Take a few minutes to behold the legacy of B.B. King.
The man is one of the last of the mid-20th century Delta blues players, a musical legend whose place in the pantheon of electric guitarists is inarguable. He was the first crossover black bluesman, never losing his credibility with his core African-American audience while managing to find major success appearing on such mainstream cultural signposts as The Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
King has made dozens of albums, played thousands of shows, and his work remains vibrant and important. His 2008 release “One Kind Favor” is essential listening, representing an artist who at the time was in his mid-80s making work with the energy and passion of a man 60 years younger.
Now 89, he still tours — including a stop at the Stranahan Theater April 7 — wields a mean axe named “Lucille,” and delivers chill-inducing gospel-flavored vocals.
MEETING THE KING
Best of all, B.B. King is by all accounts a wonderful gentleman.
Just ask Joe Boes. The veteran Toledo guitarist who performs as MoJoe Boes and his Noble Jones was lucky enough to meet King when he was in high school after a concert.
“It was a cool moment because I remember shaking his hand and realizing his hands were the biggest, fattest hands I’d ever seen and then telling myself that I wasn’t going to wash my hand until I went home and played guitar. I wanted whatever mojo was in that hand,” Boes said.
Chris Shutters, a 27-year-old Toledo blues guitarist has a similar story from when he met King in 2000 at the Stranahan Theater. He was just starting to learn his way around the guitar and King was gracious enough to talk to him after Shutters secured a backstage pass.
“I think I felt the energy for real; it was amazing. I got to shake the hand of the king and that was the biggest inspiration for me as a guitar player,” he said, noting that the older gentleman encouraged him to “keep the blues alive.”
“It’s inspiring. I draw a lot of my passion from that moment right there. B.B. King is one of my favorite artists of all time,” Shutters said.
Toledo photographer and blues aficionado John Rockwood shot pictures of the guitarist in the ’70s and attended numerous shows. Because of his role as a photographer, Rockwood had backstage access.
He said he was hanging around one time and an elderly woman who was probably in her 80s came in and told him that she had seen King in 1949. He said the bluesman didn’t miss a beat, telling the woman, “You’re too young and beautiful to be around that long.”
Rockwood also remembered a concert at the old Sports Arena when some of the ladies started to get carried away.
“Pretty soon, a slip came flying out of the audience and he kind of batted it down. Next thing you know a bra [was tossed on stage] and then underwear,” Rockwood said, chuckling. “He said, ‘Ladies, please.’ You know he was a real woman’s man.”
Riley B. King was born in 1925 in the Mississippi Delta, the fertile birthplace of American blues. His cousin was Bukka White, an early bluesman with whom the young B.B. King spent 10 months in Memphis learning the intricacies of guitar. A sharecropper, King was looking for an escape from the brutal hard work and oppression of the South in the 1930s and 1940s.
By the mid ’40s he was on radio as the Beale Street Blues Boy, and from there his handle became the more pithy B.B. He played the requisite juke joints and dives, all the while recording rhythm and blues singles that would incrementally increase his popularity.
His following grew steadily as he practiced a horn-heavy mix of blues, R&B, and even jazz, exploding in 1969 with his signature recording of the Roy Hawkins’ song “The Thrill is Gone.”
Unlike the other influential blues guitar Kings — Albert and Freddie — and more rough-hewn contemporaries such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Rockwood said that at that point B.B.’s music exploded to a much broader audience, noting that King recorded with such artists as Eric Clapton and U2.
“To me, he’s ‘the famous blues guy.’ Everybody seems to know the name B.B. King,” he said.
His legacy has been cemented with the proven staying power of such songs as “To Know You Is To Love You,” “I Like To Live The Love,” “Sweet Little Angel,” and “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
Perhaps more than anything else, King is the sort of singular artist who is instantly recognizable. His stinging guitar leads and rich vocal power are unmistakable and often imitated.
“Albert and Freddie [King] were guitar monsters and they played single notes, but they were totally different,” Rockwood said. “When you think of Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, they’re all playing B.B. King licks.”
Boes said the secret is in King’s big fingers.
“It’s all in his vibrato. In the guitar world there’s the guys that you listen to and within three notes you identify them. He plays one note and you go, ‘Oh, that’s B.B. King’ and it’s all in his vibrato.”
The way King shapes notes and “wiggles” or bends them on his famous guitar dubbed “Lucille” — a Gibson ES-355 — creates his unique sound, Boes said.
“I can’t vibrato like B.B. King and even if I watch him do it, I still can’t. I’m still like, man how does he get his hand to do that?” he said.
King’s concerts nowadays largely consist of his excellent backing band coming out and warming up the crowd for 15 minutes or so before he makes his way onstage and takes a seat with his guitar.
He plays sitting down, as befits a man who has been on the earth for 90 years and he lets his band do a lot of the heavy lifting. But it is safe to say that at some point over the course of the show, King will lift his meaty hands to his guitar and let loose with sounds that lift your spirit a little higher.
Or as Shutters put it:
“Eric Clapton has the perfect melodies; Jimi Hendrix has the perfect accidents, and Stevie Ray Vaughan has the amazing moments,” he said. “But B.B. King can lay on one note and have more feel on the guitar than anyone who plays. He can hold that one note and make that audience feel it.”