(This piece originally appeared on my old site, Volume Treble Bass, on May 16, 2015… just a few days after B.B. had passed away.)
The world has lost a true legend… B.B. King has passed away at the age of 89. Riley B. King, known to the world as B.B. King- passed away late Thursday night in Las Vegas according to his daughter, Patty King.
Portrait of B.B. King in 1972. (John Shearer – The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
When I started playing guitar 29 years ago, I was into hard rock and heavy metal. I didn’t care anything about listening to blues or jazz or any of that stuff. People would tell me, “…the stuff you’re listening to- is based in the blues.” I thought they were nuts! Then as I started getting more into technique, I started to really appreciate players with great vibrato. I’d read interviews with some of my favorite guitarists and when the subject of vibrato would come up, without fail- the first name they would mention would be B.B. King. So, I gave in and asked a friend of mine which B.B. King album should I check out. He suggested, Live At The Regal.
It was like a light switch had been flipped on! I had been chasing after the “play as many notes as you possibly can” dream… and it was then that I realized that you don’t have to play 1,000 notes if you can say it all with one or just a few. Some people can make a guitar talk, but B.B. could carry on a conversation with his. Listen to “Sweet Little Angel” from Live At The Regal: Sweet Little Angel (Live At The Regal Theater, Chicago, 1964)
I dove in head first after that. Now, I LOVED his studio recordings, but his live stuff was where it’s at! I mean, we’re talking about a guy that honed his chops by playing 250+ nights a year! So, a short while later, I picked up his Live In Cook County Jail album. I can’t believe I got this far and haven’t mentioned his singing! What a perfect compliment to his guitar playing. So soulful. Listen to B.B. wail (both on guitar and vocals!) on “How Blue Can You Get?”: How Blue Can You Get? Live In Cook County Jail
Some twenty-five years later, during my first year as host of the radio program, T-Bone’s Prime Cuts, I’m interviewing Robin Trower– when the subject of vibrato comes up. Now as far as rock guitarists go, Robin Trower has incredible vibrato. I asked him where it came from- B.B. KING! He even mentioned the Live At The Regal album. Made me so happy to see that two of my favorite guitarists had that connection. That Robin had felt the same things I had!
Through the years, I tried to throw a few “BBisms” into my playing. Though never anywhere near as good as B.B. did it, when someone would come up to me after a show and tell me that I had “good vibrato”- I couldn’t be any happier. And I’d tell them it’s all B.B.!
Seeing B.B. King play live was a special experience. No matter where you were sitting in the crowd, it seemed as though he was singing directly to you. An incredible storyteller who just had that ability to connect with people.
I was lucky enough to see B.B. live on four different occasions. Three times at Pine Knob (now DTE Energy Music Theater) in big Blues Festival shows… and once at the historic Masonic Temple in downtown Detroit. All four times in the 1990’s. And had the privilege to meet him once also. He was doing book signings in 1996 for his book, “Blues All around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. King.” I don’t normally get nervous meeting celebrities, but all bets were off that night! By the time I got through the long, winding line at the Borders Books in downtown Ann Arbor, my nervousness had reached a fever pitch! I had brought a camera to hopefully get a picture with him, but had arrived later than I had planned, so my friends had already been through the line and left. I asked the guy behind me if he’d take the picture in exchange for me taking a picture of him with BB and mailing it to him later. Happily, he agreed. After B.B. signed my book and gave me a guitar pick, it was time for the picture! The guy taking the photo said, “Don’t forget to smile!” Then B.B. looks over at me and starts singing… SINGING TO ME, “When you’re smiling, keep on smiling… the whole world smiles with you.” An unforgettable memory! He was so nice to me. And that’s a memory I will take to my grave with me. Unreal!
Initially, this post was going to be a little history of the man. A rundown of his accomplishments, who he influenced, etc. Then as I started to write it, I was overwhelmed by just how much he had meant to me, so I went with that. There are tons of stories out there today with all of his history and background since his death… but this was personal to me. Hope you didn’t mind.
B.B., I’ll miss you. I feel like I lost a family member. Thanks for all the great music and for being an even better person. And thanks for being so nice to someone you didn’t have to… me. Love you and hope you’re having fun playing Lucille in Heaven!
I’ll leave you with this… my favorite version of “The Thrill Is Gone” live in Africa 1974 (before the Foreman – Ali fight): BB King - The Thrill Is Gone - Live In Africa '74
Terry “T-Bone” Mathley was the host of T-Bone’s Prime Cuts on WICR-FM in Indianapolis, and a former part of the promotion team for Daryl Hall and John Oates, Steve Cropper, The Doobie Brothers and G.E. Smith. He is currently the host of the podcast, T-Bone's Prime Cuts...On The Other Side. Terry lives northeast of Indianapolis and is a music lover, music journalist, Detroit Tiger fan and Doggy Dad.