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The Legendary B.B. King

b.b. king

"His influence on so many of us is beyond words. Thank God for B. B. King." - John Patitucci

ArtistWorks is sad to hear that the legendary guitarist B.B. King has passed away, we send our deepest respect and condolences to his family. Our blues guitar instructor Keith Wyatt has shared his thoughts about B.B. King below. 

We all know that no one lives forever, but it began to seem that BB might be the one exception (we never met in person, but I have always thought of him on a first-name - or initial - basis). From his first hit record “Three O’Clock Blues” in 1952 until late last year when health and age finally began to slow him down, BB lived to play and played to live, and he did outlive all of his contemporaries and many of his disciples. The King is dead, and while there is a multitude of princes, there is no king to replace him.

I first encountered BB not too long after I first picked up an electric guitar in the mid-60s. I was drawn to bluesy sounds before I even knew what blues was; bands like the Stones, Animals and Kinks were loud, raw, and sexy, and playing guitar in a band like that was simply the coolest thing that anyone could hope to do in life. Among the new generation of mostly Brit guitar heroes - Clapton, Page, Beck, and Peter Green alongside token Americans Hendrix and Bloomfield - one name kept showing up at the top of their lists of major influences: BB King. To a white kid growing up in segregated suburban America at the time, BB was completely off the radar; even his name sounded like some mysterious code, so I figured he had to be some underground figure toiling in obscurity, known only to the hippest, most cutting-edge players.

Little did I know. By the time I learned his name, BB had been a headline attraction for 15 years, touring incessantly with a large band and support crew, packing houses on what was known as the “chitlin circuit” (African-American venues located in most of the major cities in the US) and cranking out recordings by the dozen. He had already seen his career rise and fall and struggle to rise again, dogged by slow, low, and no-paying record deals and major tax problems. Far from the then-fashionable image of the “authentic” bluesman as a violent, alcoholic, illiterate, one-dimensional force of nature, BB was urbane, exercised moderation in his leisure activities, and inclined more toward romance than rowdiness, all of which was reflected in the sophisticated, delicate swing of his phrasing. He was not what I expected him to be and I didn’t know what to make of what I heard; as a hard rock-inspired teenage guitar player, I simply wasn’t ready for BB King.

In 1968, BB started getting bookings at white concert venues like the Fillmore, opening shows for the same rock artists who idolized him. Blues had long ago disappeared from black radio and black audiences had shrunk drastically, but soon after the massive success of “The Thrill is Gone” in 1969 BB suddenly found himself in the role of white America’s favorite bluesman (ironically, he also found himself listed in the ‘New Talent’ category at award shows). His recordings became more polished, backed by studio musicians rather than his touring band, and his sound evolved into what I perceived as “smooth blues;” clean and non-threatening. I still liked my blues hard and edgy, and BB’s sweetness and ‘jazziness’ were on the other end of the spectrum.

That’s why I was so surprised when I finally saw him perform live for the first time in the mid-1970s. Expecting him to phone in a set of his recent material, he instead came out swinging hard and taking chances; even before a nearly all-white audience he conjured up moments of chitlin-circuit intensity and his trademark phrases took unexpected turns. For the first time, I began to “get” BB - I was finally old enough to recognize his emotional subtlety and had learned enough guitar to appreciate what a high wire he was walking. I was inspired to go back and listen to his earlier recordings and found “Live at the Regal,” the 1964 record that ranks as one of the greatest blues documents of all time. From there, I went further back to his mid-to-late-50s sides on labels like Kent and Crown; many of these were were cut live in the studio and released as ultra-low-budget albums (albums were mostly a white phenomenon at the time; the black market still preferred singles), but BB’s guitar sound is raw and he delivers with spontaneous, spine-tingling, no-holds-barred intensity. That’s the BB I was looking for, but in fact that’s who BB really was the whole time - the settings got slicker, but he kept preaching the honest truth and kept stretching the boundaries of his playing right to the end.

What have I learned from BB King? A blues solo is a melody. Dynamics are the key to emotional expression. Play like a singer. Respect the song. Find a voice that expresses who you are. Take your time. Swing. Listen to everything. Keep learning. Take chances. Don’t stop doing it. A great lesson sets us on a path that keeps extending just out of reach; I don’t expect to last as long as BB, but however that turns out he gave me enough to work on for the rest of my life.

Thanks, BB.

- Keith Wyatt

Read more about the life and times of B.B. King from his obituary on the New York Times.



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