Let nothing that follows detract from B.B. King’s indelible legacy — a legacy that, though King died early Thursday at 89, stands unparalleled in the history of the blues. He was an incredible guitarist — “without a doubt the single most important electric guitarist of the last half century,” as AllMusic put it. He helped create a ornamented, horn-heavy version of minimalist Mississippi Delta blues without sounding like a cheesy lounge act. And he was a stand-up guy: diabetes advocate, philanthropist, friend of U2’s Bono.
“From his humble beginnings as a plantation worker to his rise to world-class status as king of the blues, King not only personifies every guitarist’s version of the great American dream, he stands as a true model among men,” Guitar Player wrote in 2007. “His philosophy of life and dedication to his art form the bedrock of a remarkable 60-year career dedicated to self-improvement and universal brotherhood. A consummate musician and entertainer, King has touched and inspired people of every age, race, and creed.”
B.B. King left his mark on the blues — and generations of guitarists
Stamina: You might prefer Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf or Albert King, but none of these survived long enough to be “ambassador of the blues,” as King was called. Well into his ninth decade, this guy toured until he dropped. Even John Lee Hooker died at 83.
King played on street corners. He played the “chitlin’ circuit.” He played “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He played with younger, more famous rock star admirers. He played the White House. He played casinos. He played for presidents.
“Out of all these years of playing, I guess I’ve missed about 10 or 15 days,” King told CBS in 2013.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration. No, King didn’t tour 350 days per year. He just averaged 300 shows a year for 47 years, by one accounting in 1995. To put that in perspective: A working stiff with a 9-to-5 job who first clocks in age 22 works about 250 days per year for 43 years before retiring at 65.
So, in sum: B.B. King probably worked harder than you do, probably worked longer than you do or will, and probably lived longer than you will. And unless you’re Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton, he was a better guitar player than you, too, according to Rolling Stone.
Oh, right: Many of the 14,000 shows he played — again, by 1995 — were one-nighters.
“I like to feel that I pay my own way, no free lunch,” he said in 1986. “… I’m not inventing anything that’s going to stop cancer or muscular dystrophy or anything, but I like to feel that my time and talent is always there for the people that need it. When someone do say something negative, most times I think about it, but it don’t bother me that much.”
The bluesman as cultural resource: Sure, documentarians such as Alan Lomax may have made field recordings, but this was a role King embodied. He had no artistic crisis. He played with U2 and appeared in “Spies Like Us,” but never ditched his genre for an ill-conceived full-time acting career or entered into an indulgent electronica phase. Like the constellations or the little black dress, he was steady, consistent, familiar. And even after playing “The Thrill is Gone” tens of thousands of times, he was always on his toes.
“I look at an audience kind of like meeting my in-laws for the first time,” he said. “You want to be yourself, but you still want to be somebody that they like.”
In a world where Radiohead won’t play “Creep,” this philosophy — giving the people what they want — may not have much of a future. This is why criticism of King’s recent slipshod performances seems so totally off-base. Naysayers weren’t necessarily wrong. But in the presence of such greatness, they were irrelevant.
As Brooklyn Vegan put it: “No matter how bad the show is (or expensive the tickets are), you shouldn’t boo B.B. King.”
So let the microscopic percentage of B.B. King performances that might have been “erratic” fade into obscurity. Artists of King’s stature approaching 90 — and there are precious few of them — don’t need to be innovators; they need to be institutions. From Truman to Obama, this man was there, inventing, re-inventing and then preserving a uniquely American art form.
Forget what Neil Young said: Stars that don’t burn out or fade away are the best kind.
“I’m gonna do this till I die, folks,” King said.