“Hard luck and trouble seem to be my middle name,” sang B.B. King nearly 45 years ago in a typically elegant slice of orchestrated blues called Chains and Things. The song was part of a brilliant stretch of recordings issued between 1965 and 1975 that defined a titan musical life that ended yesterday at age 89.
For the better part of his career, King was synonymous with the blues. It’s hard to imagine an artist so associated with a specific musical genre. Casual music fans that knew little or nothing of the blues still invariably knew of King. As a musical ambassador for the blues, his influence and inspiration remain limitless.
To musicians, especially guitarists, his early recordings were like college textbooks.
“I got to see him record when I was a youngster — maybe seven years old,” ZZ Top guitarist Bill Gibbons told me in a 2013 interview. “My dad had an ‘in’ at the studio in Houston where B.B. and company preferred to record. That experience made a tremendous impression on me and, obviously, it’s stayed on all these years. B.B. King is now in year 63 or 64 of his career, and I’ve only been at it for maybe 45 years, so there’s a whole lot of catching up to do.”
But King was also a profound rarity among roots music musicians in that he achieved far reaching commercial and crossover popularity. Much of that stemmed from The Thrill is Gone, another sleekly produced, string-enhanced serving of the blues. It became more than a signature tune for King. It served as an anthem for the times.
The despondency of the song was obvious. So the was the clean, lean tone of his guitar work. But the patiently paced, orchestrated arrangement suggested pure early ‘70s soul. Everyone picked up on it – pop audiences, R&B audiences, all audiences. All of a sudden, King and his music were everywhere, even on such mainstream television programs as The Tonight Show.
The song also set the mood for the rest of King’s career. There were a few underappreciated recording triumphs after that, including 1970’s brilliant Indianola Mississippi Seeds (which contained Chains and Things), 1973’s overlooked To Know You is To Love You and 1978’s Crusaders-collaboration Midnight Believer. Mostly though, King became the face of the blues, changing forever its legitimacy as a popular music form.
His concerts were like old school revues, bolstered by horns, the odd novelty tune (How Blues Can You Get) and a stage presence as bright as the blues were solemn. Lexington was fortunate to have gotten several performance glimpses of King in action through ‘80s sets at the long defunct Breeding’s downtown to yearly festivals at the Kentucky Horse Park during the mid ‘90s.
King turned 70 during one of the latter dates, but the charm of his performance persona was still luminous. For King, the blues was an invitation to life, a look at its most sobering realities but, ultimately, a celebration of its most lasting joys.