KING OF THE BLUES

21 May

King of the Blues

BB King #3

By:ย  Bob Gersztyn

Over the decades I’ve had a number of opportunities to see B. B. King perform beginning in 1969. The King of the Blues passed on from this life on Thursday May 14, 2015 after 89 years of life beginning September 16, 1925. He was born the son of a sharecropper on a cotton farm in Mississippi. He learned to play guitar when he was 12 years old and like most of the youth of that era, he sang in the church choir. Kings older cousin was Bukka White the legendary bluesman who he learned from until T Bone Walker turned him on to the electric guitar. The last time that I saw him perform was in 2011, when I reviewed the show for Blueswax/Blues Review magazine that I was an associate editor with.

Curtis Salgado #1

It was a rare opportunity to see the legendary King of the blues on Sunday November 20, 2011, at Keller Auditorium, in downtown Portland, Oregon.ย ย  The concert began at 8:00 PM when Curtis Salgado opened the show for B. B. King and lit up the city of Roses with an hour long set. Then punctually after 30 minutes, the lights dimmed at 9:15 P. M. and B. B. Kings 8 piece band took the stage and began playing their introductory number.ย  James โ€œBoogalooโ€ Bolden led the band and played trumpet, as he scurried around the stage indicating who was to perform.ย  Each band member took a turn in soloing beginning with Walter King and then Melvin Jackson on sax.ย  Stanley Abernathy stood front and center and blew his trumpet, until Charlie Dennis stepped forward and wailed on his guitar, using B. B. Kingโ€™s signature sound.ย  Reggie Richard thumped out a bass solo, and the band rolled into โ€œManhattan Bluesโ€ with Ernest Vantrease demonstrating his keyboard prowess and Tony Coleman mercilessly pounding the skins, until Bolden took a solo and then the rest of the band joined in preparing the way for the king.

I remember the first time that I saw B. B. King perform on Labor Day weekend in 1969, 2 weekends after Woodstock.ย  The concert was at the Eastown theater on the East side of Detroit, with Savoy Brown, a new English blues/rock band opening the night.ย  The show featured 2 blues guitar legends, Albert King and B. B. King, during a time when white middle class American youth were discovering the blues.ย  The Butterfield Blues Band, Cream andย  Jimi Hendrix, had piqued everyoneโ€™s ears for the blues, but this was the real thing.ย  B. B. King had just recorded โ€œThe Thrill Is Goneโ€ in June of that year, so he showcased it at the show.ย  Over the ensuing decades Iโ€™d periodically see him. perform, but hadnโ€™t done so for a while, so I was excited to see him again.

King was escorted onto the stage wearing a black sequined tuxedo that reflected the colored lights as he stood at the foot of the stage gesturing to the crowd before he took his seat and donned his Gibson. After he got situated he greeted the audience and told them that he was happy to be in Portland playing for them.ย  โ€œIโ€™m an old man,โ€ B. B. said, โ€œI just made 86 about 3 weeks ago.โ€ย  Then he dove into โ€œI Need You Soโ€ with an enthusiasm that transcended his age as he impeccably belted it out.ย  The band flawlessly accompanied the master with a skill that bellied the fact that some of them went back to the old days.ย  The song ended in a crescendo of brass leaving B. B. telling the audience about the old days, when some of his band members played with Duke Ellington and were stealing women.ย  When he talked he had a wry expression that turned into a comical caricature that reminded me of Bill Cosby, as he offhandedly mentioned the name of James โ€œBoogalooโ€ Bolden, the bandleader as a primary offender.

BB King #2

Big Bill Broonzy and Charles Segarโ€™s classic, โ€œKey To The Highwayโ€ began with B. B. picking out the tune on his Gibson for a few bars before he grabbed the microphone and began singing, โ€œI got the key to the highway.โ€ย  He broke into a guitar solo as an introduction to all the band members performing short solos.ย  Finally Tony Coleman brought down the house with his thundering drums as B. B. turned to the microphone to finish the song by asking for โ€œone more kiss,โ€ as he wailed, on his guitar. ย ย ย King kept up a continual banter with the audience in between songs, on a variety of subjects, including his home state of Mississippi.ย  โ€œBack in Mississippi this time of the year weโ€™d be picking cotton,โ€ he told the audience as he introduced Blind Lemon Jeffersonโ€™s โ€œPlease Keep My Grave Clean.โ€

โ€œWhen Love Comes To Townโ€ was performed as a duet by U2 ย and B. B. King in the1988 documentary of the groupโ€™s U.S. tour called, Rattle & Hum.ย  It was the next song that the band broke into and played until B. B. broke in and began picking the tune in the familiar style that made him Rolling Stoneโ€™s #6 greatest guitar player.ย  He played the song nearly as good as he did the last time that I saw him in the 1990โ€™s, although the solo was somewhat shorter.ย  He still had the ability to fluidly bend his strings and squeeze a vibrato from his guitar.ย  His voice was strong and clear as he forcefully articulated the lyrics and their powerful gospel message.

โ€œI was there when they crucified my Lord I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword I threw the dice when they pierced his side But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.โ€

BB King #1

By the time that the song was concluding the entire audience rose to its feet clapping time in the packed out auditorium, which turned into thunderous applause when the song concluded.ย  The subject for this interlude was hearing, and B. B. explained that whatโ€™s really bad about not being able to hear well is that you think everyone is talking about you.ย  Then he broke into the mysteries of sexual attraction as he explained to the audience.ย  โ€œWhen weโ€™re young we try to talk to the older ladies, but when youโ€™re old you talk to the young ladies.โ€ย  Then after another 5 minutes of diverse dialogue that concluded with a comment about how at 86 he now looks at young men and thinks to himself, โ€œI used to be able to do what they can now.โ€ย  B. B. began playing his early composition โ€œRock Me Baby,โ€ until the crowd began singing along.ย  As the song concluded and the audience clapped in approval someone yelled out to play, โ€œThe Thrill Is Gone.โ€

โ€œI can do it now or later, whatever you want,โ€ King responded, and then immediately broke into โ€œThe Thrill Is Gone,โ€ with the band following.ย  The band was impressively adept at being able to follow B. B. in whatever direction or change that he chose to take.ย  He dedicated the next song to all the young men who were in love, or wish that they were, but before he could begin it, he changed direction and began to talk about how one year they made 342 one nighters and they made them all.ย  This led into some comments that he made about Phyllis Diller, and then he promptly acknowledged that most of the audience probably didnโ€™t even know who Phyllis Diller was.ย  Just before he began playing โ€œGuess Who,โ€ King complimented his band and told the audience that he depended on their youth to carry him.

Around 10:30 P.M. King was telling the audience that he had a good time and would like to come back for another show some other time. Since it was Thanksgiving week he sang โ€œMerry Christmas Babyโ€ and peppered the lyrics with sarcastic changes where he would replace words like paradise with misery, along with the inherent sarcasm of the lyrics and melodic structure.

BB King #4

โ€œI havenโ€™t had a drink this eveninโ€™ baby,

But Iโ€™m lit up like a Christmas tree.โ€

By the time that Kingโ€™s performance was concluding it had a quality to it that was somewhat reminiscent of a Pentecostal church service without speaking in tongues and fainting in the spirit.ย  He wished the audience a Merry Christmas and elongated his goodbye, until the band broke into โ€œYou Are My Sunshine,โ€ at his lead.ย  Then they played happy birthday to someone in the audience and just before he said goodnight B. B. told the audience that he would sing 10 autographs.ย  He stood at the foot of the stage where some people would offer everything from posters to sheets of paper to receive his imprimatur, while everyone else filed out.ย  I was 22 the first time that I saw B. B. King in 1969, and now Iโ€™m 64, but the message that he has spoken to me through the decades has been the same. Understand that life is a journey, that is sometimes joyous and othertimes painful, but the things that keep you going are music, a sense of humor and love.

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