Friday, May 15, 2015

The Thrill Lives On

This has been a tough year for Memphis music.  We've lost a lot of greats, some better known than others, each an irreplaceable spiritual brick in the impregnable wall of sound that guards and protects and defines this city.  The fact that so many have been called home recently serves as a bittersweet reminder that time continues to march on, the birth of rock n' roll and the heydey of blues and soul grows smaller and further away in our historical rear-view mirror, our legends and heros grow old and sick, and we have precious few days left with them.

Last night we lost one of our dearest and best, the King of the Blues, Riley B. King, best known to the world by his stage name B.B. (for "Blues Boy") King. The first time I saw B.B. King play live was the first time that I was able to articulate to myself the difference between Chicago blues and Delta blues, and also to confirm my undying love and devotion for the latter.  Chicago blues is made for guitar aficionados; it has that electric, frenetic (I often describe it as "oodle-y oodle-y") sound that comes from squeezing a legion of notes into the tight space of a musical bar.  Delta blues, on the other hand, makes one single note do the work of legions.

And nobody could bend, stretch and sustain one single note-- nobody could command his beloved Lucille to tell the whole story of hurt and hope in so few musical words-- better than B.B. King.

I only met B.B. King in person once. It was in October of 1995.  There had been a star-studded tribute concert earlier that evening at The Orpheum for King's 70th birthday, and B.B. was scheduled to play a set at his club on Beale Street afterwards.  The tickets for that more intimate show were ridiculously expensive-- or, at least prohibitively expensive for my broke 22 year old budget-- so I spent the day scrambling around trying to hustle a free ticket, to no avail.  At the time, I was close friends with Little Jimmy King (who died too young a few summers later in 2002) and had met up with him to hang out on Beale while the Orpheum show was happening.  Jimmy told me to meet him outside of B.B.'s club later and he'd see what he could do to get me inside.

When I got there later, the crowd was 5- or 6-people deep standing outside of the club, just hoping to catch a glimpse of the show through the large pane-glassed windows that line the Beale-side of B.B. King's Blues Club.  I scanned the crowd, searching for Little Jimmy, almost losing hope... when, out of nowhere, someone grabbed the back of my t-shirt and said "Follow me."  It was Jimmy, who walked me around to the alley behind the club. There was no one but us and the bouncer manning the back door, and Jimmy said: "I can't get you inside, but just hold on a sec, baby."

Right then, as if in some bizarro Make-A-Wish dream sequence, a limo rolled around the corner and into the alley. A door opened.  And B.B. King stepped out.  He clapped hands with and hugged Jimmy, they exchanged a few words, then Jimmy said: "This is my friend Leigh. She's a big fan of yours."  I stood there star-struck, tongue-tied and, in one of the great underperformances of my lifetime, was unable to come up with anything better to say than, sheepishly, "Happy birthday, B.B."  He laughed, gave me a bear hug-- which, coming from a man of his stature and status, was exactly like being hugged by a bear-- and he said: "It's niiiice to know some white folks like the blues."

And then he walked into the back door of his club and played all night long.

I'm sad to see B.B. King go, but we all know that he had been in poor health and suffering the last several weeks.  I'll be down on Beale Street tonight, where I expect there to be quite a thanksgiving and a home-going celebration for the King of the Blues.

Thank you, B.B. King.  The thrill lives on.


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