An Outpouring Fit for a King

It was amazing to see how quickly and how widely the buzz had spread — in the news media, in social media, on mailing lists, everywhere. Musical royalty had passed on: B.B. King, the world’s reigning King of the Blues, had departed on May 14 at age 89. Tributes and story-sharing seemed to be coming in from every corner of the planet, an outpouring of respect and love for a man whose life as a musician seems to have left few people untouched, myself included.

We all tend to take for granted just how influential such popular figures are in our lives until they are gone. But B.B. King, it seemed, had never been forgotten or taken for granted anywhere in the world. He was reportedly working and planning another tour up until just a few months before his death.

Just a few years ago he was the subject of a feature-length musical documentary, B.B. King: The Life of Riley, which was made by a filmmaker from Britain (home of some serious blues hounds). The film only now seems to be making it to movie theaters in the USA, so hopefully many people there will go and see it soon. The Life of Riley (Riley being B.B. King’s real first name) is perhaps the final testament and chapter to the blues king’s rich, long life and the legacy he now leaves behind. I recently got a copy of the DVD edition of the film, and it’s exceptionally well made.

You see, I have this thing about what I call The Great Ones in the world, those from various walks of life who leave such a deep impression on our minds, our hearts and our lives: They are, for me personally, an extended family-in-spirit. Nelson Mandela, Pete Seeger, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama of Tibet are just a few great souls that come to mind. I consider them all my fathers-in-spirit, and no son could be prouder of them or more humbled by their presence than I am. B.B. King, too, falls in that category for me. He was one of my fathers.

And apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

I had to smile when I saw a scene in the Life of Riley movie in which B.B. King’s manager said that King was “father of us all”. I smiled again when I recalled a live jam session that B.B. King had recorded back in 1990 in Japan with some younger, well-known Japanese blues musicians. The title of the record: B.B. King & Sons. Need I say more? In a sense we are all the sons and daughters of B.B. King and many other Great Ones, both living and departed. Those of us for whom the blues means so much are now mourning his passing as something very close to us.

But at the same time, there is much to celebrate in the life of B.B. King, and it has been a real joy for me over the past week since his passing to go back and listen again to some of those old recordings, reminding myself once just how fortunate I am to be living in times like these.

Live at the Regal from 1965 is the B.B. King album that most blues fans would probably point to as the seminal recording by the King of the Blues, one that especially got all the rock musicians of the day so excited. I too would recommend that one, but would also suggest checking out another live album for any B.B. King fans out there: Live in Japan, recorded during B.B. King’s 1971 Japanese tour at some of Tokyo’s biggest concert halls. For many years this record was available only in Japan; now it’s out on digitally remastered CD and available to the rest of the world. A real gem.

B.B. King — Live in Africa ’74 stands out as possibly the best-ever live video concert footage of King in his prime. It was recorded as part of the three-day, all-star “Zaire 74” concert held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974 in connection with the big boxing fight there between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Luckily we can see excerpts from that concert here on YouTube. So, set aside some time and watch this masterful performance, and understand why there could only ever be one King of the Blues. Someday, someone is going to get wise and release this full live show on audio CD as well, though it hasn’t happened yet.

If the thought intrigues you of hearing B.B. King backed up live by a full philharmonic orchestra and one of the best American jazz-funk outfits — all at the same time — then you might want to check out the CD Royal Jam. It’s a 1981 live gig by The Crusaders (RIP, Joe Sample) recorded at Britain’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall auditorium in London and featuring B.B. King as special guest. You may have heard King classics like “The Thrill is Gone” a thousand times, but you’ll never listen to them quite the same way again after hearing this record.

Blues Summit from 1993 also stands out for me as one of the classic CDs from B.B. King’s later career period. This is an all-African-American studio recording session, pairing up King with a number of his peers from the old school of blues. For a studio recording, the atmosphere sounds live and raw from start to finish, with such a great vibe by every guest guitarist and vocalist. The track I dig most is the jam between B.B. King and blues guitar master Albert Collins on “Call It Stormy Monday”, the old T-Bone Walker tune. This turned out to be among the last recordings for Collins, who died later that year of cancer, underscoring even more the importance of this CD as a chronicle of modern blues music.

And capping it all off is the 2012 DVD The Life of Riley, with an accompanying two-CD soundtrack that spans King’s whole career. B.B. King was interviewed for this film just a few years ago at age 85, and in the movie he is alert, active and full of old blues stories to share. I’m so glad they got to make this film before he passed on. It’s a real cultural treasure, and we are all lucky to be the recipients of it.

As for myself, I got to see B.B. King live only once, and that was back around the mid-1990s at an outdoor concert at the Osaka Castle Park amphitheater on a hot summer’s evening. The local Japanese-Korean blues band Yukadan opened for King. It was a magical night I knew I would never forget; B.B. King, even at that age in his life, brought the house down.

More recently, about 10 years go, when my family and I were temporarily living in northern California, I had tried to get tickets for a one-night-only B.B. King concert at the local university but the tickets sold out before I could snag any. I still remember, though, the morning after that concert: As we were riding the city bus to go into town, we passed by a local chain hotel and there, in the hotel parking lot in all its glory, sat a big, brown tour bus emblazoned on the sides with the lettering B.B. KING. He and the band had been staying in the hotel just around the corner from us. It did cross my mind, just for an instant or two, to demand our city bus driver to immediately stop the vehicle so I could get across the street to B.B. King’s tour bus and seek out an autograph from the Maestro. I was sorry I had missed the show.

But I find myself today feeling deeply grateful, both as a son and as a fan, that I can join the global wave of affection that is being directed at B.B. King in the wake of his passing. A memorial page is now up on the official B.B. King website where anybody can post comments as part of that outpouring of respect and love befitting musical royalty. It’s a nice touch, and an appropriate way for the whole world to say a final goodbye to a true king. Maybe I will see you over there.

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