BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
The musician’s nightmare, a broken guitar string, caused barely a ripple in the smooth performance of B.B. King the night I saw him playing an Edmonton nightclub gig in 1977. “When your guitar string breaks, then you really got the blues,” quipped the then 51-year-old musician. He grabbed a fresh high-E string from his guitar case, and told us a story while he restrung the instrument. The story, then rarely heard but now well documented on Wikipedia, was about how King came to name his guitar Lucille.
She was the cook in a juke joint in Twist, Arkansas that King played in 1949. He never met her. A fight erupted in the joint one night, a can of kerosene was kicked over, and a fire started. Everybody evacuated the place safely, but King returned “with the building collapsing around me” to retrieve his precious guitar. He discovered afterwards that the fight had been over Lucille the cook. She became his constant reminder of how foolish King had been when he went back into that burning building. He gave the guitar – and every guitar he owned after that – the name Lucille. The one with the broken string at that 1977 nightclub gig – a semi-solid Gibson electric – was Lucille the 14th.
I asked King after his set what it was like to have a string break on him during a performance. “That’s when experience counts,” he said. “It’s like putting salt in your tea instead of sugar. You have to know how to deal with it.”
He had been playing professionally for close to three decades, and was considered one of the most influential bluesmen in the world. During the 1960s, he had achieved a kind of immortality when some of Britain and America’s emerging rock guitarists – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Mike Bloomfield – discovered his music and introduced it to young, white audiences. But King didn’t think his music was immortal. I was surprised to hear him say he considered himself one of the last champions of a fading tradition.
“I think the blues, as we know it, is dying,” he said. “Blues-minded musicians are now being influenced by what they hear on the radio, and their music is watered down from what we know the blues to be. Their music is quite a bit more commercial.”
King too had been influenced by what he heard on the radio when he was a young musician starting out in Memphis during the 1940s. And it certainly wasn’t all blues then. Gospel, country and bebop jazz were part of the mix as well. The first songs King ever played on guitar were country-and-western tunes by the two-term governor of Louisiana, Jimmie Davis, who recorded such hits as “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder” and the all-time camp-fire favourite, “You Are My Sunshine.” “Those songs were just as important to us as ‘Three O’Clock Blues,’” King told me. (“Three O’Clock Blues,” released in 1951, was King’s breakout R&B hit.)
But as well as having the music on the radio to listen to, King also had direct access to the musicians who were still keeping the blues tradition alive. His mother’s first cousin was Bukka White, a Mississippi bluesman whose song “Fixin’ to Die” was performed by Bob Dylan on his 1962 debut album. King also knew such seminal blues artists as Sonny Boy Williamson II, who paved the way for King to get a job as a radio singer and disc jockey in Memphis, and T-Bone Walker, who showed King how to play blues guitar.
After “Three O’Clock Blues,” King released a string of hits including “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Please Love Me” and “You Upset Me Baby.” For more than 10 years, however, his popularity was largely confined to the black audience in the United States. That’s why he was pleased when younger guitarists such as Clapton and Bloomfield began to introduce electric blues to a white audience that was turning away from folk music and the vocal stylings of The Crystals and The Four Seasons. “Had it not been for those young fellows, the doors would still be closed for guys like me,” said King. “The blacks knew about us but the white audiences didn’t get to hear our music until it was played by people like Mike (Bloomfield) and the rest of the fellows.”
With a new lease on recording life, King won a Grammy Award in 1970 for “The Thrill is Gone.” He followed that with a number of mainstream hits including “To Know You is to Love You” and “I Like to Live the Love.” But when I met him in 1977, he felt that increasingly he was turning into a museum act while commercial radio stations were focussing on other kinds of music and failing to give the blues the respect it deserved. The blues were for everybody, white and black, King maintained. Music and hard times knew no colour bar. “What happened to us was a white experience too.”
He continued to echo that melancholy refrain as he aged into his 70s and 80s. “We get treated poorly,” King told an Associated Press reporter in 2005. Musicians such as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray had picked up the torch and kept the spirit of the blues alive, “but they don’t get radio play, they don’t get exposed.”
King may have derived some consolation, however, from the subsequent revelation that Barack Obama was a big fan of his music. “The blues teaches us that when we find ourselves at a crossroads, we don’t shy away from our problems,” the president said at a 2012 White House concert featuring King and a number of other blues giants, including Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck. “We own them, we deal with them, we sing about them.” King responded with grace, dignity and a flash of good humour. “Mr. President, I’ve been praying for you for two years,” he said. “I just want you to keep your job.” He then had Obama clapping hands and tapping his feet while King launched into “The Thrill is Gone.”
B.B. King died on May 14 at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89. He had continued to perform until October 2014, when complications from diabetes forced him to retire his beloved Lucille from active service. “His world-weary voice and wailing guitar lifted him from the cotton fields of Mississippi to a global stage and the apex of American blues,” said the obituary in the New York Times.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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