bb king 2

Everybody wants to know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
I really have paid my dues

We are these days too often given to calling people great. BB King, who died last week, truly was a great. There are few musicians whose influence has been more significant, or whose style has shaped the playing of more musicians many of whom may also be called ‘great’ from Jimi Hendrix to Duane Allman, from Pete Green to Buddy Guy, from Eric Clapton to Robert Cray. BB’s style, and his ringing single-note vibrato sound, came to define the blues, certainly within the rock tradition. ‘He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced’, Eric Clapton wrote in his autobiography, ‘and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably BB King.’

When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
And everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
I’ve really paid my dues 

‘I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions’, King wrote in his autobiography, Blues All Around Me. Born Riley B King in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1925, he was the great grandson of a slave. His mother died when he was eight, and then the grandmother in whose care he had been placed. From the age of nine BB earned a living picking cotton and driving a mule. ‘Cotton was a force of nature. There’s a poetry to it, hoeing and growing cotton’, he later wrote. And he told an interviewer much later, ‘Though it didn’t make none of my people rich. I figured out that I must have walked around the world, all those hours and days and weeks behind a mule.’

BB moved to Memphis to work as a tractor driver, landed a gig on Sonny Boy Williamson’s local radio show and acquired the nickname ‘BB’ (‘Blues Boy’). In Memphis he met artists such as Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker, and heard electric guitar for the first time. ‘T-Bone was, to me, that sound of being in heaven’, he once said.

I stood in line
Down at the County Hall
I heard a man say, ‘We’re gonna build
Some new apartments for y’all’
And everybody wanna know
Yes, they wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
Yes, I’ve been around a long, long time
Yes, I’ve really, really paid my dues

BB called his guitar ‘Lucille’. It’s a story he told many times. One night in 1949, King was performing in a juke joint in Arkansas when two men started fighting over a woman named Lucille and set the club on fire by knocking over the kerosene stove. Everyone fled, but King rushed back inside to retrieve his guitar; from then on he called it Lucille. ‘Lucille’ is real’, King wrote. ‘When I play her, it’s almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries. I’d be playing sometimes as I’d play, it seems like it almost has a conversation with me. It tells you something. It communicates with me.’

I’ve laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
To give the roaches some
Everybody wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
Yes, I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve paid my dues.

‘I’ve put up with more humiliation than I care to remember’, King wrote in Blues All Around Me. ‘Touring a segregated America – forever being stopped and harassed by white cops hurt you most cos you don’t realise 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.’

Yeah, you know the company told me
Guess you’re born to lose
Everybody around me, people
It seems like everybody got the blues
But I had ’em a long time
I’ve really, really paid my dues
You know I ain’t ashamed of it, people
I just love to sing my blues

He was once asked in a Rolling Stone interview when he realized he was so influential. ‘I was watching TV one night’, BB replied, ‘and the lead singer of the Beatles – John Lennon – said he wished he could play like BB King. I almost fell out of my chair. And that started me to thinking, “God, what am I doing? The greatest group on Earth, and the guy is saying that to me?” I tried not to let it go to my head. But I sure thought about it. That was like Jesus Christ coming down and saying, “Yeah, B., you’re pretty good.”’

My kid’s gonna grow up
Gonna grow up to be a fool
‘Cause they ain’t got no more room
No more room for him in school
Everybody wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
I say I’ve been around a long time
Yes, I’ve really paid some dues.

I saw BB King live twice. And it was live that he was at his best (his best albums are Live at the Regal and Live in Cook County Jail). Indeed, he never seemed to be off the road. ‘I’m slower’, he told Rolling Stone in 2013. ‘As you get older, your fingers sometimes swell. But I’ve missed 18 days in 65 years. Sometimes guys will just take off; I’ve never done that. If I’m booked to play, I go and play.’ ‘We worked our asses off from ’63 to ’66, right through those three years, non-stop’, Keith Richards once said. ‘I believe we had two weeks off. That’s nothing, I mean I tell that to BB King and he’ll say, “I been doing it for years.”’

Now Father Time is catching up with me
Gone is my youth
I look in the mirror everyday
And let it tell me the truth
I’m singing the blues
I just have to sing the blues
I’ve been around a long time
Yes, I’ve really paid some dues

Three years ago, when I compiled a list of my favourite trad blues artists, BB King was not among them. I have not changed my mind. But that is simply a personal choice; it’s the more feral sound of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, of Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell to which I’m attached. There can, though, be no denying the place that BB King holds in blues history, or that he truly is a great. So here, are my ten favourite BB King tracks. The King may have gone, but the thrill remains.

(The lyrics are from Why I sing the blues; the photo is courtesy of Roland Godefroy/Wikipedia)


Sweet Little Angel


Why I Sing the Blues


The Thrill is Gone


How Blue Can You Get?


3 O’Clock Blues


Chains and Things


Nobody Loves Me But My Mother


Sweet Sixteen


Everyday I Have the blues


Gambler’s Blues

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