Page: The thrill is gone: B.B. King’s music was a beacon
News that B.B. King has died aggravates my anecdotage, the stage of life in which every new development reminds you of an old story.
I was not much of a blues fan before I, as a young Chicago reporter in March of 1972, was enlightened by Riley B. “B.B.” King. That’s the full name of the great blues king who had been branded “Blues Boy” years earlier — although his middle initial, according to the New York Times, apparently did not stand for anything.
He agreed to speak to me at a downtown hotel a day before he performed for the inmates at the Cook County House of Corrections. It was a return performance of sorts after his live album in nearby Cook County Jail became hit in the previous year.
As an ambitious young journo, I was looking for controversy. I asked him if he shared the objections that some black social critics, in particular, had expressed over the alleged hijacking of the blues by rising white blues musicians like Chicago’s Paul Butterfield and England’s Eric Clapton.
But instead of fuming with resentment, the widely celebrated King of the Blues quaked with laughter. He loved those young white musicians and the fans. “If it wasn’t for them,” I recall him saying, “I would have starved to death.”
No, it was black audiences that had caused him more heartbreak in the early 1960s, amid the rise of Motown and soul music and widespread mockery of the blues in black communities as “gold tooth” or “handkerchief-head music.”
A young black audience that had cheered Sam Cooke in Baltimore’s Royal Theater had booed B.B. A Chicago nightclub announcer had insulted him with onstage references to chitterlings, collard greens, pigs’ feet and watermelons.
But he fondly recalled a career-turning surprise when he was booked into San Francisco’s Fillmore West in 1968. Unbeknownst to King, it had been turned by legendary rock impresario Bill Graham into a leading hippie-era music palace.
When King, a product of segregated Mississippi, saw “long-haired white people” lining up outside, he thought he had come to the wrong theater, he said. But after Graham introduced him, the crowd rose in a boisterous standing ovation — tears welled up in King’s eyes, he recalled.
History shows many black musicians and composers, barred by segregation laws and customs in the pre-civil rights era, were denied adequate credit or compensation; quite the opposite happened to King and the blues in the pivotal 1960s.
His career blossomed with new fans far from his genre’s Mississippi Delta roots. His 1970 hit “The Thrill Is Gone” has become a classic. He became a multimillionaire and a brand, with a chain of nightclubs bearing his name.
And he collaborated with Eric Clapton on the 2000 album “Riding With the King.” Like numerous other aspiring blues guitarists, Clapton called King’s “B.B. King Live at the Regal,” recorded in Chicago’s Regal Theater, “where it all really started for me as a young player.”
Just as historian Thomas Cahill raised eyebrows with his 1995 book “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” B. B. King helped me to appreciate the role that white blues fans played in keeping his genre alive.
Cahill examined the critical role of Irish Catholic clergy in preserving European culture following the collapse of the Roman Empire. King showed me how the blues, like jazz and country music, emerge from this country’s simmering stew pot of cultural diversity and continue to bear new fruit. We only cheat ourselves, I realized, when our quest for what’s new causes us to lose our appreciation for what’s worth keeping around — or even turn it off without giving it a listen.
“He was a beacon for all of us who love this kind of music,” Clapton said of King in a video posted on Facebook. I’m glad that he was able to shine some of his light my way, too. B. B. King is gone, but the thrill lives on in the music that he left behind.
Clarence Page writes for The Chicago Tribune.