I was still in mourning for Bobby “Blue” Bland, who passed in 2013, when a short while ago the house lights went down for the last time on B.B. King, too.
What to do, what to do? So many of our great blues singers have made their Last Road Trip, have gone on to that Great Jam Session in the Sky: Bland, King, the two Jimmys (Reed and Witherspoon), Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Little Milton, to name but an octet of the very best.
Think what choir practice in Heaven must sound like nowadays!
Thank goodness for recordings (and for YouTube). I’d hate to look down that long, lonesome road thinking I could never again hear these artists sing songs like “Stormy Monday,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “Drown in My Own Tears,” “The Thrill Is Gone,“ “Bright Lights, Big City.”
I can hear Bland now, voice smooth as silk, sliding and gliding from one blue note to a note bluer still: “If I should take a notion to jump into the ocean, ain’t nobody’s business what I do.” Insouciance personified!
And what about Blues Boy King, a national treasure from tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, Tennessee? If his rendition of “The Thrill is Gone” doesn’t turn your inmost thoughts to The One That Got Away, count yourself lucky. Or guilty. You decide.
I tell you, if these great blues songs were paintings, they could hang in the Louvre, they’re so good. In the same room with the Mona Lisa would be a fitting place. She, too, broke a lot of hearts, they say – which is what most blues songs are about – that and being lonesome.
Why, even a lady’s man like Elvis once had a room at Heartbreak Hotel – and where was the hotel located? “Down at the end of Lonely Street.” And it was “always crowded.”
Some with broken hearts prefer to suffer alone, of course. No desk clerks dressed in black for Ray Charles. No lachrymose bellhops, either. He is “so all alone” and crying so hard that he will drown in his own tears if his woman doesn’t “come on home” – and soon!
How could any woman who loves music resist such a plea? Charles’s rendition of that song is a perfect fusion of blues lyrics and gospel chords.
Sing it again, Ray, wherever you are. And if the Raylettes are now the Angelettes, invite them to join in.
Men, too, break hearts, of course. What woman has not sighed in painful recognition on hearing the one and only Billie Holiday lament: “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on. Sometimes when you think it’s on, it has turned off and gone.”
Sadder still is that the song’s singer has turned off and gone. Checked out of Heartbreak Hotel, apparently her permanent residence, in 1959. Though born in the City of Brotherly Love, Billie Holiday had a hard time finding any, brotherly or otherwise. Born Eleanora Fagan, Holiday died in a New York hospital bed while under arrest for narcotics. (For one hell of an obit: NYTimes.com.)
Now let’s give thanks for the blues artists who are still with us, performers like:
- James Taylor (“Steamroller Blues”): “I’d like to roll all over you…”
- Eric Clapton (“I Want A Little Girl To Fall In Love With Me”): “You know I’d give her everything I’ve got…”
- Delbert McClinton, a national treasure himself (“Standing on Shakey Ground”): “My car got repossessed this morning. harder times I haven’t seen in years…”
- Mick Jagger (“Honky Tonk Women”): “I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis, She tried to take me upstairs for a ride…”
And let us not forget the blues that from time to time befall all of us, the blues about simple rotten luck, as in “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which manages to make a double negative sound negative indeed: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
An aside: The late Albert King, no kin to B.B., made “Bad Sign” popular, but the best version I’ve heard was by Robben Ford, whose “Bad Sign” is actually a good sign because he is still among those working to keep the blues, a genuine American art form, alive and well.
And who do we have to thank for this art form? Well, the blues are as old as heartache, as old as sorrow itself, but W.C. Handy is widely regarded as the Father of the Blues, and I know of no one with a better claim to the title.
Born Nov. 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, Handy was a musician (cornet) and composer. It is said that he harvested the rhythms he heard in his travels throughout the South, put them into his compositions, and brought them into the mainstream of American music aboard classics like “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Aunt Hagar’s Blues.”
I like ‘em all, but, oh, that last one! I can hear ol’ Louis Armstrong singing it now:
“Old Deacon Splivin, his flock was givin’ the way of livin’ right.
Said he, No wingin’, no ragtime singin’ tonight.
Up jumped Aunt Hagar and shouted out with all her might:
‘Oh, ain’t no use to preachin’, ain’t no use to teachin’;
each modulation of syncopation just tells my feet to dance.
I just can’t refuse when I hear the melody they call the blues,
those ever-lovin’ blues.”
Sing it again, Satchmo. You, too, were a national treasure, but, alas, one of a kind. We won’t see your like again.
And now I’ve really got the blues.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I found the songs mentioned above on YouTube via Google. B.B. King must have recorded “The Thrill Is Gone” a hundred times, but two of the best versions are the one he did for the TV show “Austin City Limits” and the one he did with the great Eric Clapton.)