First post here:
What is it about B. B that made him so great for so long? For me it’s that he was the whole package and he did it all so well: writer, singer, guitar player, showman. “How Blue Can You Get?” is one of his signature tunes. On this song, his guitar playing is supple, fluid and clear as a bell. His phrasing – his ability to “speak” through his guitar – is fantastic. And he uses great vibrato, that shaking, quivering trill that sounds so much like the human voice. It is tough to get that right and he got it just right.
And his singing! Tough, masculine when it needed to be; sweet, feminine when the song called for that. BB’s favorite singer? Frank Sinatra. In his autobiography, he talks about he went to bed every night and “practically put that “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” under his pillow every night.”1 Not coincidentally, among other things, Sinatra was also known for his phrasing.
Now, listen to “How Blue” and hear how excited the audience gets when he arrives at the climactic line:
One thing I always enjoyed hearing BB sing was duets. He sang with Bobby Blue Bland, Koko Taylor, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Gloria Estafan, U2, Tracy Chapman – you name it. I was fortunate enough to see the late Koko Taylor many years ago when I was a more frequent habitué of the local blues dens. She was a total kick-ass, ballsy blues singer. In her, BB had an equal. This song is called “Blues Hotel.” I wasn’t familiar with it till my research. But I’m diggin’ it:
I realized while putting this series together that I hadn’t posted a video of B.B. playing live. And there’s no good reason for that since there’s a ton of stuff available. So here’s B.B. with Jimmie Vaughn, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton from Clapton’s Crossroads festival. Just, you know, because:
I wanted the final song to feature BB’s guitar Lucille. (BB tells the story of a night playing in a town called Twist, Arkansas. The room was being heated by a kerosene fire in the room. Two guys got in a fight over a woman, knocked over the fire and everybody ran out. BB ran back in and grabbed his guitar. He says the guitar held the fire up off him. The woman the fight was over? Lucille. If that isn’t a total blues story, I don’t know what is.)
This last song is called “Powerhouse” and it’s an instrumental. I don’t know that it is THE song to feature B.B’s guitar. But it does feature him with the band and they just PLAY! I like that. (Yeah, I did four songs this time instead of three. So, sue me) :-0
B.B was, as much as anybody, the worldwide ambassador of the blues. He took this homegrown style of music and helped export it to the rest of the world. And according to Buddy Guy – who met him the ’50’s when he got to Chicago – he was the nicest, most humble guy he knew. I can attest to his humility by that one brief backstage meet with him in Boston. Just super-nice. I was playing in a local blues band at the time and he was incredibly supportive.
For the record, Here’s a few honors B.B. got in his lifetime:
- Honorary Doctor of Music by Yale University
- Inducted into the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame
- Kennedy Center Honors
- Presidential Medal of Freedom Award
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
- National Medal of Arts
Thanks for everything B.B. Know that wherever you are, we love you.
1 Blues All Around Me. The Autobiography of B.B. King. B.B. King with David Ritz. Avon Books