B.B. King was the first act WC saw at Macarthur Court at the University of Oregon. King was touring in 1968 in support of the two albums he released that year, Lucille and Blues on Top of Blues. His ability to immediately and directly connect to an audience of rowdy white kids in a packed basketball arena was nothing less than stunning. He has us in his hand from the first song. And the second song was one he told us he was “still working on,” a 10 minute version of The Thrill Is Gone, which he didn’t record until the following year. In that concert, he explored the roots of the blues, doing some a cappella gospel, a few urban blues songs for contrast, and a few pre-Civil War slave songs.
King played with his eyes closed, his face a mask of pain, squeezing notes out of the neck of his guitar, always named Lucille. Talking between songs, he spoke of his hard scrabble childhood in a segregated Mississippi, of his work over the years with blues legends like Sonny Boy Williams, Muddy Waters and Lighting Hopkins, and the stories behind each of his songs. He told us why his guitars were always named Lucille, and why Bill Graham was a hero.
But in that show, and the three times WC saw his while at law school in Chicago, King mostly sang and played the blues. His guitar technique was so definitive that you can identify his work, even if you’ve never heard that particular song before, just in the first notes. He created his own synthesis of Delta blues, gospel and urban blues, a style of music he made his and his alone. He was hugely influential – listen sometime to the album he cut with Eric Clapton in 2000, Riding with the King – but never vain about or his success.
The Mississippi sharecropper, raised by his grandmother, a former slave, became an international icon, a multi-millionaire, a recipient of pretty much every award a musician can receive, and a recipient of the Medal of Freedom.
He told us, from the stage of a blues club in Chicago in 1975, that there was only one woman in his life, and that was his guitar, Lucille, and that while she was demanding, she had given him more comfort in the hard times than anyone else.
And us as well, Mr. King, and us as well.
Rest in peace, Riley B, King, 1925-2015.