Tuesday, May 19, 2015

B.B. King- The Greatest Performer I’ve Ever Seen

B.B. King, 1925-2015
For most of us, it’s not often we have the opportunity to witness performance genius up close and personal. In the late 1980’s, over three consecutive Februarys, I was fortunate enough to see B.B. King in live performance.

He appeared all three of those dates at a small dance club, that to my knowledge, never had live music on a regular basis- let alone host a concert by one of the giants of popular music. This little club even had some of those disco-ish, metal cages that professional dancers would dance inside. How did B.B. wind up here, I thought? Was he good friends with the owner? Was he repaying a debt he owed? For whatever reason, it allowed me a chance to view the most soulful live performer I have ever seen.

Each of those dates I watched him perform, I sat closer to the small stage where he and his incredible band were perched. The final time, my table was no more than about eight feet from the stage.

B.B., at that time, was in middle age, but still had all the fire and passion of his younger days. But now, he also possessed the maturity of a seasoned showman after decades in the business.

To me, B.B. King is unarguably one of the best blues singers ever. You’ll get no argument from me if you claim he is the best. Couple that claim with another- one of the best (and certainly most influential) blues guitarists ever. I can’t think of another blues performer who was so talented at both voice and guitar. Certainly, no one was more soulful.

B.B. would sing his songs with such force and conviction there was no way you could not pay attention. He would play his guitar with so much feeling and lyrical beauty, he could make you weep. Literally. He didn’t play a lot of notes in a short amount of time to impress. Rather he had the genius to play just the right note at the right time to effectively communicate his musical message.

Being close to the stage, I could enjoy all the facial expressions and contortions that showed how he felt every single note that was transmitted from his brain to his fingers. There was never any just “going through the motions” to perform a song that he had already played hundreds of times before.

He played every song with complete conviction and emotional involvement.

The guitar is my favorite instrument to listen to. I love its versatility and the infinite variety of sounds it can produce. I enjoy listening to it play just about any genre of music, but the blues is my undeniable favorite. Play me some 12-bar git-tar blues and I am in heaven.

I’ve been able to see live, several of the great blues guitarists- Freddie King, Johnny Winter, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Robert Cray, JJ Cale, and Lonnie Mack, among them. But I never saw anyone with the combination of both raw power, sophistication, and showmanship than that offered by B.B. King. And I’ve never been able before or since to watch such beautiful brilliance from a mere eight feet away!

Thank you, B.B. King for all the great joy and amazement your music has provided over the years. Thank you for your unheard of 70 year career of superior artistry.

So many great and promising guitarists died young, never allowing their listeners to enjoy the apex of their craft. Fortunately, we were allowed to enjoy your genius until every ounce of life and vigor in your body had been consumed by time. Speaking for myself, we are both blessed.

Here’s one of my favorites. Don’t be fooled by the image- that’s James “Boogaloo” Bolden, B.B.’s wonderful trumpet player who plays a great solo:


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