BB King has died. He wasn't my all-time favorite Bluesman, but he was an exquisite musician and he influenced everyone.
The moment we heard that Riley B. King -- known universally both as "BB" and as the King of the Blues -- had breathed his last, we invited ourselves to a very private memorial service. Our own. The King is dead, long live the Blues he was so crucial to shaping over his very long lifetime of making music.
Mr. King's demise came within a few weeks of our getting acquainted with another fine Bluesman, Guy Davis. That experience helped give us perspective on BB King's life. Though products of different generations and experiences, both musicians are passionate and powerful performers, enriching our sense of how profound and authentic the Blues are. A quintessentially American art form, the Blues are universal and eternal.
[transcript is below]
The Blues embody affliction and affection, joy and heartbreak, engagement and isolation. It's about knowledge and understanding and, sometimes, redemption far transcending words.
My introduction to the Blues was a Mississippi John Hurt after-concert concert for some enthralled '60s college kids. Mr. Hurt was one of the many Bluesmen (and women) to whom Mr. King gave credit as influences, so at least I felt I had a personal point of reference. And my husband had lots more.
But for first-person experience with Mr. King, we called up a close friend who knew him. She'd met Mr. King through a mutual musician friend. Every story she told -- about Mr. King's graciousness, his musicality, his integrity, his humility (both about his own music making and his childhood picking cotton under a blistering Mississippi sun), his sense of humor, his straightforward belief system or his leadership style -- began and ended with what a good, good man B.B. King was.
He would probably have given credit for his character to the one person Mr. King "trusted completely" who he said repeatedly was also the greatest influence in his life: his Sanctified pastor Rev. Archie Fair. While never famous himself for the music he brought into his little church, Rev. Fair both taught the young "Riley" his first guitar licks and was also even more of an inspiration to Mr. King throughout his life than all the host of phenomenal musicians he knew, played with and admired.
So what turned B.B. away from his youthful enthusiasm for Gospel singing to singing the Blues?
I found that when the people asked me to sing a gospel song, usually they would always praise me. But somebody would ask me to play and sing the blues would always give me a tip and sometimes a beer. Well, I didn't have to tell you where the motivation came from.
Of course, as part of our celebration of Mr. King's life, we soaked in performance after performance on the internet. It was astonishing -- he played with ... EVERYbody!! And his influence, of course, has been a matter of legend decade after decade as he stayed true to his passion for the Blues' two sided coin: suffering and joy.
When someone passes, we somehow want a last look behind the armor of fame, and our friend gave it to us. She echoed Mr. King's 1993 response to CBS' Ed Bradley's question, "How do you want to be remembered?"
That's almost exactly what our friend first said when we first asked about her experiences with Mr. King:
I would like to be remembered as a person that loved people and wanted to be loved by them.
... (I)n spite of language, ethnicity, shared experiences or lack of shared experiences, the one thing that people resonate with, respond to and connect with when experiencing an artist...and for the purpose of this conversation, a musical artist...is LOVE. ... B.B. made himself vulnerable to his audience each time he sang. We are given an opportunity to see ourselves through the mirror of his vulnerability. I am grateful for that, because personally, I came to know myself better through his music.
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Transcript of Guy Davis video:
Guy Davis: The highest I can seek as a musical and singing and performing artist is to communicate as clearly as, say, a bear. 'Cause, if I hear a bear growling, that tells me a whole story of where not to go and where to start running. There's clarity there. Clarity without a lot of sentences and punctuation and past-perfect tenses. No. You heard that bear roar over there you go this way, quick as you can.
OK, I'm being goofy about it. I guess what it is is if life is a circle, there's no real starting point. So I start our, in a sense, ignorant, not knowing anything, tabula rasa, a little baby and I learn and I learn and I learn. But if stop at any individual point, I realize that I'm still ignorant of something else. And then the more I learn the more else I find I'm ignorant of. And then I've learned more and more and I keep going and keep going. So, as an artist I've got to find something that speaks to all these conditions in this wheel. I've got to try to find ways of communicating with everybody. There's things I did last night that I think ... well, just like me when I was the kid sitting there watching the performer, I want to appeal to the kid that's in everybody in a certain way. I don't want to do something that excludes part of the audience. I mean, like isolates them. I'm singing the Blues and I don't want some poor white guy in the audience to say ' oh my god, oh my god, what have my ancestors done?' I don't want to turn it into a crazy thing. I want us to see the commonality of the human condition and the blues is the music of survivors of some really tough times. And the way forward is to find some commonality, not separate this off and smush this off and push this thing ... it's only us and it's only this.
PG: And it's the great now.
GD: The great now.
BR: And the then.
GD: And the then.
There are those in my racial persuasion ...
PJG: Chocolate people.
GD: Chocolate people, right, who are very angry about those whom we might label as "Uncle Toms" or people who represent the race poorly. But, I have to stand back a minute and I have to look at all the Black people, in particular, who have been involved, not just in entertainment and the Blues, but entertainment and stage and anywhere in the world in history. There are things that they had to give up at that time just so that I could come out on the stage now in a place like this, and be accepted and have my work enjoyed.
Robert Johnson, the great bluesman, who they say went to the crossroads to meet the devil at midnight to gain the power to play the Blues better than anybody before him or since. Have we met a Black person in the world yet who has not had to go down to the crossroads at some point to sell something to get somewhere? That I think is the tough one right there.
PG: That tells the story.
GD: Yeah. There's ... I think they're stories to be told. So, when I look at somebody who is called a 'coon', an 'Uncle Tom' and, to use a very foul word but I think we understand that have to use the n-word ... 'nigger', who's been called these things by our own people ... it took all of us somehow to get where we are today.
And I guess I'll leave this train of conversation with thinking about Josh White, the performer who did play the Blues, played religious music, played folk music, was friends with Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly and folks like that. He stood up in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee and named names, specifically Paul Robeson. And there are a lot of Black people who are very, very angry and bitterly disappointed in him for doing that. And I understand that. I do. But I believe he was one of those men who had to go down to the crossroads and make that deal. And so I still cannot push him from my family. And I will not push him from my family. I'm going to have to understand that he was a man who made an awful choice in an awful situation where I don't think there was a easy way out. Yes, it took the strength and power of those people, Black and White, who stood together against that H-U-A-C. Yes it did take that strength and that power. But somehow there's going to have to be forgiveness and reconciliation, because you can't have those people chained to some rock floating in sewage for eternity. Because that's not why we're here, not to my way of thinking.
I think we're here to reach out to everybody, to learn from everybody, to be as inclusive of everybody as we can. And there are those people in this human race who we cannot be next to, because they are very contrary to us and sometimes very thorny. But, at the same time, we can't let go of the hope that somehow we're going to find all that commonality and make ourselves into one group of people.