I have seen recently departed blues grandmaster B B King live in concert twice in my life. The experiences were separated by almost forty years in time and by an unmeasurable distance in spirit.
The first time was at Sydney’s 70’s concert-box-du-jour, the Hordern Pavilion. It was 1976 and B B King was riding high on a crest of fame and massive popularity. The Rolling Stones – respectful blues lovers to a man, and riding pretty high in the early 70s themselves – had asked him to open shows for them across a 1969 US tour. Despite having been a working musician since 1949, King found himself suddenly massively popular among young rock music lovers.
And no surprise. He came across as an accessible, enormously charismatic and easily loveable face of the Blues. Unlike the rawness of Muddy Waters or the downright frightening (if tongue in cheek) hoodoo of Howlin’ Wolf – both of whom found new white audiences in King’s wake – BB was regal, proud and calmly righteous.
Unlike the dangerous sexuality of John Lee Hooker, King’s sexuality was slow, sweet and erotic; not the dominant, subjugating act of many a Blues lyric but a true lovers’ twinning of souls. This was reinforced by the emblematic call-and-response of King’s singing voice and that of his guitar, Lucille.
King would declaim, plead, beg forgiveness, argue, seduce and Lucille would answer – high, sweet, needling in anger or in pleasure. Deep pleasure. The legions of (mostly white) blues guitar heroes that followed King missed this point almost to a man. Their guitar interjections were entirely unrelated to the conversational, dramatic flow of the tune and lyrics. Rather than entwining with their Lucilles they happily and noisily masturbated away into the void, oblivious to her needs. (Not all: Duane Allman got it; so did Mike Bloomfield).
The 1976 concert showed King to be a consummate professional. This was urban blues, not grimy collared country blues. This was bowtie suits, a crack band (Sonny Freeman’s show band, from King’s Live at Cook County Jail album) and chunks of well-rehearsed schtick. Which by no means took anything at all away from the blazing performances and time-stopping atmosphere of the show. It had the stop-watch precision of an Atlantic Records Soul review, but it also had B B King, whose sincerity, big big heart and humility filled the room, your head, the whole night, for that two hours.
It is remembered by 70’s Sydney rock fans as the concert where B B King collapsed. Halfway through the show, he sat down, wiped his brow with a handkerchief and apologised to us all, saying he just could not go on. He had been relentless touring the world and it had taken its toll; he needed to rest. Not a one of us called for our money back; the talk outside afterwards, in the fragrant haze of post concert spliffs, was concerned for his health. We loved him and hoped he would be ok.
I saw B B King again at the 2011 Byron Bay Bluesfest. He was the reason I had gone to Byron that year: to pay my respects to the man who made me want to play the guitar all those years ago. I also had wanted to be like him: a strong man, not brutal and physically powerful, but a man with a gentle yet unbreakable strength of spirit.
At Bluesfest, looking dangerously overweight, and appearing aged even beyond his 85 years, King was helped on after a twenty minute warmup by his band. For a further twenty minutes the King of The Blues struggled to sing and play his guitar. Despite flashes of the old strength and fire, B B was sadly off-game. The enlarged close-ups of his face on the screens both sides of the stage were meant to show his face in contortions of feeling and passion but they showed only frustration and eons of weariness around his eyes.
We are in an age now when any artist who has managed to stay alive for more than fifty years is a legend, an icon and a living treasure. Gleaming Halls of Fame are full of them. The down side of course is that, at an age when most humans are allowed to slow down and rest, these legendary artists are whipped around the world doing show after show. B B King’s recent controversies concerning his manager’s mishandling of his illness cast that meal-ticket circus mentality in a harsh white light.
B B King is at rest now. He has died and the world is hushed with mourning. The level and sincerity of the mourning – across demographics far from the Blues or even music itself – is as befits a Mandela or a Marley or a John Lennon.
What better testimony to the beauty of the man that he has transcended a music birthed in the dirt and pain of slave plantations to focus the world’s love like a lens. That is a beautiful man.