It's hard to fault anyone under 30 for thinking B.B. King is some kind of hokey, guitar-totin’ pitch man — the blues-belting answer to Wilford Brimley and his much-ridiculed dia-bee-tus commercials. Because to be fair, in a more high-production-value sort of way, he is — hawking goods and services for everyone from Burger King, Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay to Texaco, not to mention all those OneTouch-brand blood-sugar meters.
And conversely it’s hard to fault B.B. for what, at times, feels like an insatiable penchant for money grabbing. Remember that we’re talking about a man born into stark poverty on a plantation in rural 1920s Mississippi; a man who, for years, busked on street corners for spare change before thumbing his way to Memphis in the late ’40s to pursue his musical dreams; who, through hard work, raw talent and good luck was able to experience firsthand the rags-to-riches power of the American Dream; a man who, incidentally, has fathered 15 children by 15 different women over the years, yielding 50 some-odd grandkids. Now that’s a lot of birthday presents for Papa King to buy — no wonder he needs all the side gigs.
But to get too hung up on King’s head-spinning personal life or his endless and admittedly distracting parade of ads is to miss out on decades of amazing music. When you really get down to it, you can’t deny King’s singular style and nearly unparalleled influence on not just his own genre but also all of rock ’n’ roll. He’s the Muhammad Ali of blues guitar. In his prime he could go to toe-to-toe with any of his contemporaries, his alternately jazz-languid and piercing staccato phrases floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Just listen to any of his legendary, aching readings of Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock Blues” and you’ll feel the heartbreak-numbing burn of late-night whiskey sliding down your throat. Check out the hilarious, slyly winking “How Blue Can You Get,” especially the epic version from King’s 1972 Thanksgiving Day performance at Sing Sing Prison, and you’ll find a passionate and soulful performer who understands, at the core, this music as writer Ralph Ellison so aptly, gorgeously described it...
“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism,” wrote Ellison.
Nowadays, a dozen years into this new millennium, the original bluesmen — the spawn of the Delta and salt of the Earth — are a dying breed, and King is one of the last remaining threads connecting us directly to this fading era. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, R.L. Burnside — they’re all gone. But B.B. is still here, the last man standing of the famed Three Kings of the Blues Guitar, having outlived his brethren Freddie and Albert by decades. And the thing is, even before all these greats passed on, King was already the undisputed heavyweight champion of the blues — a crossover powerhouse and internationally renowned ambassador for his craft, having sold more than 40 million records worldwide.
His latest, Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2011, finds him joined in concert by guitar gurus Slash, Ronnie Wood and Derek Trucks, as well as Grammy-winning blues singer Susan Tedeschi. Like so many guest-spot-heavy “collaboration” albums, Albert Hall is far from essential, but it’s a solid affair, the stripped-down live setting a far better showcase for King than his more slickly produced modern studio albums.
At 86 years
old, the fact King is still on the road — slogging it out through
hypertension and type II diabetes — is not just impressive, but rather
proof positive that he’s in it for the love. Back in 2003, when asked by
the New York Times why he still plays so many shows at his age,
in his condition, he said, “If I don’t keep doing it, keep going,
they’ll forget me.” But anyone truly familiar with B.B. knows this is a
load of self-deprecating B.S. — ain’t nobody gonna forgot the King of
B.B. King • Sat, May 5, at 7:30 pm • Northern Quest Casino • 100 N. Hayford Rd., Airway Heights • $58-$68 • 18+ • northernquest.com • 242-7000