The end came quickly, if not unexpectedly. Nearly nine decades is a hell of a long life, particularly when you account for everything the man had been through. Every whiskey-soaked blues bar, every smoke-filled juke joint, every long night spent on the road all across the world as an entire genre’s global ambassador. Those things add up; taken altogether, you could say he’s lived several lifetimes.
And in part, that’s what makes the passing of B.B. King at the age of 89 sting as much as his guitar playing did. He’d been around for so long that you thought he was some kind of divine figure, that he was created from something that mere mortal men cannot fathom. His name fits him: he truly was royalty, destined for some kind of immortality. He was the last remaining of the Three Kings of the Blues (Freddie died in 1976 at the age of 42; Albert died in 1992 at the age of 69). In many ways, he was perhaps the most influential of them all.
B.B.’s influence on the blues cannot be overstated in any way, shape, or form. The man was a titan of the genre, one of the most commercially viable and globally visible blues artists of all time. He was certainly among the most recognizable. It’s nearly impossible to hear a B.B. King guitar solo and not know instantly that it’s him. His guitar playing was spare, economical, dynamic, sweet, singing, and he possessed a vibrato that makes grown men weep (just speculation). It’s the kind of style that guitarists have been trying to emulate for over six decades. Every guitar slinger from Eric Clapton to John Mayer has cited B.B.’s playing as a major influence, and with good reason. You’d be hard-pressed to find a player worth his salt that doesn’t owe at least some part of his style to B.B., or fails to recognize his influence.
What’s so interesting about B.B. King’s legacy is how much people have chosen to focus on his guitar prowess. That’s all well-deserved, but you glance over something that’s just as important: B.B.’s voice. The man possessed a massively soulful voice. It came from deep within him. You could feel him channeling all his pain, sorrow, joy, anger, every emotion he’d ever felt into that voice, releasing it all in a cathartic holler, a sweet falsetto, a weathered growl. No matter what you might’ve been feeling, B.B. could find a way to sing it.
B.B. King’s greatness cast a large shadow over the blues. But his influence extended far beyond that, and it put him in the kind of limelight that few of his contemporaries ever achieved in their lifetimes. B.B. influenced everyone; that meant he got to play with anyone he wanted to. He was close friends with his peer Buddy Guy. Eric Clapton, another one of the great blues guitarists, ushered him further into the public eye, with Clapton frequently championing King, performing high-profile gigs with him, even recording an album with him (2000’s Grammy-nominated Riding with the King). His guitar, a big hollowbody Gibson ES-355 named Lucille, is almost as famous as he is. He’s hob-nobbed with Presidents, Popes, world leaders from all over. Hell, Former Biggest Band in the World U2 even recorded a song with the King, 1988’s “When Love Comes to Town”. He’s been everywhere, met everyone, done everything, and through it all he represented both himself and the genre he ruled over with a sense of respect, dignity, grace, and class. His music embodied many of those same characteristics.
I’ve been wondering why it took me until four days after King’s passing to put pen to paper and write about it. I guess it’s because I couldn’t really come to terms with losing someone who played such important role in my musical development. I was raised on classic rock and blues music. It provided the bedrock for my taste in music, giving me a starting point from which I’ve branched out from. B.B. King was among the first of the blues musicians I ever heard. From him, I was led to Freddie and Albert King (no relation), Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others. Hearing him and these other blues titans threw the music of personal heroes like Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and others in sharper relief; to hear where they got it from was eyeopening. Hearing B.B. King is like finding the groundskeeper’s set of keys: suddenly, everything is unlocked. As a guitar player, I’ve spent years trying to nail that vibrato. I remind myself all the time to try and play more like B.B. King. Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes it’s not about the notes you play.. It’s about the notes you don’t play. B.B. lived in that space between notes. He understood the power that existed there, and that was a huge lesson in my development on the instrument.
But its more than just the loss of an influential man. B.B. King’s passing signals the continuation of the inevitable: all of those heroes, if they haven’t already, are nearing the ends of their lives. Buddy Guy is 78. Clapton, Page, and Beck are in their 70s. Paul McCartney is 72. Nobody knows how Keith Richards is still alive. The last of the blues titans and the giants of rock n’ roll are in the twilight of their lives. Maybe that’s why I tried to put B.B.’s passing out of my mind. You try to forestall the inevitable, but that only makes it sting that much more when it finally happens.
B.B. King left behind a massive legacy. He was a great many things to a great many people. 17-time Grammy award winner. Blues and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. Kennedy Center Honoree. Winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To the blues, he was a global ambassador, a superstar, a titan. He was a King. All king’s reigns must come to an end. And so B.B. King’s reign came to an end on May 14, 2015, after decades on the throne. And even though his guitar playing had deteriorated in his old age, and even though his diabetes had forced him to sit rather than stand when he played, and even though his once titanic voice had grown more raspy in recent years, B.B. ruled to the day he died. His playing was slower and more measured, but still as fiery as ever. He might not have been able to stand, but that didn’t stop him from performing. His voice might’ve rasped, but it still carried just as much weight. And not that he’s gone, his seat will remain vacant. Nobody could ever hope to take his place.
The King is gone, but he’s not forgotten. He never will be. Long live the King of the Blues.