Blues giant B.B. King died this past week at the age of 89. Tim Weiner covers his life and works in a good New York Times obituary.
King lit out from Mississippi for Memphis in 1947 to undertake the career of a professional musician. In Memphis he connected with Sonny Boy Williamson (one of two) and landed a job at WDIA in which he hustled the patent cure-all Pep-ti-kon. “If you feel run down, tired, achy, painy, can’t sleep, are nervous, can’t eat, have indigestion and bloating gas, you are guaranteed satisfaction,” he promised. “Get Pep-ti-kon today and see if you don’t say, ‘Man, I’m really living.'”
Doubtful, but it led to his living. According to Colin Escott’s history of Sun Records, “WDIA pulled a few strings to get their budding star two releases in July and November 1949.”
King worked almost to the end, meaning that his career spanned more than three generations. He recorded briefly with Sam Philips at Sun for approximately a year, from mid-1950 until June 1951. “At the dawn of his long career,” Escott observes, “King’s sound was not nearly as distinctive as it later became….Yet the promise in those early sides was unmistakable.” In 1952, King’s “3 O’Clock Blues” established him in the rhythm and blues market and provided his ticket out of Memphis.
The Star Tribune’s Jon Bream notes that King was a frequent visitor to the Twin Cities. Bream doesn’t go this far back in his post, but I saw King perform at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis on a Saturday night in 1983 or so. I thought it was a great venue for King and, hearing him sing numbers he’d sung literally thousands of times, I was struck by the freshness of his performance.
Among the debts we owe to the British Invasion is the attention its guitar heroes directed to King. See Weiner’s obituary on this point. Following King’s death on Thursday, Eric Clapton promptly posted a heartfelt video tribute.
King’s live recordings represent the peak of King’s artistry. Clapton rightly singles out 1965’s Live at the Regal. The highlight of that recording is undoubtedly “How Blue Can You Get,” a song written by the jazz critic Leonard Feather and his wife.
We don’t have film of King’s performance of the song at the Regal, but we do have film of him giving it up live at Sing Sing in concert with Joan Baez on Thanksgiving in 1972 (video below). The concert survives in David Hoffman’s documentary. Mr. King was feeling it that day. RIP.