bb king

BB King

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.

Image: Famed blues guitarist B.B. King in a 2009 performance by Tom Beetz via Wikipedia and used under a creative commons license.
Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.

  1. Trevor Stone Irvin

    Saw B.B at the Academy of Music in NYC in 1973 … he brought T Bone Walker out to play some of the old Delta blues. T Bone died a couple years later. I couldn’t get a single friend to go to the concert with me, so I went alone … best music I ever saw live. I damn near wore B.B.’s “Live at Cook County Jail” album out.

  2. Will Cantrell

    Great piece, Mike. I have been a big fan of Riley B. King for most of my life. About two lifetimes ago, back in the early 1980s, I met B.B. by accident. He was staying in a suite of rooms next to my room at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. I was in D.C. on bank business and he was ‘in concert’ at Constitution Hall. We shared the elevator several times and a breakfast café once. He gave me a couple of tickets for the concert, which I appreciated, of course, but what struck me the most was his sheer humanity and his ‘down-to-earth-edness’ (to coin a phrase maybe). He was a truly great man who will be missed by legions, most especially Mike by old farts like me, you and Trev who have the good sense enough to know ‘what’s what’ when it comes to music and especially the blues. One of the greatest song titles and quotes in the history of mankind was made by Mr. King: ‘Nobody loves me but my mother and she might be jivin’ too” Again, great piece, Mike.

  3. Ken Peacock

    Mike. Great story about a great artist. Don’t change your cell phone ring, it is keeping a little bit of his music alive.

  4. After being in his audience many times in Atlanta, I finally got to meet him at a birthday party honing him at the House of Blues in Disney World.. Soft spoken and friendly, King was totally approachable, the opposite of an egomaniac. His interviews were always notable for candor and good cheer. When an interviewer tried years back to bait him into saying negative things about his friend, Elvis Presley, B.B. quickly responded that Elvis “was a good Christian, very generous and treated everyone well.” If B.B. was anything, he was the quintessential sweet music man. His talent extended well beyond Mississippi-style blues. Listen to him perform with big jazz bands. His version of “Everyday I Have the Blues,” is stunning. He would have been a legend with Duke Ellington or Count Basie.

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