Thursday, July 13, 2006

Catching up with B. B. King

It took some time to catch up with B. B. King.

Like millions of rock fans, I paid little heed to B. B. until early 1970 when his trademark "The Thrill Is Gone" demanded to be noticed.

The song, which closed Bluesway's "Completely Well" album from the previous year, had been issued as a single, then appeared again in 1971 with the release of "Live in Cook County Jail."

King revamped the song, a Top Ten Rhythm & Blues hit for Roy Hawkins nearly 20 years before, adding a string arrangement. In fact, B. B. first recorded in 1949 and placed 20 hits on the pop charts before 1970, but I wasn't paying attention.

Composed by Arthur Benson and Dale Pettite, "The Thrill Is Gone" changed that.

King sang with such conviction and played his guitar, "Lucille," with such authority you had to take note. The recording industry caught on, too, awarding him a Grammy for Best Male Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance for his effort.

With the passing years, I continued to buy King's albums and later compact discs. As you might expect, the 80-year-old guitarist and singer has an extensive discography approaching 100 albums. My collection boasts a handful of vintage LP's and 30 discs to prove my devotion.

In addition to recording prolifically, King has been known to spend up to 300 days a year on tour.

Born in Indianola, Miss. in 1925, B. B. moved to Memphis in 1946. The local Beale Street music scene embraced him and today he owns B. B. King's Blues Club there as well.

The famed and influential downtown neighborhood was among the stops my wife Sue and I made during a Memphis vacation in late May, 2001. We stopped at B. B.'s place, 139 Beale Street, but the boss wasn't in. I guess he wasn't expecting us.

B. B. had generated an interest in the blues which led us to see many great players including the late John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray.

Finally we got a chance to put B. B. King at the top of that list when he appeared at the Kewadin Casino in Sault Ste. Marie on April 24, 2003 during a North American tour.

The casino offers superlative surroundings as a concert venue, adding to the enjoyment of B. B.'s show which we saw with friends Bob and Carol Nygaard along with their son Sam.

B. B.'s nine piece band opened the concert with the crowd roaring its approval when the world's most famous blues musician walked on a few minutes later.

Taking his seat at center stage, the charismatic King led his band through an entertaining and sometimes rousing show.

The group, which included one of B. B.'s sons, even performed a bluesy Christmas number although the holiday season was four months past.

Then, Sue and I finally got to hear "The Thrill Is Gone" live for the first time. B. B., his face full of expression, alternately sang and played his signature song, which ran an all too brief five or six minutes.

The crowd that day loved hearing it and B. B. obviously enjoyed playing the song although he has probably performed it 10,000 times before countless audiences.

One of those audiences was at Chicago's Cook County Jail on Sept. 10, 1970 when King played before 2,117 inmates for what became an immortal live LP for ABC Records.

For us, "The Thrill Is Gone" sounded as fresh and vital as it did when it first demanded attention on the radio 33 years before.

It turns out catching up with the King of the Blues was quite exciting, you might even call it a 'thrill.'

No comments: