One day, B.B. King is going to die. I say this because everyone dies, eventually, and B.B. King is 86 years old. One day, B.B. King is going to die and pages and pages of words will be written about him. College boys who say they love “real music” will write “RIP B.B.” on Twitter and charm girls in the quad with If You Love Me on repeat. Pasty white baristas will say how much they loved Lucille and how B.B. was at his prime in 1970 - before they added strings to The Thrill is Gone LP. Proper journalists will chronicle his illustrious career, his brutal touring schedule, and his rags-to-riches story as the son of a Mississippi Delta sharecropper. Rock critics will note his undeniable influence on early guitar gods (Clapton, Hendrix, Richards) and the staggering soul in his left index finger. All of these tributes will be predictably reactionary: “legendary old guy dies, now let’s pretend he was the best thing ever,” but for me, all of it will be 100% true. No single musician has meant more to me than B.B. King.
When I was 15, I wanted to play guitar so I could serve God. I’m not kidding. I knew who Clapton and Hendrix were, but I also knew they were drug addict hippies headed for hell, or in Jimi’s case, already there. I wanted to play guitar and sing songs about how much I loved Jesus. Jimi or Eric never did that. It wasn’t an electric guitar I wanted anyway. In church, we only used big fat acoustic Yamahas and “soloing” was unwelcome in Praise music. I was a quick study, learning chords from a book and picking up pointers here and there. Three months later, near my 15th birthday, my parents ponied up $299 for a brand new Washburn D12. It was nothing but church songs and major scales for me.
A few weeks later, I don’t remember how it happened or where, but someone saw me playing guitar and told me to listen to a song called The Thrill is Gone. I found it on Napster and illegally downloaded the first secular song in my library. I hit the Play button on WinAmp and my memory goes blank from there. I was spellbound. What the fuck was this? How can something sound so sad and sweet and pure and filthy? That was it - whatever it was, that’s what I wanted in my ears all the time from then on.
I downloaded everything. I knew what I was doing was wrong, so I sought the most innocuous sounding song titles: Sweet Little Angel, Let the Good Times Roll, Why I Sing the Blues, Lucille, Paying the Cost to be the Boss, Blues Man. I listened and I listened and had no idea how he was doing it. How can two notes sound like three and a half? How can one note sound so sad? Thinking back, I wonder what might have happened if I had the option of watching B.B. King tutorials on YouTube in my room back then. The fact of the matter is, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The magic wasn’t in the notes, it was in the hands.
B.B. King was born Riley B. King. He was born on a plantation in 1925. A fucking plantation. He was given his first guitar around age 12 and he hasn’t put it down since. He moved away to Memphis in the 1940s, playing churches and street corners. Riley B. King eventually came to be known as the Beale Street Blues Boy and then just Blues Boy, and now just B.B. Somewhere between being raised on a fucking plantation and playing on a Beale Street corner, whatever was inside Mr. King came out through his guitar, Lucille. Lucille is big, black, and beautiful. Yup. She plugs straight into the amp - no pedals, no compressors, no overdrive, no nothin’. Whatever you hear coming out of that loudspeaker is Lucille singing straight into the mic. Like B.B. says in his song Lucille, “I like the way Sammy sings and I like the way Frank sings, but I can get a little Frank, Sammy, a little Ray Charles, in fact all the people with soul in this. A little Mahalia Jackson in there.” Look out.
50 years later, the Beale Street Blues Boy is blaring from the stereo of an Electron Blue Pearl Honda Civic Si piloted by a 16 year old Korean boy in rural Maryland. Rice rockets and B.B. King Live at the Regal defined the better part of my teenage years. The Washburn D12 was now collecting dust in the corner and a white Epiphone Les Paul was connected to a Crate practice amp beneath my desk. Every day I sat and copied. A phrase here, a note there. Most nights I’d quickly become frustrated and give up - cursing my ears, my equipment, and God himself. I wish I had known that it was all in the hands - there was nothing to decode because the actual notes were secondary.
B.B King taught me soul. He showed me the power and sophistication of simplicity; how one thing can sound like everything. B.B. King is the first musician to make me feel music more than hear it. He unlocked feelings I didn’t know I had. It sounds trite now, but at sixteen, who else could teach me things like that? And as the world grows overwrought with gadgets, trends, and gimmicks, I’m reminded of the truth of B.B. King: you don’t need anything but a good pair of hands and a little soul to be whoever you want to be.
What I needed to know at sixteen, living as a yellow alien among white folk, was that emotions are universal. Soul translates to any language. Soul is colorblind and ageless. I didn’t have to look like B.B. King to love B.B. King. Again, it sounds obvious now, but this is earth-shattering to a sixteen year old who sees the world in absolutes. He taught me that soul is truth and truth is universal. Truth is simple and it doesn’t require a leap of faith - just a good set of ears. So, while the preacher preached and the choir sang, it was B.B. King that opened my eyes to the truth that really set me free. And my for that, I’m forever grateful to the King’s hands.
(photo: Mike McGregor for Esquire)