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.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture