On May 14th, 2015 the King of the blues disappeared. The day after, I discovered the sad news. Some tears fell on my cheeks a few minutes before the most important exam of my whole undergraduate degree. No matter what, from now on the King will not be heard.
It is not a random choice for me to write on this blog an article talking about Riley B. King, the ambassador of the blues music. Figure of longevity and creativity, he represented everything blues amateurs like: a warm, enveloping voice telling stories about broken hearts and woes, a guitar sound built with simplicity which is able to give a thrill to anyone with only one note. According to me, Lenny Kravitz is the one who best expressed what B.B King was able to do on guitar:
” BB, anyone could play a thousand notes and never say what you said in one. “
Real incarnation of humility, the King also thanked the best 60’s and 70’s rock bands such as The Rolling Stones, because he thought his tremendous success would have not happened had they not used the African American music processes to create their own style. Indeed, Rock’n’Roll has given the blues a better exposition to the world at the time. B.B King, the musician who grew up in a schizophrenic and segregationist America, was moved to tears when he played at San Fransisco in 1967 while a mostly white audience offered him an ovation before the beginning of the show.
An illustration of America’s XXth century history
On September 1925, in a cotton plantation located in Mississippi, the future king was born. Raised by only his mother till she died when he turned 9 years old, the young prince’s life consisted to work in fields for producers. With hindsight, it seems to have been beneficial for the next emblematic figure of blues music. As a matter of fact, it is impossible to separate blues music roots from the segregationist past of the United States of America. Before it became an entire music style, the blues had been a means expression for African Americans workers allowing them to tell their grief. Mississippi was, at the time, undoubtedly one of the states where segregation was especially violent until the end of the 60’s. Mississippi was a fertile soil for blues music, as a consequence famous musicians such as Son House, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt or Willie Dixon developed their blues along the paths leading to many farms. When he reached 14 years old, Riley got his first initiation with the instrument he will mastered in the future. To practice, he played and expressed himself through different gospel choirs.
When he was around 20 years old, the musician decided to quit the place where he grew up to get to know the economical boom of industrial cities. He ran away from a South , deeply ingrained in a segregational culture, for Memphis, Tennessee, which embodied abundance. Memphis represented a place where musical creation was encouraged and rewarded, like Chicago, Illinois, did at the time. Riley frequented Beale Street, a Memphis’ mythic street because a lot of restaurants, clubs and bars (mostly managed by African American people) let many artists playing blues or jazz performed. In the same time, he was employed at a radio from West Memphis where Sonny Boy Williamson II asked him to play on advertising broadcasts, but also to promote African American music styles, such as jazz or swing. Riley built himself a reputation and he quickly was surnamed Beale Street Blues Boy by his peers. The throne is there, the crown just needs to be added.
B.B recorded for the first time in 1949. He will keep releasing regularly albums which will carry him to his glory until the end of his musical career. He had an enormous popularity during the 60’s, so he had the chance to play daily in the United States of America. Then, he decided to move to Los Angeles, California, and became king. B.B King. With his new aura and with the fact that he symbolized a part of African American people, he organized a music show with Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix on April 4th, 1968 to honor Martin Luther King the day of his death. The opening of his own club in 2010, located in the heart of Manhattan, is emblematic of how big B.B King’s reputation raised. Indeed, how could he ever had imagined that he would run a blues club located in the most touristic area of New York City while he had been surrendered by racism during his childhood? Moreover, he played at the White House in 2012 as a Barack Obama’s guest. What a symbol.
It is impossible to separate the name of B.B King to Lucille’s.
During a performance in a juke-joint of Arkansas, a fight broke out causing a fire inside the building. B.B King escaped unscathed and he learned later that the riot was about a woman called… Lucille. Lucille is on the first hand the one that saved Riley giving him a way out of agricultural life, the one which brought him money, fame and women. According to him, it allowed him to get out of a car accident without any wound. On the other hand, Lucille also carried the King’s demons because it transposed his pain into music, always claiming for more melancholy to be expressed.
And B.B King did please Lucille like no one could have.
He played his guitar, as much imposant, delicate and charismatic than him, in a subtle, light and soft way. He specialized in the technique of vibrato, consisting on giving a string a vibration to obtain a sweet, long and sensual note. Moreover, he knew when to give Lucille a break, so other musicians who were in his bands could express themselves in turn. His specific type of playing consisted on mixing major and minor scales so he could obtain a jazzy and bluesy sound. This gave Lucille a tasteful, dignified expression tearing your heart to the slightest complaint.
Nevertheless, the King did not limit himself to play the guitar. He assumed all along his tracks a sensual, warm and plaintive singing. The fact that he had participated to gospel choirs and that he was fed with jazz, especially when he was in Memphis, definitely influenced his type of singing. A question and answer game is set up between the King and his Queen, who take care of each other along music. When one moans, the other transforms his pain, if Lucille gets insane, the King sings louder. Then a sensual game – almost a courtship ritual – is established between the two royal members.
Moreover, B.B King did not show off when he was on stage. Standing up or sitting at the center of the stage, he focused on playing and singing with a classy way. However, it is undeniable that the least of his gestures, that every finger movement on the fretboard of his guitar, brought excitement and pleasure to the audience.
15 Grammy Awards, a discography counting over 20 studio albums, tours all around the world (United States of America, Europe, Africa, Asia), nominations to the Blues and Rock’n’Roll Halls of Fame, B.B leaves a musical heritage that appears to be a real empire.
It is also important to highlight the major influence he had on the blues and on the other musical styles which get inspiration from it. Because he used brass instruments or choirs from gospel, he modified the traditional blues from Delta. Indeed, at the beginning, blues was usually only played with acoustic guitar and harmonica. Today, nobody is surprised to hear a jazz orchestra inside tracks supposed to be regular blues.
King’s aura does not stop at this point. His so special phrasings is an endless source of inspiration for many musicians. Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, all of them used sounds from the King to compose. Recently, current artists such as John Mayer or Gary Clark Jr. has continued to share that sound to their public. Even if the blues’ golden era seems over, many young people keep perpetuating the tradition of the Devil’s music. Due to his club, B.B King goes on offering, after his death, new blues musicians to a wide public.
Because he made his last breath at his home in Las Vegas, the King is the antithesis of the traditional death waiting for bluesmen. Despite the poisoning rumor quickly denied, no knife came up to him because of some alcoholic quarrel about a woman in the depths of the Louisiana Bayou. The devil even offered him the privilege to honor one last time Beale Street, where it all began, as if to show him the respect he deserves after wearing this mystical music all these years. Although I never had the chance to commune with you during one of your passages on stage, I enjoy your music on a daily basis and wonder if I could one day stop being moved by the slightest appearance of your graceful vibrato . My veins are as blue as the notes that you have etched through Lucille.Thank you.
To Know More:
B.B King The Life of Riley documentary
Le Nouveau Dictionnaire du Rock, Michka Assayas, 2014, Robert Laffont, collection Bouquin
Soul Bag Magasine, N°220, Oct – Nov – Déc 2015
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