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Honoring Blues Great B.B. King

When B.B. King passed away on May 14th I was heart broken, although I guess I shouldn’t have really been surprised. His health had been deteriorating more rapidly as the complications from diabetes had begun to take its toll on him, a battle that had lasted for the last 20 years of his life. His passing made me pause and recollect the times I had seen B.B. in concert over the years, none more so than the first time I saw him in Pensacola, Florida in 1978–in a cafeteria.

There was no stage, no special lighting, no big stadium amplifiers, and no stadium seating; just your typical expansive school cafeteria with a low white acoustic ceiling, one wall filled with windows revealing the parking lot outside, and institutional brown metal chairs set up in rows that could have just as easily been set up the previous night for a monthly PTA meeting.

And there was no grand introduction. Before the show, several people behind the scene (I wouldn’t have called them roadies) set up a small collection of box monitors for their microphones, guitars, and drums, along with a couple of small PA speakers for the audience. Minutes later after the stage was set, B.B., along with his band, walked in and plugged in their instruments, thanked the audience for being there, and ripped right into “Caledonia.” For me, at the age of 21, witnessing this was highly unusual. Not that long before, I had attended concerts by Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin at 20,000-seat arenas, replete with gargantuan sound and lighting equipment that could fill 20 semi tractor-trailers. But there was B.B. and his simple sound equipment and cafeteria lighting, set up just 30 feet in front of me. He sounded better than any concert as I had ever attended.

No living blues or rock guitarist was like B.B. Watching and listening to him play his guitar, (“Lucille” as he had called it starting in 1949) with his signature string-bending, vibrato style, was a force of nature as far as I was concerned. And that’s not to underrate his singing. His growling voice, punctuating every important syllable, made him stand out from similar rock and blues guitarists. The fluidity and ease by which he played both his guitar and sang was unmatched, and his ability to mesh both seamlessly, as if neither could  be separated from the other, will always be indelibly etched in my memory.

And what can you say about B.B. King’s legacy that hasn’t already been said? Blues legend: check. Guitar innovator: check. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee: check. “King of the Blues”: check. Blues Hall of Fame: check. Presidential Medal of Freedom: check. B.B.’s influence on other musicians in both the blues and rock and roll is immeasurable and the list of great guitarists who he influenced is numerous: Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, and the list goes on.

You can learn more about B.B. King and Blues music in eLibrary. To get an idea where B.B. came from, growing up amid humble beginnings in cotton country in Arkansas and becoming one of the most accomplished blues and popular music guitarists of our time, eLibrary’s transcript and audio of the 1996 NPR Fresh Air Interview with B.B. King by Terry Gross is instructional. Here King reminisces about his first guitar, growing up and working on a cotton plantation, and at the age of 19, moving to Memphis to pursue a musical career that would eventually spanned 70 years.

There are more resources associated with B.B. King and Blues Music below, but first  check out this vintage 1969 video of B.B. playing “Just a Little Love“.

ProQuest Research Topics:

B.B. King
Blues Music
Guitar
Musician
Rock and Roll

eLibrary Browse Topics:
Blues
Music
Musical Instruments
Musical Styles
Musicians
Notable African Americans

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