When my cellphone rings, the opening notes of The Thrill is Gone signal me. I will have to consider changing that now. The author and singer of that song has moved on to Rock and Roll Heaven. B. B. King died in his sleep Thursday after nearly a year in hospice. I can’t imagine anyone was surprised; death happens to us all and this one has been imminent for quite some time. But hearing him tell me the thrill is indeed gone might be more than I want to hear every time my phone rings.
The first time I saw B. B. live was in Chattanooga; something called the Riverbend Festival. When Love Comes to Town, his collaboration with Bono, was still in the public consciousness at that time and rumors circulated all over the area about a live duet. Bono sightings were as prevalent that day as See Rock City bumper stickers.
Crowds fifty thousand strong were a common sight at the festival when I resided in Chattanooga, especially for headline acts or recently faded legends. Willie Nelson, Chicago, Santana, and many more performed on the various Riverbend stages during my tenure there with large groups of fans littering the Tennessee River bank like autumn leaves.
Earlier in that particular evening, the incomparable Etta James had performed. A violent thunderstorm shortened her concert. She began with Tell Mama but withdrew from harm before At Last.
The storm cooled the June night considerably and by the time the main stage lit up, it was almost October like. The crowd was estimated at ninety thousand but I never saw more people there. B. B. did ‘em all that night. This was well before mileage and illness reduced him to sitting while playing and allowing band mates and protégés to do all the heavy lifting. Pretty close to a religious experience for me. I’m sure there are many sad B. B. King fans today who first became converts that night in Chattanooga. One of the five best concerts I’ve ever attended.
I saw B. B. two more times in later years. Once in an auditorium with Bobby Bland who was delayed by car trouble. B. B. went on first because of Bland’s issues but it screwed up the electricity of the night. Neither performer ever got into the rhythm and the crowd was restless.
A few years later I saw the great man once again in Chastain Park. He had lost a little off his fastball by then but was still grinding it out. We sat next to a much younger woman who claimed to be his road girlfriend. Not sure if she was being honest but she did wear a solid gold, permanent backstage pass around her neck.
B. B. King had been silent for a long time so his passing was not a surprise. And losing Ben E. King and Percy Sledge had to make people wonder if America’s greatest blues guitarist was next. Either time was running out or God was getting interested in the Blues and was putting together the best band available.
The first time I heard Spanish Harlem I was eleven. Didn’t know crap about music but it made something inside me feel better. When A Man Loves a Woman was so different and so filled with passion, many white people had a hard time understanding what was happening but we knew it was really good.
I don’t have a go-to B. B. King song; there are too many. I do have a favorite photograph. In the liner notes from Riding with the King, his collection with Eric Clapton, there is an old photo, maybe from the late Sixties of the two together during their younger years. Magic stuff.
I realize lamenting the passing of old guys who no longer impact our lives is foolish and usually limited to sentimental old fools. I also realize there are lots of great young artists doing original, meaningful music today. I listen to a lot of it. But I also realize that B. B. King can’t be replaced.
The world is a little less thrilling this morning.