Monday, June 1, 2015

The thrill is not gone

I can still remember the first time I was exposed to the blues in the purest form, having heard Robert Cray’s dark “Smoking Gun” and Albert King’s magnificent live version of “Blues Power” just days apart. Those songs were my veritable gateway drugs to this most American and most personal of music styles; from there I became addicted to the blues, and the “dealer” whom I went to the most and who fueled my interest in the music was none another than BB King. I have dozens of his CDs and was lucky enough to see him in concert almost a dozen times over the years, including twice from the front row.  

BB’s showmanship, keen songwriting, impassioned guitar playing and equally power vocals led me to explore other blues artists like Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and the blues became my music of choice, and for more than half of my life now I have listened almost exclusively to that genre.

So, you might say that last week’s laying to rest of BB King was my Presley/Lennon/Cash/Jackson moment. While the fans of those late musicians felt a void at their passing, that’s what I experienced at BB’s. Family and friends knew that BB was so important to me that they genuinely said they were sorry, as if I had lost an uncle.

People so easily identify with – and are so easily identified with - their favorite performers because of the modern portability and accessibility of music, which lends it to creating a soundtrack to their lives; it’s with them at all times and all events, from the mundane to the magnificent. BB’s soulful tunes are played in my office and home daily, they’ve been blared when driving with the windows down on the precious sunny days of Western New York’s short summers, and they were playing in the truck when I took my daughter home for the first time. He’s always been there in spirit.   

Although BB’s passing was certainly not welcome or unexpected – he was 89 after all – he’s the type of artist who never really dies. His legacy will live on forever, like those of Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Vincent Van Gogh.

That legacy is, like those of the aforementioned greats, felt directly and indirectly. His art will always be available in some recorded format. It will also show in the artistry of others – his mastery of the electric guitar influenced and will influence generations of musicians, across all genres, and was responsible for the fretwork that we hear in classic rock, modern rock, and country. Without BB the world of music would sound a whole lot different. Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many more all named him as a critical influence.

Millions more with lesser-known names than those rock stars (we regular folk) were introduced to the power of the blues because of the King of the Blues. When you think that he for most of the past 60-plus years played well over 250 concerts and club dates every single year, you know he soothed countless ears and hearts and opened a plethora of eyes to the brand of music that he was the greatest ambassador for not only here in the states but around the world as well -- he played in 90 countries and before the Pope and various heads of state.

Although it’s still considered fringe music, very healthy blues bars, festivals, radio stations and subcultures exist in cities the world over. It’s doubtful they would if BB had not brought the music to the masses. The blues could have gone the way of the field hollers that spawned the music.

While BB King -- the person -- may be gone from this world, he has not left us. The thrill is not gone, not nor will it ever be.

Rest in peace, Riley B. King.

From the 01 June 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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