Music/Popular Culture

Sacrilege: riding with the king…

BB King

BB King: Photo by Andy Freeberg

This may be sacrilege, but I never was a B.B. King fan.

Oh, I’ve respected the hell out of him since about 1970. That was when I read a story about how King played at a venue with Eric Clapton and Elvin Bishop. Bishop went first, and as you know, he’s pretty damned good. Clapton played second, and he either was unofficially God at the time or Slowhand. It didn’t matter. The crowd loved him. But then came a man sitting on a stool, smoking a little cigar, not playing flash but instead squeezing out licks and staccato runs that sounded like his heart was talking through his fingertips. Jaws dropped.

Even if that’s not the real story—even if memory has tricked me—it may as well be true. And since then, it’s been easy to spot King’s star in the blues constellation. He burned brighter than any other. But when he reached the age when I thought I probably should see him while I had the chance, I didn’t care for the venues and I balked at the ticket prices. As I said, I wasn’t really a fan.

Or was I, without knowing it? I say this because of the blues players I follow who owe so much to King. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray come immediately to mind. Or maybe it’s because of the musical company King kept, figuratively or literally: Buddy Guy. Albert Collins. John Lee Hooker. Koko Taylor. Etta James. Ruth Brown. Albert King. Freddie King. I’m certain that if I went through my CD collection, King’s influence would be thick and rich.

He certainly influenced Clapton, as their collaborative album, “Riding With the King,” showed. There are some lines B.B. sings at the end of the title song that seem autobiographical:

I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old
With a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold.
I had a guitar hanging just about waist high
And I’m gonna play this thing until the day I die.

The lyrics aren’t autobiographical, though. The song was written by John Hiatt and was included on a Hiatt CD (called Riding With the King, of course) released in 1983. And the song is about riding on an airliner where Elvis was a passenger.

Most listeners, though, think the song is about B.B. And even if that’s not the real story, it may as well be true.

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11 replies »

  1. Patrick. A few years ago i read muddy water’s bio, and in it they talk about head-chopping, a blues club tradition in chicago where a bunch of musicians go into a club and during the bands break go up to the stage and try to play so well that the audience refuses to let the real band back up on the stage. so if bb stole the show from eric and elvin, it was probably deliberate and part of a long-standing blues tradition. you want to sing the blues, eric, let me give you something to be sad about. 🙂

    • I’ve never heard the term “head-chopping”; I’ve read and heard about “cutting,” though, which is the same thing, I think. No doubt in my mind B.B. did it to Eric, simply because B.B. realized that for a lot of guitarists, less is more. (King was so good at it he may as well have patented it.) I’ve seen it a little bit of head-chopping on film: Clapton cutting Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz; Jeff Beck doing the same to Clapton in Live at Ronnie Scott’s, even though Beck does it in subtle bursts, as opposed to what Clapton does to Robertson. Then there’s the story of Hendrix jamming with Cream and just shredding Clapton, but I don’t know if that’s true or just a rock myth. Anyway, thanks for reading and your comment. I love talking to people about guitarists and the blues, and I enjoy back-and-fourths like this.

      • and maybe it was headcutting. that sounds more right,

        yeah, i loved robertsons mugging and claptons cutting him to pieces

  2. B.B. gets mucho respect, but there are plenty of blues guys I listen to more – John Lee, Albert, Sonny and Brownie, others. And of course as long as we agree that Robert Johnson is The Man, we’ll have no trouble. 😉

    • every guitarist i know loves robert johnson (no caps typing one handed while i hold my three day old granddaughter with other) but i have to say, us non musicians dont get it. partly poor recordings of course, but still, youd think the devil couldve afforded better gear

      • Great line about the devil’s gear. I know I’m supposed to like Johnson because I like the blues, and I’ve tried real hard, but he doesn’t do anything for me, either.

    • I always come back to Hendrix for his blues and of course SRV. But I’m sure not going to get into a “match this list” contest with you, Jim. That would be a cutting contest, and I’d lose for sure.

  3. I’m from Waycross, Ga and saw the Allman Bros on the free stage at Atlanta Pop in 70. So I have to go with Duane. It’s a state law.

    Saw a kid not long ago that blew me away. Kenny Wayne Shephard.

    SRV phenomenal, but hard to like anyone who gets “trailer rocking” stuck in my head.

    Speaking of good lines, just read a blog somewhere that was talking about Jimmy Page getting an honorary doctorate from Berklee. The author wondered if he had to share it with Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf and Randy California (whoever that is.)

    • I saw Kenny Wayne a couple of years ago, and he didn’t do anything for me. But Duane Allman? Yeah—even if he had never played anything else but his solo on “Stormy Monday” from the Fillmore East live album. And for Jimmy Page, the word “honorary” doesn’t belong in the same hemisphere with him. Just ask Blind Willie Johnson.

  4. Nevermind, I looked it up. And I’ve actually seen Spirit. Live. (and coincidentally, at Atlanta Pop, same place I saw Duane and Jimi) So there. Tuck in Gramps blanket and put his teeth back in the jar.