“Let Me Play The Blues For You”: The Guitar Genius Of B.B. King (1925 – 2015)

After dealing with various health issues during the past few years, the legendary B.B. King passed away last night at his home in Las Vegas. He was 89.

I was lucky enough to have seen B.B. King live numerous times. The first time was in the early 70’s when I saw a double bill of B.B. and James Cotton as part of the old Shaffer Festival concerts that were held at the Wollman Skating Ring in Central Park. I remember taking a date to see him at The Ritz (now known as Webster Hall) in the 80’s. She wasn’t particularly impressed seeing the blues legend. Needless to say, things didn’t last long with us. Even when his set lists became standardized routines, there would always be moments when he would just play the guitar and the world would be good. B.B. King was the blues singer-cum-entertainer par excellence but it was those times when it was just him playing the guitar that spoke to me the most.

His playing had incredible rhythmic drive that gave it a strong forward motion. There’s also a snap to his notes that gave everything he played a push. His playing always had a “less is more” quality but I loved how, within a simple line, there would be a sudden little burst of notes that seemed like curlicues within the bigger picture of the melody. And then there’s that incredible vibrato. It made the notes seem to flutter like hummingbird wings. Amazing.

The first clip is jazzy slow blues instrumental from a performance in Stockholm, Sweden, 1974. It begins with a brief interview before the music starts at the 1:20 mark. It starts with a chorus over a relatively straight I-IV-V chord progression (albeit played with more jazzy extended chords such as ninths and thirteenths) before going into a instrumental version of “I Need Your Love So Bad”, a tune B.B. recorded 1967. The chord progression is more sophisticated than a typical 12 bar blues. In fact, the tune is what is what is known as a 32 bar AABA form. This form is common in jazz tunes and the popular standard they were based on. The chorus form is made up of four sections of 8 bars each: the first 8 bar section (A), then repeated (A), followed by the 8 bar bridge (B) and then a repeat of the first section (A). As with this performance, this form works well when you have a string of solos because it allows for the contrast of the bridge (B) section to break up the monotony of the same A section being repeated over and over.
B.B. plays a full 32 bar chorus of exquisite beauty before having trumpet and tenor sax split a chorus with B.B. returning for the bridge and final A section and then taking us out. So cool. Also dig the matching green jackets everyone in the band had to wear.

B.B. King – Stockholm, Sweden 1974

The second clip feature a meeting of giants, B.B. King and T Bone Walker. It took place at (so I’m told) the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, 1967. They start off with an uptempo shuffle and while T-Bone is plugging in, B.B. is playing some real jazzy stuff, reminding us that he was influenced by Charlie Christian (jazz guitar pioneer who played w/ Benny Goodman and was one of the founding fathers of bebop) as well as T-Bone himself. When T-Bone begins playing, the energy levels spike considerably, with B.B. playing horn like stabs while T-Bone plays the type of riffs that people would say sounds like Chuck Berry but they would be getting it backwards. T-Bone Walker didn’t get it from Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry got it from T-Bone Walker.
They then go into the slow blues tune “Sweet Sixteen”. T-Bone plays the opening solo, followed a very cool chorus from B.B. that shows why he will be considered one the best. The short solo (starting at around the 2:57 mark) is worth studying as a lesson on how to play the blues. Check out the stinging tone of the opening notes, the immaculate intonation of his string bends that makes it seem like he’s literally squeezing out the notes and the overall fluidity of his playing. B.B. and T-Bone then take turns singing verses while the other plays musical fills, with B.B. and the band really belting it out at the end.

T-Bone Walker & BB King together, Monterey Jazz Festival, September 1967

I consider myself blessed to have actually seen many musical giants live. B.B. King, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Michael Brecker, Bill Monroe, Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa and others who are no longer here. Having seen B.B. King play, I know that my life is richer for it.

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Posted in Blues, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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