Musicians Talk B.B. King: Royalty Arrives At The Wellmont On Thursday
Listen to what they have to say, then go hear the great B.B. King for yourself
We need the blues because life is all about "you're riding high in April, shot down in May." We need B.B. King because B.B. King makes sense out of life. There is no musician alive like him. At 85, B.B. King is recognized worldwide as the undisputed king of the blues. His influence on most every style of American popular music is immeasurable.
B.B. King was born Riley B. King in September, 1925 to a Mississippi sharecropper—B.B. comes from his Memphis DJ days when he was known as Beale St. Blues Boy, later shortened to Blues Boy, then B.B. He started recording in the 1940s and by the mid 1950s was touring nationwide, famously doing 342 one-night stands in 1956. He's been on the road ever since.
This Thursday the road leads him to the Wellmont Theatre for one night only. Break open the cookie jar and get there.
Around our house, we pretty much eat, drink, and live jazz guitar. And around our house jazz guitar without a blues feel—well, it just isn't jazz guitar.
To explain why B.B. King reigns unchallenged, I spoke with three area-based guitarists who really know their way around a Gibson, King's guitar brand of choice.
First up, my husband, jazz guitarist Bob DeVos: "B.B. King reinvented the blues guitar. He is the first recording artist to bend strings—stretching a guitar string with his fingers to get a higher pitch. Bending gets more of a vocal quality out of the guitar. Early on he developed his own style. You can recognize his playing in one note."
"King's musical vocabulary really goes beyond the blues—Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart, two jazz guitar pioneers, were early influences as was early big band leader Louis Jordan. With B.B.King, it's more than straight up Delta blues; jazz, big band and R & B are all part of his sound."
"His singing and guitar playing are one, just like Louis Armstrong's trumpet and voice are one."
Next, blues guitarist and singer Al Gold concurs: B.B. King: "He's the reason we bend strings. He was trying to get that mournful, human voice-like quality his cousin Bukka White got with a slide—a piece of pipe or of a bottle neck that you fit over a finger and slides over the guitar strings."
"His singing voice—his call and response gospel-like singing style—is just as influential and beautiful as his playing style, which he arrived at by mixing the sounds of his favorite touchstones: Blind Lemon Jefferson, T Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, and a bit of Parisian sophistication from Django Reinhardt."
"Everyone who has tried to play blues from 1950 on was trying to 'perfect' or pay homage to Riley B. King, whether they knew it, know it, or not. He is the King and Ambassador of the modern era of the blues. There's not one that comes close to his accomplishments."
Third up, jazz guitarist Dave Stryker: "B.B. King—He's an institution and the root. The king of the blues says it all. We're all still trying to figure out how to play that 'one note' like he does."
"Mix in his vocals and his life on the road—I saw him in Sioux City Iowa just over forty years ago when I was 13 and he hasn't stopped touring..."
Like Dave, anyone who plays guitar—rock, jazz, blues—will tell you when and where and how they first heard B.B. King live.
Or ask anyone who loves the music:
My first live B.B. King performance was in 1984. I had a "shot down in May" year. But the dollar was strong and airfares cheap, and I took myself to France—there was a lot of art to see and the Grande Parade de Jazz Festival was running in Nice.
One night I was part of a largely French audience at the festival. The audience was chanting Bee, Bee — BEE, BEE — BEE BEE KING. It was twilight in an olive grove, and B.B. King was taking the stage. As I heard him live, I gathered hope to be "back on top in June…"
For tickets and information on Thursday evening's concert at the Wellmont, go here.