B.B. King gave me a surprise in the summer of 1969 that I still can’t forget. My only regret is that I never got to thank him directly.
I was at summer camp, when the camp announced a trip to Tanglewood, Massachussetts, for a concert at which The Who and Jefferson Airplane would co-headline (it was a kind of Woodstock warmup for those two bands), and B.B. King would open. I’d never heard of him until then; I was 14 years old, muddled up as a kid could be.
We spread blankets and the concert began. At the time, King opened with “Don’t Answer the Door,” a key track on His Best—The Electric B.B. King, as I discovered in due course. I still have few words to describe the way it hit me. Five notes from him and I didn’t want to know anything from either The Who or the Airplane.
I couldn’t wait to get home to the cheap electric guitar my maternal grandmother bought me for my 12th birthday and start trying to play seriously, not to mention taking the allowance my mother was kind enough to save for me all summer and buy as many blues records as I could.
The haul included three King albums: the aforesaid His Best … , plus Completely Well (at the time his newest release) and Singin’ the Blues (a very early album release). I also bought choice releases by Muddy Waters, Albert King, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, the Butterfield Blues Band, Sonny Boy Williamson II and others. Each told stories I was unaware could be told in music until then. Each said things nobody else had said to this damaged teenage boy.
Above them all was B.B. King, a longtime Las Vegas resident. His Lucille really was a second human voice. Singing, crying, laughing, whispering, shouting. Saying in a few notes what guitarists since have tried and failed to say with thrice the notes in half the space. Whenever I pick up my guitar, I like to think that I’m thanking King for the gift he gave me all those summers ago.
The musical diversions I made in the years to follow were enough. Invariably, the blues called me back, in due course to stay. King had most to do with that. I rarely lost track of any of King’s coming releases. They bore otherworldly brilliance and human ordinariness alike. None of the ordinariness dimmed the depth of the man at his best, which was more than we had the right to expect.
Not even the final time I saw him live, at the 2014 Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas. I had to fight tears watching my blues father in what seemed like his final days. He could barely get through one verse of a song. His beloved Lucille fell out of tune, her man seemed barely aware of it. He rambled rather than told stories; and I could bear only an hour of it, if that long.
Only later was it confirmed what I had suspected quietly enough, that Alzheimer’s disease had compounded the diabetes which had long afflicted him. He was human and not without his human frailties, but inflicting that upon B.B. King was an Eighth Amendment violation.
Then I remembered his final studio recording, One Kind Favor. Facing his mortality at last, he opened the record with “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” but he refused to brood and chose to celebrate his life—and life itself. No bluesman of my experience ever allowed less self-pity for his hardships or less self-congratulation for his triumphs and happinesses.
I suspect that his attitude, in hand with his outsize talent, is why he became the King of the Blues. (Justice demands the title be retired in his honor.) He may not have intended One Kind Favor as his coda. But to play that and all his recordings now is to say how fortunate we were to have had him as long as we had him.
So thank you again, Daddy B. For more than one kind favor.