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Tribute to BB King 9/16/25 – 5/14/85

May 15, 2015

B.B. King in 2009.jpgB.B. King in 2009” by Tom Beetz – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The thrill is gone.
The thrill is gone away from me. Although I’ll still live on, But so lonely I’ll be.
I’m not the only one to feel this way, now that Riley B. King aka BB King (Sept. 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015) passed away yesterday. It wasn’t until I was in college at UC Santa Cruz when I went to a happy hour at the Whole Earth and I was loving the music. It was eternal, like I’d known it my entire life, it spoke to me like it was my mother tongue and yet I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know the name’s of the songs or who wrote them or who sang them.

“What is this music called?” I asked my new college friend Glenda.
Incredulously she looked at me. She shook her head, not quite understanding. It was loud.
“What kind of music is this?” I asked. “I love it!”
“This?” she asked. “This? This is the blues!”
“The blues??”
And with that, my life changed. I am not sure if the band played anything by BB King that night or not, but a whole world opened for me. It wasn’t that I’d never heard the blues before, but I didn’t know there was a name for this soaring, weeping, roaring, sonic heart rending music until that night.
After that, I sought it out, and Santa Cruz was a great blues town I soon discovered, and soon after I learned how to swing dance. The blues were made for East and West coast dancing. And BB KIng’s Caledonia was one of my favorite songs. And not just because I could relate to it!
I know that at one festival or another during those years, I heard BB King play live. But it wasn’t until some years later,  when I was back living in Ventura and dating David, who lived in Santa Barbara, that hearing him had the most impact. I was basically a starving artist and poet when I drove up to see David in my 1979 VW Westfalia van. To get to his house, I had to drive by the Santa Barbara Bowl. I knew there was a blues concert headlined by BB King but I was broke. I was thinking we’d maybe walk over there just in case we could hear any of it. The traffic was slow going. So slow that people walking were moving about as fast as I was. Some folks on the sidewalk asked if I was going to the concert.
“No,” I said, “I can’t afford a ticket.”
“Would you like to? Do you like the blues? Do you like BB King?”
My enthusiasm bowled them over, and they actually gave me not one, but TWO tickets to the BB King concert!
What a show that was. He was amazing on the radio, but in person, at that venue, on a warm fall night with a view of the Pacific, he radiated, and the music beamed to the heavens.
BB King’s guitar is named Lucille, and in this clip above he talks about how he got his name, how he came to sing the blues and not gospel, and where Lucille got her name.  Here’s a link to today’s NPR piece few memories and words by Ron Wells:
Sometime in the late 70’s I saw B. B. King for the first time. The show was at the once famous Ambassador Hotel, home to the Cocoanut Grove. My brother and I arrived late and sat near the back. The audience that night was 95% African American, and they were dressed in their best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
It was like a religious experience. The audience would shout to B.B., and he would quietly, humbly acknowledge their calls to him and then play his guitar, Lucille, as if he was caressing the woman he loved. It was magic. Magnetic. One might even call it sacred.
Every once in awhile an audience member would stand, throw their hands in the air, and move with the rhythm of B.B.’s guitar. The band, all dressed up in suits and ties, followed B. B.’s lead and alternately rocked and soothed the burning desires of that congregation.It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since. The blues taking the crowd deep into the fields of Mississippi to the juke joints of the South and on up to the nightclubs of Chicago.
And Mr. King led them as only he can. Playing the blues. Picking the notes with his hands, while  his face alternately smiled and contorted in a grimace so as to bring out every dimension of life on this earth as seen through the mirror of his smooth and sometimes gritty blues. He gave himself and his music completely to the audience and they gave themselves over to him.
It was one of those nights which became engrained in my soul forever.
In his own words:
“Touring a segregated America—-forever being stopped and harassed by white cops hurt you most ‘cos you don’t realize the damage. You hold it in. You feel empty, like someone reached in and pulled out your guts. You feel hurt and dirty, less than a person.”
  • “The blues was bleeding the same blood as me.”
  • “I’m no good with chords. I’m horrible with chords.”
  • “I don’t like anybody to be angry with me. I’d rather have friends.”
  • “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”
  • “We all have idols. Play like anyone you care about, but try to be yourself while you’re doing so.”
  • “If T-Bone Walker had been a woman, I would have asked him to marry me. I’d never heard anything like that before: single string blues played on an electric guitar.”
  • “I tried to connect my voice to my guitar, and my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.”
To the man who connected his voice and guitar to so many others, Rest in Peace, Mr. B.B. King.
UPDATE: I definitely recommend you check out my friend Tony Fletcher’s blog post “Why I Sing The Blues: B. B. King and America’s Racist Revisionism”
It was picked up by and has gone viral.
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