This is our truth, tell us yours
I will make a confession. I loved BB King’s music before I knew a thing about him. It had a simple lyricism and style that resonated with everything I knew and liked about music. The move from singing, perfect vibrato to pitch accurate string bending legato affected me in a way that I couldn’t describe, and still can’t adequately explain.
Then I started to learn about BB King, the man, and realized he was someone who had no apparent desire to be a hero, yet was even more of one because of his humility, and his complete investment in his craft. When, like me, you’re an average guitar player, watching someone who is so completely at ease with his talent and skill can go one of two ways; it can be dispiriting, to see someone so good, or it can be influential, an example of a way to be.
I dare anyone to read King’s own accounts of how he developed his own style, that shaped a generation of white European guitar players, because he couldn’t play slide like the players he admired, and not be moved by the honesty and the self-deprecation it implies.
Of course there was a huge element of contingency in all that; Riley King was developing his style at the same time as the development of reliable amps and electric guitars with stable necks meant he could be heard amongst a crowded dance band. Dance bands were more of an option as the rural black population migrated to large cities like Chicago, urban environments where commercialized entertainment wanted acts who could play to 300 people, not 30, or 1000 not 100. Listen to Live at The Regal and the version of Every Day I Have The Blues – the guitar, amplified, controlled, uniquely voiced, is challenging and working with the power of the horns in a way an acoustic player in a juke joint could only dream of.
Do a little experiment; get a guitar, put it into a open tuning, like, say DADF#AD, get a bottle neck, set up a digital tuner, and work on playing in perfect pitch. It’s enormously hard. Then imagine doing it like some blues players, with a knife blade or a beef rib. Acoustic blues in open tunings are notoriously loose in terms of pitch and accuracy. Not better, or worse, or more or less valid, but to audiences brought up with European musical styles (other than folk) the styles and sounds of acoustic blues can seem dissonant. Actually, even if you play in a well known tuning, like DADGAD, you’ll see people look at you oddly as they try to work out the unexpected chords, the drone of the open strings. That’s before adding in the effect of trying to play loudly on cheap guitars with unbraced necks, when the pitch can wander just because of a variation in hand pressure on the guitar. BB King, on the other hand, with his precise sound enabled by modern technology was able to settle into an less frenetic, less cluttered style that owed as much to Louis Armstrong as it did to Robert Johnson.
Of course BB King was not the only guitar player finding the benefits of technology and changing styles. Nor was he the only musical entrepeneur running an efficient, almost Stakhanovite band playing the emerging circuit of black venues. Nor was he, arguably, the most commercially successful act compared to, say James Brown.
The key with King was his reach and his influence. A whole generation of guitar players grew up wanting to emulate the Chicago sound that King exemplified. He’d taken the blues from the field and the juke joint to the concert stage, and now a generation of guitar players took that style and made it the centrepiece of rock. King and his imitators changed the cultural geography of the UK as much as the sound of Chicago, at least in part because the sound that was a product of the technology and the way he wanted to play was more comfortable to European ears .
I sometimes feel as if I approached all of this from the opposite direction to many of my friends. I knew Live at the Regal, almost note for note, before I ever heard the Beano album. Clapton’s development of the Chicago sound on the Beano album was not a revelation to me, just an incremental step that didn’t moveme in the same way, as, for instance, hearing BB King play Street Life with The Crusaders (almost a throwaway moment in the King canon) or any version of There Must Be A Better World Somewhere. Where Clapton frequently sounded false (and no more so than when he endorsed Enoch Powell) BB’s throwaway humour about the Queen in the live version of You’d Better Not Look Down spoke of a man who was comfortable with himself, and confident about the world and his place in it.
I read one of King’s biographies and its description of his circumcision, in middle age, and it spoke to me of a man who had the ability to talk about the things that made him a man in a simple and honest way. He was, simply, an authentic blues man. He talked about the blues in a way that helped me understand the blues not as a mystical account of the crossroads, but as a set of experiences rooted in who you are, where you were and the choices about where you went.
This is sounding like a love letter isn’t it? It is. It’s a love letter to a way of being; BB King acquired reach, and influence, and changed the world, not by what he had, but by what he was; hard working, humble, self deprecating, and dedicated to his art. The success, the love I felt for him, like millions of others, was not a love of what he had, but of how he was. I was in my thirties when I stood at the front of the stage, like dozens of other fans, while he threw his plectrums into the audience. There was no artifice to it; it was just his way of saying, to his audience, I want you to take away a feeling that you are part of this. I’ve been to plenty of gigs where bands or artists try to bind the audience in; BB seemed genuinely happy to have fans gathering round the stage, beaming up at him,and the audience felt the same way.
BB King’s death is a chance to reflect on his way of being a man, with all its achievements, and its frailties. All I can say is, I will miss his presence. I grew up as a white boy, in the UK, but a black man, born and brought up in circumstances I could not understand, helped me understand myself, and my world. That’s cultural reach, and I’m glad I experienced it.