“Muddy Waters was born near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. And to me he’s a Mississippi person that went to Chicago and play[ed]. John Lee Hooker was born in Mississippi and went to Detroit. B.B. King was born in Mississippi and went to Memphis.” – B. B. King
The news announced on B.B. King’s web site that the great guitarist and singer is in home hospice care means that soon another of the great blues musicians produced by the Mississippi Delta will soon no longer whinny with us, as Dylan Thomas would say. The loss of a figure like King is greater than the loss of a brilliant musician; with his passing another link to the long, storied history of one of America’s great original musical forms will be lost. In our current cultural malaise, with musicians unable to get paid for their creative efforts, King is also one of the last reminders that talent and perseverance could once lead to musical success, cultural respect, and recognized influence.What sets King apart, other than his unique guitar style (derived, as he himself notes, not simply from great bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson but also from great jazz guitarists like Django Reinhardt), is his keen sense of why he made his way to musical fame. King, who started his life as the son of a share cropper and who worked as a tractor driver on a cotton plantation, became enamored of blues through recordings played for him by an aunt. Determined to make his way in the music business, King moved to Memphis where he managed to convince Sonny Boy Williamson to give him a break. That led to club work, radio shows, recordings, and King’s long, distinguished career. There were hits such as “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Woke Up This Morning,” and “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Many of these songs allowed King to introduce his signature style – an innovator, King brought jazz style horn sections to blues arrangements.
With 1970’s “The Thrill is Gone,” B. B. won his first of 17 Grammy awards – and gained a whole new level of cultural respect. Here’s B.B doing the song at the 1993 Montreux Festival:
Further honors have followed. He has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and somewhat later the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has also received the Presidential Medal of freedom. He has become a widely appreciated figure in the larger culture and has appeared in films and on children’s records. He has been the subject of both an oral history project and a recent documentary.
Finally, there is King’s influence. He speaks with pleasure of a John Lennon’s wish that he could play guitar like the great B. B. King. And of course his collaborations with U2 and Eric Clapton are well known.
For his contributions to a unique American art form, B. B. King is a national treasure.