By Bob Weinberg
Portrait by Tomas Musionico
For blues fans, the news was jolting if not entirely unexpected. “I am in home hospice care at my residence in Las Vegas.” B.B. King announced on his website on May 1. “Thanks to all for your well wishes and prayers.”
Two weeks later, the sad news came that King, who would have turned 90 on September 16, had passed away. “B.B. King was the greatest guy I ever met,” blues guitar giant Buddy Guy wrote on Facebook. “The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings…Man, he came out with that, and it was all new to the whole guitar-playin’ world.”
A tearful Eric Clapton released an online video statement about his dear friend and mentor. “I want to thank him for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave me as a player over the years and for the friendship that we enjoyed,” Clapton said, noting that King’s classic 1964 concert album Live at the Regal was an early influence. “This music is almost a thing of the past; there are not many left who play it in the pure way that B.B. did. He was a beacon for all of us who love this music, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.”
Maintaining a tour schedule of 250 dates a year until he was in his 70s, King earned the affection and adoration of generations of music lovers. During his 70-plus years of performance, he brought his signature sound from his hometown of Itta Bena, Mississippi, to Tel Aviv, and seemingly everywhere in between. King was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes more than 20 years ago, and the disease had taken its toll. He canceled a concert tour in October 2014 and was hospitalized in April for dehydration.
King was no stranger to Florida audiences. In recent years, he performed here annually—sometimes more—at venues such as Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, where he rang in 2013 with a New Year’s Eve concert. Until recently, there was a blues club in West Palm Beach that bore his name. But the man whose influence flowed through rock gods such as Jimi Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield; whose universal appeal expanded blues audiences across racial and geographical boundaries; and whose generosity of money and spirit flowed to rural towns in the South and into the prisons where he’d perform for inmates, had been a fixture in the Sunshine State for decades.
“I got all my pointers from B.B. King,” says veteran Gainesville soul singer Little Jake Mitchell, who toured with King in the 1950s when he was just a young teenager. “B.B. King was my godfather.” As a young boy growing up in the projects in Tampa, Mitchell, now 71, competed in monthly talent shows sponsored by the Holsum Bread Company and routinely won first prize: a dozen loaves of bread. Among the tunes he sang was King’s “Woke Up This Morning,” a song with decidedly grown-up lyrics—“Woke up this morning, my baby was gone…”—that must have had the judges in stitches coming from a 5- or 6-year-old boy.
While in Tampa at that time, King would perform for students at Howard W. Blake High School and would call Mitchell to the stage to sing. “He always let me come up, and he would always play behind me,” Mitchell recalls. King then arranged for Mitchell to travel with him and his band for about a month and a half. He rode the tour bus “with all the fellas,” and, of course, a tutor so that he wouldn’t fall behind in his studies.
A contemporary of Mitchell’s, Fort Lauderdale soul-blues great Joey Gilmore wore out the grooves to King’s records while growing up in Ocala. Sitting on the back porch of his house, Gilmore would play one of the precious King 45s he owned and try to suss out the magic of King’s style as he picked his guitar. “I just wanted to make every note count, like he does,” says Gilmore, 71. “It’s all about the tone and what you’re saying with the notes, rather than just hitting a bunch of notes.”
Gilmore would also head over to The Brown Derby, a cafe in Groveland, to hear more of King’s records on the jukebox. “You could get three plays for a quarter,” he says. “So I’d find every B.B. King record on the jukebox.” His favorite was the 1960 classic “Sweet Sixteen,” which required two selections, as it was split into parts 1 and 2 on each side of the record. Gilmore also recalls seeing King perform for the first time at a Dade City juke joint. “Oh man, I was just in love with B.B. King for the rest of my life,” he says.
Gilmore came to Miami in the early ’60s at the invitation of bandleader Frank Williams, whose Rocketeers were among the hottest acts in town. As the house band at the Island Club in Overtown, they played behind or opened shows for a pantheon of soul, blues and R&B stars, including King. After Gilmore and the Rocketeers warmed the stage for King’s band, Gilmore had the chance to converse with his hero. “He’s one of the nicest gentlemen that I’ve ever met,” he says, “always willing to give out good, positive advice—and a very, very interesting conversationalist and storyteller.”
While Gilmore has since become a beloved elder statesman of the blues himself, having won the prestigious International Blues Competition (IBC) in Memphis in 2006 and wowing fans in China and Taiwan last year, King’s influence has been both a blessing and a curse. He simply can’t escape comparisons. “Most people hear me play, the first thing they say is, ‘Well, you know, you could be another B.B. King,’” he relates. Not that it’s bad company in which to travel, but it’s cost him, too. Years ago, Alligator Records chief Bruce Iglauer famously rejected Gilmore’s bid to be on his label for that very reason.
Gilmore’s fans know that his stylistic range extends through volumes of classic and contemporary soul, funk and R&B. And no doubt, King’s legacy echoes through his powerful voice and sweetly stinging guitar riffs. But King’s style owed a debt to blues innovator T-Bone Walker, R&B pioneer Louis Jordan and other early blues and jazz artists. “Every artist, at one time or another, had some influence from somebody else,” Gilmore notes. “You didn’t come out of the womb with your own original sound.”
“Without compromising his artistry, King updated his sound and reached across generational and cultural divides.”
In fact, King paid homage to the heroes of his early days on his 2008 recording One Kind Favor. With great feeling and authenticity, he delved into the songbooks of Delta blues artists Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson and The Mississippi Sheiks. Another influence, his cousin, Bukka White, was a powerful singer and guitarist. But try as he might, King couldn’t get the hang of the bottleneck slide that White played so expressively. Instead, he developed a singular attack in which he waggled the fingers of his left hand to create a tremolo that approximated the sound of the slide. In the process, King was able to mimic the quaver of the human voice with his guitar, which he named Lucille. He often related in interviews that his inability to play guitar and sing at the same time forced him to come up with a call-and-response technique in which he’d sing a line and then answer or comment on it through Lucille.
While King’s earliest recordings were similar to the R&B popular with black audiences in the late ’40s and early ’50s, they indicated an exciting young talent with tremendous potential. By the mid-’50s, he had grown exponentially, his mature style evident on hit singles such as his version of “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “You Upset Me Baby.” These recordings, and the landmark Live at the Regal, with its all-but-definitive renditions of “How Blue Can You Get?” and “Sweet Little Angel,” reached the ears of young white blues fans growing up in the United States and England. Artists such as Clapton, with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Bloomfield, with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, sang King’s praises to their respective audiences. By the late ’60s, King, then in his 40s, was playing at venues such as the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco to adoring white rock crowds half his age. According to ledgers included in the 2005 biography/memorabilia collection “The B.B. King Treasures,” King and his band commanded more than $9,000 for a 1971 performance at Pirates World, a popular theme park and rock venue in Dania.
Without compromising his artistry, King updated his sound and reached across generational and cultural divides. His haunting 1970 read of “The Thrill Is Gone,” embellished by a string section, seemed a perfect expression of the era’s zeitgeist. And his inspired team-up with rockers Leon Russell, Carole King and Joe Walsh on the 1970 LP Indianola Mississippi Seeds cemented his crossover appeal. King soldiered on and solidified his place among the blues’ most identifiable figures. He appeared on sitcoms and ad campaigns; teamed up with U2 on the blistering “When Love Comes to Town”; and performed remarkably entertaining concerts until his later years.
King continued, literally and figuratively, to hand his legacy to next-generation blues artists. As a teenage guitar phenom growing up in Wellington, guitarist J.P. Soars played with metal bands in the late ’80s, but also dug the blues. In 1988, he won a guitar in a raffle. The prize also included meeting King—who presented him with the instrument—and tickets to King’s concert. “That was life-changing right there,” says Soars, who won the IBC in 2009 and has cultivated a rabid following throughout Florida. “That’s what really ignited that fire to try hard in the blues. My dad kept telling me after we went to see him, ‘You need to learn to play the blues. That’s timeless music.’”
Although he claims Muddy Waters as his most significant influence, Miami-raised guitarist Albert Castiglia says King was the first real blues artist that caught his ear. While touring with Chicago-blues harmonica legend Junior Wells in the ’90s, Castiglia had the opportunity to observe Wells and King together on stage during a show in France. Wells was in poor health, and this would be his last European tour before he died in 1998. In no mood to perform, Wells finally gave in to his band mates, who begged him not to miss what might be a final opportunity to perform with King. “He got up there and his whole demeanor changed,” Castiglia says of his late boss. “They both sat on stools, and it was the most magical performance I had ever seen. There was a glow around [Wells]. It was like they were just on the back porch pickin’. I couldn’t believe I was there.”
King’s performances have had a transformative effect on millions of listeners around the world, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue for as long as his music is played. His appeal has never been entirely about the notes he coaxed out of Lucille or the way he worked his flexible vocals from a high-wire falsetto to a river-bottom croon. Rather, it’s the warmth and humanity he communicated easily and honestly in everything he sang and played—there’s not a scrap of artifice in any of it. “My song is a serious matter, it reflects what I feel,” King sang in his 1973 hit “I Like to Live the Love,” his final top 10 hit on the R&B chart. “If I say love you, I mean it/’Cause in my song every line is for real.” King truly lived the love he sang about, and it was returned a thousandfold.
Originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.