You could hardly say the death on May 14th of legendary bluesman B.B. King was unexpected. He was pushing 90 at the time and there’d been reports in the press lately about his failing health. Still, on an emotional level, his passing came as a shock. He was one of those guys who seemed to transcend the boundaries of human mortality and frailty and have a superhuman permanence. Like Mount Everest or the moon, you were so accustomed to his presence that you just assumed he’d be always there.
He wasn’t the most soulful or spookiest-voiced performers in the wild and wonderful world of blues music. Those are honours I’d probably bestow on John Lee Hooker or Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins. But with his avuncular charm and impeccable style – that portly frame of his seemingly encased in a super-cool three-piece suit at all times – he was the best ambassador that the blues genre could have hoped for. Mind you, musically, there was definitely no one else who could go “Mmmm-mmmm!” with his eyes closed, whilst wrenching a passionate squeal out of his guitar, quite like he could.
That guitar – or more accurately guitars, because he used a number over the years – was a black Gibson with a maple body and neck and an ebony fret-board called Lucille. Supposedly the instruments King played on stage had all borne the name Lucille since an incident in Arkansas in 1949, when he ran back into a burning dance hall where he’d been performing to rescue an expensive guitar. The cause of the fire was a rudimentary heater (basically a barrel of kerosene), which two men had knocked over whist brawling about a woman called Lucille. So thereafter, that name served as a reminder to King to avoid doing dumb things, like endangering your life by trying to retrieve a guitar from an inferno. Or fighting over women, for that matter.
He had a string of big blues hits in the 1950s like Every Day I have the Blues (1955) and Sweet Little Angel (1956). By the 1960s, of course, he was hanging out with white, mainly-British rock-and-roll boys, including the Rolling Stones, for whom he opened during their 1969 North American tour. Accordingly, he makes a cameo appearance in True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, journalist Stanley Booth’s definitive account of that spectacularly ill-fated tour, which culminated with the Hells Angels-induced mayhem at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6th.
With his collaborative song When Love Comes to Town (1988), he managed to convince me, temporarily, that U2 were a decent rock band. But it was his thunderous performance on another collaboration, I Pity the Fool with Buddy Guy, from his 1993 album Blues Summit, which for me was the peak of his later career. Meanwhile, five years later, he was surely the only reason for watching that dog of a movie, the John Landis-directed Blues Brothers 2000.
Inevitably, King’s gigs in the past few years – with the great man in his mid-eighties, heavier than ever, suffering from Type 2 diabetes and not always able to recall his song lyrics – were somewhat ramshackle affairs. Charles Shaar Murray, Britain’s most erudite blues journalist, observed of his 2011 concert at the Albert Hall that “(t)he Big B had become a magnificent ruin, like the Coliseum or the Sphinx: a monument to visited not in the hope of seeing it in its halcyon days, but to marvel that it was still here and, indeed, that something so marvellous existed in the first place.”
Still, I can’t help but admire him for the fact that he was still touring at the age of 88. Aye, beat that, Sir Mick bloody Jagger.