They say the death of an old man is not a tragedy, and I think that's true in BB King's case. He passed away peacefully in his sleep last night, in hospice care, at 89 years of age. We can hope that the music he defined and embodied for most of a century propels him blissfully onward. For the rest of us, we'll have the legacy he built, for comfort and restoration when we need it. We'll miss him, but his is a long life less to be mourned than to be celebrated as very fully lived.
Riley King was the son of sharecroppers in bleakest Mississippi. By fourteen, he was on his own in the world. He would work the fields daily, until Saturday afternoon. Then he went to town to play guitar on street corners. He would later say that when he performed gospel tunes, folks gave him praise, but when he sang the blues, they put money in the hat. Like other artists with gospel roots, he chose the secular, hit the road, and rarely paused until diabetes finally caught up with him.
The blues is the most American art form. Born of rhythmic field shouts during slave days, the genre is most associated with hard times. But the point of the music isn't the suffering ? it's that it makes you feel so damn good listening to it, that you transcend those troubles. The music helps you cope. Built on simple chord progressions, a strong, deep bass line and earthy themes, it goes straight for the heart. It touches your soul in places that other music simply cannot reach. There's no fakin' it in the blues ? it's all hung out there.
The music moved from the deep south to the urban north with the Great Migration, and was well-established in the segregated music scenes of Harlem, Chicago, Oakland and Houston. It had to cross the Atlantic to achieve a broader following, and returned home in the raucous stylings of the Stones, the Yardbirds, Animals and even the Beatles. I recall reading the labels on my 45s, wondering about songwriting credits for Willie Dixon, McKinley Morganfield (a/k/a Muddy Waters) and, yes BB King. In a very real sense, as Muddy's lyric goes: "the blues had a baby, and they named it rock-n-roll."
King, with his insatiable touring habit and artistry, was by far the most instrumental influence in bringing the blues out of the shadows. Young mainstream (read: white) audiences of the late '60s ate it up, and still do. You can bop to the Beach Boys, the Beatles get into your head, but you'd grind, grimace and sway to the searing guitar jams and soaring vocals of the blues.
If you ask folks for the quintessential blues ballad, BB's "The Thrill is Gone" is the likely response. It is the plaintive wail of a man done wrong, his heart rent asunder and crushed by his lover. Life hardly seems worth living in the first verse, but so therapeutic is the song's elixir that it frees him, in the end. He can compose and resign himself -- and even wish her well. *
Mr. King justifiably reveled in his obvious stature as Ambassador for the blues. If you have a few spare minutes, they may be well-invested in viewing the performance of 'Thrill' at the 2010 Crossroads Festival. There's BB and Lucille, his beloved Gibson, at center stage and vocals, with acolytes Clapton, Robert Cray and others lined-up in a row, playing tribute, in turn. The beatific countenance of their King, as he nods approvingly at the artistic tradition he's passed along to them, says he's very well-pleased with his creation.
You don't forget your blues concerts ? Willie Dixon, a huge man with tiny bowler hat in a smoky Urbana dive in the 1970s, BB in Delaware, Albert Collins playing his way through the crowd in the sweaty Houston late-night, or Stevie Ray Vaughn slashing through every conceivable note (and a few more) of both blues standards and originals. I even remember the journeyman house band in Tahoe, asked to play something for Willie after he passed. They just tore their way through his Hoochie Coochie Man in a way that would've made the song's namesake proud. They may have never sounded better, certainly not that night. The blues is powerful stuff.
You also don't forget the times when the music came to your aid in life's rough patches. I'm grateful for its curative power when I needed to warble my heartbreak, to the canine campfire accompaniment of Trover, my trusty sheplab. He may also have been hurting from the same lost love or maybe he was howling just to drown out my atonalities, but the blues touched him, too. Dogs don't fake it, either.
BB King left us behind last evening. Feel the loss there, but what we can do is play his music, thank his spirit, and wish him well. The Thrill lives on.
* for another terrific example, try Albert Collins and Robert Cray on The Dream, here.