The blues legend, who has died aged 89, pioneered a style – and did so with a grace that made him a hero to fans and musicians alike
Charles Shaar Murray
Friday 15 May 2015
Very few 20th-century musicians were able to combine the roles of game-changing, creative, innovative virtuoso and beloved popular entertainer. Within this tiny elite group, BB King ranks second only to the late Louis Armstrong, who not only charmed the world with his jovial, winning personality but virtually invented the concept of the jazz soloist, and on whose broad shoulders all successors stood. Who else is there? Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and, of course, the Beatles in general and Paul McCartney in particular.
Genius and popularity alone are not enough: despite their brilliance, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis were too taciturn, too mysterious and too sharp-clawed for an audience to feel entirely comfortable and relaxed in their presence. BB King’s impact on the way blues guitar – and, by extension, rock guitar – is played to this very day is immeasurable. It is impossible to imagine how Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Albert King, Freddie King (both of whom dropped their birth surnames in favour of BB’s), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Moore or Joe Bonamassa, to name but a few, might have played had BB King never existed.
Yet his instrumental virtuosity and the seamless interaction between the liquid, vocal tone he conjured from the numerous Gibson semi-acoustic guitars that have borne the nickname “Lucille” over the past six-and-a-half decades and his warm, chesty singing (“First I sing and then Lucille sings”) was only one part of the reason for his pre-eminence not only in his chosen field of the blues but in the broader expanse of the past musical century’s popular mainstream. BB King was also one of the planet’s consummate entertainers; his expansive stage presence, enveloping generosity of spirit, patent willingness to drive himself into the ground for his audiences and ability to put virtually any crowd at their ease took him from the backbreaking labour and harsh racism of the rural Southern states to the biggest stages of the world’s capital cities. As an old man he would duet on Sweet Home Chicago with Barack Obama at a gala blues concert in the White House. Along the way, he collected enough awards, trophies and honorary degrees to fill a small warehouse and was the subject of a biographical documentary feature, The Life of Riley, narrated by Morgan Freeman.
And, for what it’s worth, that “nice guy” bit was no mere act: 65 years in the business and absolutely no-one ever had a bad word to say about him. His generosity to peers and protégés alike was as much the stuff of legend as his manifest talents. For much of his performing life he averaged 300 shows a year and devoted any energy left over after each performance to meet and greet his fans until utter exhaustion set in. No wonder he was taken to the world’s collective heart in a manner unlike any blues artist before or since; no wonder he was called “The Chairman of the Board of Blues Singers.”
And yet, and yet, and yet … it was perhaps unsurprising that a man in his 80s who was drastically overweight and struggling with type 2 diabetes should have to slow down and acknowledge a decline in his once-formidable powers. For some time, he had been seated on stage rather than standing up; his concert schedule, which would have been intimidating for a performer half his age and weight, had been reduced to a mere 100 or so gigs a year, and he had not released a new album of fresh recordings since 2008’s One Kind Favor.
When he played the Royal Albert Hall in June 2011, I wrote: “As his 86th birthday looms, BB King remains King of the Blues, with Buddy Guy, at a mere 75, as his heir. No surprise, then, that a long line of distinguished guests showed up at the Al to pay affectionate tribute and help the ancient titan shoulder the weight of a two-hour show: please meet and greet Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Ron Wood, Slash and (to sing some of the lyrics BB can no longer remember) Mick Hucknall.
“Also no surprise: the set is no longer a stately procession through 60-odd years of greatest hits, but more a combination of party, informal jam session and family visit to a mischievous, cantankerous but benevolent granddad. Forgetting lyrics (and even the names of some of his long-serving band-members) and occasionally starting a lick on the wrong fret of his guitar, BB’s immaculate comic timing turned each potential embarrassment into an endearing gag … The voice is still miraculous, once it’s cranked up, and that guitar tone is still authoritatively unmistakable. He roared through The Thrill Is Gone, Sweet Sixteen and Rock Me Baby, caught all the rock guitarists out with the tricky chord changes of the glutinous Vegas ballad Guess Who and made his triumphant exit to – shades of Louis Armstrong – When the Saints Go Marching In.
“Losing the plot? Maybe. But he’s still BB King ... and nobody else is.”
Despite all attempts to put the most positive possible spin on the evening, the occasion was still somewhat dispiriting. The Big B had become a magnificent ruin, like the Coliseum or the Sphinx: a monument to be visited not in the hope of seeing it as it was in its halcyon days, but to marvel at the fact that it was still here and, indeed, that such something so marvellous existed in the first place. Last year, a concert at St Louis’s Peabody Opera House disintegrated into an outright debacle, with BB actually getting heckled as he rambled and stumbled through a formless attempt at recapturing former glories.
BB had always claimed that he would continue to perform as long people still wanted to see him, but by the end it had come to seem as if neither mind nor body were any longer equal to the task. He had the admiration of his peers, the affection of much of the world and an eight-figure bank account, none of which were anything less than fully deserved and thoroughly earned. Maybe he should have made the decision to take it easy at last: to rest on his considerable laurels and spend his last years taking pleasure in a lifetime’s achievement: a job well done.
In 2010, he and Buddy Guy recorded an affecting duet entitled Stay Around a Little Longer. If only he could have been able to take his own advice: then he might have celebrated his 90th birthday this September by putting his feet up, secure in his extraordinary legacy and enjoying the knowledge that what he has left us is, for all practical purposes, immortal.