B. B. King’s Inimitable Sound


My son Luke, who plays the guitar, asked me not long ago to name the best guitar player I had ever heard live. I’ve heard a lot of good guys—I was lucky enough to hear Hendrix, though I don’t think we knew what we were hearing at the time; my friends and I liked the Incredible String Band, who played the same place later in the week, even better. And since then I’ve heard many true jazz heroes, from Jim Hall to most of the Rosenberg family in France. But, a little to my own surprise, when Luke asked me about my peak experience I had no doubt what it was: the single best concert by a guitar player I have ever heard was B. B. King in 1970 at the Place des Nations, an outdoor stadium in Montreal left over from Expo 67. He was playing on the same bill as Bobby (Blue) Bland, and he held a largely French-speaking crowd rapt for more than two and a half hours playing and singing his inimitable blues.

Singing wonderfully, with a clean, sophisticated style touched by Nat Cole’s vocals (though I didn’t know that then), it was his guitar playing that mattered. The crowd was there, in part, because the music he played was like music we already knew, the electrified blues that had become our teen-age lingua franca. We knew vaguely that he had helped to invent it, but we knew the imitators much better than we knew the source. King was not at all showily virtuosic—any number of young Englishmen who were, shamefully, much easier to hear in those days, and doubtless sold more records, from Alvin Lee to Mick Taylor, were “faster,” more dexterous, “heavier,” as we would have said approvingly. But in an instant it was plain that no one made a guitar talk as B. B. King did, as an extension of his entire soul, an instrument of human expression more than adolescent finger-mania. The sound of King’s guitar, no matter how often imitated—and, on the surface, as with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, it sounded obvious, all that single-note shimmering—remains one of the inimitable sounds in American music. It had a clipped, precise, syncopated, pin-striped-suit quality, not usually swooping or weeping or sliding. His first thoughts came in small, neat sentences. He would play a chorus in that way, then pause and play a complementary, related phrase with a more groaning intonation. He did the same thing in his singing, the first phrase often bouncing and hip in that Nat Cole manner, the next growling and muddy.

That tension in his music—it was, in retrospect, I suppose, a play between a jazz ear and a blues hand, and even between the city and the country—paid off in a quality that I recognized at once that night, though I might not have known the word for it. It was the thing that marked him off from all those earnest English pasticheurs: B. B. King swung. It was no accident that he liked to play with big bands whenever he could, though his forces were sometimes reduced on records. Like Ray Charles, his contemporary and in some ways his only equal, who was similarly addicted to playing with a big band, King had a lot of forties jazz mixed into his sharecropper soul. “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Hummingbird,” the two string-aided hit records he had right around the time I heard him, were as pretty as they were powerful.

What I didn’t know, but would learn later, was what a rough road King had taken to the stage. It was rough not just in the predictable sense (no blues player had an easy life in American entertainment) but because he was a blues player who came of age in a time when even African–American audiences—especially African-American audiences—had moved “past” the blues. (Years later, he talked of having been booed once, playing on the same bill with the great Sam Cooke.) The two hair-raising recordings from the mid-sixties that he left behind, “Live at the Regal” and “Blues Is King,” which I bought after that concert and listened to religiously with friends for six months, were, I realize now, not the kind of folk utterances from an organic urban culture that us pale-wintry Canadians imagined them to be, but the last fruits of a period of crisis and transition within black American music. Those records, which I listen to again now, stand as summits of a music more synthetic in the best sense—more knowingly made of many styles—than I knew at the time, but they sound no less moving for the knowledge. There is not a lot of justice in American life, and practically none in American music, but the fact that the final decades of B. B. King’s life were touched by recognition, wide and unstinting, is, no matter how sad his death may be, a very good reason to feel, still, thrilled.