I figured Jon Pareles, one of the long-time best of the music writers out there (he even had kind words for my own band in print a few times in the past, but don’t let that leave you doubting), would do not only himself but his subject proud with BB King’s obit. And so he did.
Mr. King married country blues to big-city rhythms and created a sound instantly recognizable to millions: a stinging guitar with a shimmering vibrato, notes that coiled and leapt like an animal, and a voice that groaned and bent with the weight of lust, longing and lost love.
“I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions,” Mr. King said in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” (1996), written with David Ritz.
In performances, his singing and his solos flowed into each other as he wrung notes from the neck of his guitar, vibrating his hand as if it were wounded, his face a mask of suffering. Many of the songs he sang — like his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” (“I’ll still live on/But so lonely I’ll be”) — were poems of pain and perseverance.
Be sure to read all of it. I have only recently found a real appreciation for King’s music myself, mostly by digging into his earlier work, which I had largely–foolishly–ignored all these years. Trust me, listening only to his latter-day offerings and thinking you know all there is to know about the Beale Street Blues Boy is about like disliking Elvis because all you’ve heard is recordings from about 1970 on. As is almost always the case with the true greats, it’s a nearly bottomless well, and the deeper you dig, the sweeter the reward. I like this bit especially:
Mr. King considered a 1968 performance at the Fillmore West, the San Francisco rock palace, to have been the moment of his commercial breakthrough, he told a public-television interviewer in 2003. A few years earlier, he recalled, an M.C. in an elegant Chicago club had introduced him thus: “O.K., folks, time to pull out your chitlins and your collard greens, your pigs’ feet and your watermelons, because here is B. B. King.” It had infuriated him.
When he saw “long-haired white people” lining up outside the Fillmore, he said, he told his road manager, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” Then the promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B. B. King.”
“Everybody stood up, and I cried,” Mr. King said. “That was the beginning of it.”
By his 80th birthday he was a millionaire many times over. He owned a mansion in Las Vegas, a closet full of embroidered tuxedoes and smoking jackets, a chain of nightclubs bearing his name (including a popular room on West 42nd Street in Manhattan) and the personal and professional satisfaction of having endured.
Through it all he remained with the great love of his life, his guitar. He told the tale a thousand times: He was playing a dance hall in Twist, Ark., in the early 1950s when two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove. Mr. King fled the blaze — and then remembered his $30 guitar. He ran into the burning building to rescue it.
He learned thereafter that the fight had been about a woman named Lucille. For the rest of his life, Mr. King addressed his guitars — big Gibsons, curved like a woman’s hips — as Lucille.
He married twice, unsuccessfully, and was legally single from 1966 onward; by his own account he fathered 15 children with 15 women. But a Lucille was always at his side.
Now that’s good squishy right there. I repeat: read it all.
BB had a strong influence on nearly every modern musician, particularly those of us plying our trade in what’s been called the Americana genre, whether they know it or not. His loss is a great one, but his music will outlive all of us. Rest in peace, BB King. And…thanks, for everything.