About three years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in the audience and watching a true bluesman at work. BB King was doing a concert in Kalamazoo and even though he was in his 80s it was one of the finest live performances I had ever seen. He sat in a chair at center stage with Lucille across his lap then sang and played for a solid two and half hours. He took breaks often to tell stories, and even spoke about his diabetes and how it had affected him over the years. Even though I was sitting in a sell-out crowd the performance was still intimate.
His voice was still as strong as it had been in every recording I'd ever heard and his guitar licks were intricate and one-of-a-kind. He talked briefly about the Gibson plant that used to be in Kalamazoo, and his love for that brand of guitar. He talked about his daughters and several different times during his performance he gave away various bits of bling to women in the audience. It was an awesome night.
On May 14, 2015, BB King is passed on and with him a special kind of blues that can never be replicated. I’ve played the guitar since I was 14 and have always included the blues as part of my repertoire – – but I never tried to copy anything that BB King ever did. It was sacrosanct to me and knowing I could never replicate the sounds and feel what he expressed through his music I never attempted to do it myself. It just would've been wrong. BB King was meant to be enjoyed only from the master.
But the performance I saw of him in Kalamazoo was not the first time I saw BB King live. In the late 80s, I was in New Orleans for temporary duty with the Air Force Reserve and found myself on Bourbon Street with several friends enjoying the hospitality the city had to offer. After having several hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's and drinking more than a few $6 beers at the various venues as we walked down the street, I heard a sound coming from another bar a bit further on.
It was 1 or 2 AM and my friends were ready to turn around and head back to the car to call it a night but something told me we needed to make time for one more bar. I motioned for my friends to follow me and walked down to the open door of the bar from which the sound of blues was pouring forth. We walked in without paying a cover, and took a seat in the nearly empty bar. Up on stage was a small five-piece band, which featured at its center large black man holding a Gibson guitar. I knew immediately who it was but couldn't believe he was performing in such a small venue and that we had lucked into the performance.
We stayed for the rest of the set, and heard some of the most amazing music. I had never heard of guitar cry before that night; but BB King could draw that sound out of an instrument in a way I never heard anyone ever do before or since. His performance was energetic and fueled by the intimacy of the environment and the crowd around him who was enthralled and mystified by the music he was making. I still have no idea why he was there, but was glad I was able to be part of it.
Now that he is gone, I will still enjoy the music he left us with and the fond memories of seeing him performing live. When I close my eyes I will see him standing there in that small bar in New Orleans, with his guitar in hand, and rocking side to side as his fingers moved up and down the neck of the instrument drawing from it sounds that only he could. RIP BB King.