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He got the blues

When B.B. King played, it was the cold hard truth — like hearing Martin Luther King speak.

Written by Sudipto Sanyal |
Updated: May 20, 2015 12:01:05 am
bb king, bb king death, king death, bb king music, bb king songs, bb king album, king songs, king album, bb king health, express column In this April 18, 2006 file photo, B.B. King plays during his 10,000th career performance in an appearance at his club in New York. (Source: AP)

The last time I saw B. B. King, his knees were hurtin’. Couldn’t stand through a whole show no mo’, he said. So he straddled Lucille between his arm and his thigh for two hours, caressed her, stroked and cajoled her. “First I sing and then Lucille sings,” he once memorably said. And boy did she sing, this glossy black Gibson semi-acoustic named for a woman who started a bar fight that led to a fire which burned down a poor ol’ bar in Twist, Arkansas (I know you never heard of Twist, Arkansas).

Lucille — or, rather, the Lucille I saw him play that night, one of a succession of Gibson guitars — was stolen a few months later, only to resurface a few months after that in a Las Vegas pawnshop. Lucille, after all, is immortal, her methods supernatural. “I can get a little Frank, Sammy, a little Ray Charles, a little Mahalia Jackson in there,” talk-sings B.B. on the title track of his album Lucille. He could, too. “I spent hours every single day when I would get home from high school playing along to his records trying to sound like him,” my friend Bryan told me. (Bryan the friend is a guitar cat who’s been going to B.B. shows for so long that he remembers seeing him play half his shows standing up). “But none of us will ever be able to duplicate his tone, his choice of notes, his way of bending the strings.” ’Twas ever thus.

The last time I saw B.B. King, he was wearing a shimmering golden tuxedo which, in comparison, made the spectacular Fox Theatre in Detroit, with its starburst and cartouches, its Moorish arches and vermilion columns, its Wurlitzer organ and plaster lions, look like an empty parking lot on a rainy day. B.B. always did like his suits, three-piece salmon suits with pink patterned shirts, plaid suits and chequered suits and suits in bright pastel shades with extravagant trim. Every time he moved, the gold glistened. And he moved a lot, doubled up in laughter, grinned and shook his head, stopped in the middle of songs to tell old-timey stories. Garrulous old man. Genial, graceful, and “always a sweetheart,” as the guitarist Derek Trucks said of him.

The last time I saw B.B. King, he told a heck of a lot of stories. The blues might just be the most sophisticated and all-encompassing mode of storytelling in African-American culture, and B.B. played a lot of the blues (200 shows a year on average; 342 in 1956 alone). For Trucks, “When B.B. King played, it was just the cold hard truth — like hearing Martin Luther King speak.” The blues are indeed a constant recording and performance of black history, and they bare all — Middle Passage desolation, slavery and racism, poverty and heartbreak, good women and bad moonshine (or bad women and good moonshine). They tell the story of the black man’s path from slavery to citizenship, as LeRoi Jones once wrote. To hear B.B. sing it, “When I first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship/ Everybody wanna know why I sing the blues/ Well, I’ve been around a long time/ I’ve really paid my dues.”

The blues speak simultaneously of the comic and tragic aspects of the human condition, and particularly of the shared black American condition. So wrote Ralph Ellison. Or, to put it as Billie Holiday put it, there’s the happy blues and the sad blues. As for B.B. King, “singing the blues is like being black twice.” This is music weighed down by the violence of centuries, yet it always pours forth intimately, ever “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically”, according to Ellison, an attempt to transcend a brutal experience by “squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism”. An attempt heard so many times on so many B.B. King records, a guitar tone like ancient bells, both plaintive and bouncy, revelling in sex and booze while plunging into broken-hearted despair.

But dead men are heavier than broken hearts, as the feller said, and B.B. King was the heaviest of them all.

Sanyal is a Kolkata-based writer.

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