonnie Mack, from Britain, good old Ron Wood or mercurial Jeff Beck.
It didn’t matter.
As long as B.B. King was there, he could play with them all, and their respect for him held it together. With anyone else it would have been cacophony. But B.B. King would calmly play on Lucille, and then he would give a little nod, so slight you may have missed it if you were watching. And that’s how everyone knew it was okay for them to play, cause he said so. And if he made that little grimace, they knew they had hit that sweet spot.
To some people blues is sad, an intense protest from the soul about trials that never seem to change. To some people blues is happy, the music for a weekend at the juke joint. B.B. King did both, often in the same show. He connected every regional style in the country, easily adapting to everyone one else. He held everything together.
I’ve worried for years whether blues is dying. It used to be the music for the common person, and now its relegated to a niche. Fewer people play the music honestly, its more a pastiche of overamplified rock technique, then what it is supposed to be. Maybe in twenty years it goes the way of polka and becomes a curiousity – a punchline to an untold joke.
I don’t know who is the man who holds things together now. Who is the face of the blues? Who keeps the concerts from collapsing under their own weight? Who is the player that sends everyone to the woodshed practicing? What happens to a kingdom when the king dies?