The blues. The blues. The soul-searching sounds of a good man feeling bad. A punch-drunk Jelly Roll Morton or T-Bone Walker crooning the 12-bar beat on a record player after you saw your first love in the arms of another man. And then there was BB King. The Blues Boy, or little Baby Brother as his 18-year-old father called him. Always BB, since the day he was born and always there to make sure you never felt too alone when the thrill was gone. Words: CHARL DU PLESSIS Image: © GALLO IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES
toured the nation, starting at the Howard Theatre in Washington DC. By the late sixties he made the Tonight Show, entering mainstream culture across the US. He never looked back. Duke Ellington brought jazz from the nightclub and dance hall into the concert hall and the cathedral. Armstrong, before him, brought ensemble jazz from the saloon to the silver screen and onto the diplomatic circuit, where it became a symbol of America in the 20th Century. But it was BB King’s penetration into the mainstream that has given blues a distinct place in history and helped to break down racial intolerance in ways that no-one could have imagined. As biographer Charles Sawyer wrote: “When BB King, an orphaned sharecropper, who witnessed the body of a black man on public display on the courthouse steps after his electrocution, is hosted at the White House, our society has changed for the better. When he, who ran in fear from the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, bows his head to accept the crimson hood of Doctor of the Arts from Yale University, our values are confirmed in a way that marks progress.” As happens so often, fame and bliss did not go hand in hand, and “The Beale Street Blues Boy” suffered two failed marriages, yet both these heartbreaks yielded award-winning
songs. Woke Up This Morning was written after his first breakup, while The Thrill Is Gone followed the end of his second marriage. Through all these years he only had one constant companion – his guitar, Lucille. Mostly a Gibson man, King risked his life running into a burning building to save his guitar. He learnt that the fire was started when two men fighting over a woman named Lucille knocked over a barrel of kerosene that set fire to the building. Each of his guitars after that was named Lucille, which King said was to “remind me to never do a thing like that again.” There is little trace of anyone ever collaborating with King in his song writing. He has been a prolific recorder since the 1950s, with compilations and collectors’ sets peppering the shelves since his later break into mainstream. Despite this phenomenal success, his songs kept the traditions of the blues intact, as reflected in the naive simplicity of his song titles through the years: Don’t Answer the Door, Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, You’re The Boss, I Pity the Fool, and Going Down Slow, to name but a few. BB King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984, received the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 1990 and an Honorary Doctorate of Music from each Yale University, Berklee College of Music, Rhodes College and Tougaloo College. Rolling
Stone Magazine once placed him third after only Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman as the most influential guitarist ever. That was in 2003, and seven years later, King is still out there singing the blues. For those of us who have sat in a Beale Street bar and heard the King at his best, the thrill will live on long.
The Thrill ls Gone by BB King The thrill is gone The thrill is gone away The thrill is gone baby The thrill is gone away You know you done me wrong baby And you'll be sorry someday The thrill is gone It's gone away from me The thrill is gone baby The thrill is gone away from me Although I'll still live on But so lonely I'll be The thrill is gone It's gone away for good Oh, the thrill is gone baby Baby its gone away for good Someday I know I'll be over it all baby Just like I know a man should You know I'm free, free now baby I'm free from your spell I'm free, free now I'm free from your spell And now that it's over All I can do is wish you well
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