“Lucille lost her dance partner…”
I’ll start off this post by quoting Burt Likko, who noted this morning in an email that “Lucille lost her dance partner last night and the world is measurably poorer for it.” And indeed it is so, because B.B. King has passed away at the age of 89.
I’m sure that much of the internet is going to be mourning the loss of a great guitarist, but the truth is King’s death marks a far more profound loss that is much harder to quantify. Because King wasn’t just a great blues musician. After the passing of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson, King was last true blues musician.
Over time, the sounds, rhythms, and cadence employed by blues musicians like King would be folded into popular music so deeply that the stolen favor would eventually bounce back. Indeed, modern blues musicians such as Robert Cray, Eric Clapton, John Mayer and Ben Harper steal as much from mid-to-late-20th century white pop music as they do from early-20th century black music. Almost all of the blues you hear today is but an affectation of the gritty and defiant art form that developed in Southern sharecropper cotton plantations in the late 19th and early 20th century.
But King needed no such affectation. Like Hooker, Johnson, and Waters, King was the son of sharecroppers, born and raised on a Mississippi planation. For King, the blues was no interesting sound to attempt to copy once he’d mastered the guitar; it was an intimate part of his entire world, of who and what he was, before he was even able to walk.
Like many other non-jazz black musicians of his era, King’s ability to reach a broader audience as a budding musician was based entirely on the whim of Sam Phillips, the entrepreneur owner of Sun Records. His first hit ever for Sun was, in it’s way, probably more emblematic of his sound than even his biggest hits. It was Three O’Clock Blues, and you can hear it here:
Another great example King’s early work is Whole Lotta Love, which amplified a paradox of much of King’s music: it radiated hope in the midst of sadness:
Eventually King walked away from Sun and founded his own recording company, Blue Boys Kingdom, which was eventually folded into ABC-Paramount Records. It was there that he recorded what has become is most iconic song, and the one that will most be tied to him forever:
In his later years, King — like the R&B genius Ray Charles — was able to do better what other musicians of their generation were able to do: share the spotlight with other, younger musicians, while neither eclipsing the newbie’s performance nor ceding their own voice. For those younger readers here, it is probably these works that you will find most familiar.
King will forever be tied with artists such as Primitive Radio Gods…
Etc., etc., etc.
These duets have ensured that King, though perhaps not better than his contemporaries, will surely be better remembered and more revered. And that’s probably as it should be.
Still, for me BB King will always shine brightest when he shines alone, and with that in mind I will walk you out with three of my personal all-time favorites of his: Why I Sing the Blues, I like to Live the Love, and – of course — Lucille.
Rest in peace, BB.
[Picture via Wikipedia.]