New Delhi: The inconceivable came to pass last week when musicians – and search engines — across the world felt the weight and import of the passing away of Riley B. King.
A musician who became a genre, Riley — or Blues Boy, thus BB – King, as the universe knows him, was possessed of such a huge rush of musical momentum, it somehow feels very wrong picturing him in immobility. In fact, it is impossible to imagine BB King as anything else except a stage-straddling colossus, who loved cradling his Lucille as he cocked his head to one side and cast a spell that lasted a lifetime.
“I heard it, but it took a couple of days to register”, says Gibson endorsee Adil Manuel. “This was a man who played upwards of 200 concerts every year even when he was well into his 70s. It’s a staggering achievement. I’m not even going into how he completely changed the way blues were perceived, the elaborate string arrangements that underscored his compositions and his instantly identifiable tone. BB King is a giant because he lived for the music every day of his life”.
Legend has it that King’s tradition of calling all his guitars Lucille dates back to one of his early shows during the 1950s in Twist, Arkansas. A fight broke out at the club BB was performing at, leading to a huge blaze. The building was evacuated but King raced back inside the moment he found out he’d left his guitar behind.
It came to be known later that the two men were fighting over a woman named Lucille and a tradition was born. All of King’s guitars since that day – usually black Gibson ES-355s – have been named Lucille, quite possibly as a deterrent against running into burning buildings. Or brawling over ladies named Lucille.
“Isn’t that something?” marvels Vikramjit ‘Tuki’ Banerjee of the Kolkata-based Krosswindz. “This building was on fire and he risked his life to rescue his guitar. That is the reason BB King is one of my all-time favourite blues musicians. The other being Stevie Ray Vaughan. There is a work ethic that he brought to live music that is inspirational. BB King has influenced me at a lot of levels, his commitment to the music being one of them”.
Breaking away from tradition
Tuki is just as fulsome in his praise of the King’s ability to reinvent the wheel. “There have been Delta blues musicians who had their own open tunings and so on but BB King played in standard tuning and yet brought so much variety to his compositions”, he says. “He broke the traditional blues box wide open and created the BB King box. I think only Larry Carlton comes anywhere close to cracking BB King’s code of the blues”.
It is perhaps fitting that ‘Every Day I Have The Blues’ is one of BB King’s best loved songs. Part of a royal triumvirate that included Albert and Freddie King, BB was synonymous with the music he loved; lived and breathed it, till a series of diabetes-induced strokes brought the curtain down on six decades of extraordinary musicianship and a life less ordinary.
He would have celebrated his 90th birthday on September 16 this year but given the state of his health the King probably knew it was necessary to check out before the thrill was gone.
BB King will take his last ride from the Bell Grove MB Church in Indianola to the BB King Museum on May 30, the Mississippi Delta that permeated his music will be his final resting place. Full circle. Back to the beginning. And a legacy that will shimmer with the King’s hummingbird vibrato long after we have been gathered into the ether.
(Sam Lal is a journalist who writes on music)