"Everybody wants to know, why I sing the blues."
I was 12 years old, my small fingers were fumbling across the frets of a Tokai -- a knock-off Fender Stratocaster so close to the real thing, I was told, that they were sued until they stopped production.
Chris, my guitar teacher, was helping me work through the solo to "A Thrill is Gone." He had introduced me to BB King early, along with Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, and SRV. The pentatonic (blues) scale was burned in my head, and I was slowly figuring out how to bend my notes, finding those moments where I could make the strings sing. I didn't know much, but I felt drawn to BB King's blues. We couldn't be more different, but he spoke to me.
BB's guitar playing was deceptively simple. Just a few notes, scattered between his powerful, shouting verses. But when you really listened, you heard his soul. A blues musician without peer. A king of the blues. Because every note he played, every word he sang, reverberated with the essence of the blues. Sadness, joy, contemplation, loss, humour. If a guitar could have a human voice, Lucille did.
"I've laid in a ghetto flat. Cold and numb. I heard the rats tell the bedbugs to give the roaches some."
BB King's life is blues canon.
He grew up on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. At 12 years old, he got his first guitar - for $15. He did radio ads, played at bars and grills, and was nick-named Blues Boy (BB).
He had 15 children throughout his life. He reportedly rushed into a burning bar to save his guitar, naming it Lucille later on to remind himself "never to do anything that stupid again." The stories go on and on.
He was one of the three kings of the blues (Freddie King and Albert King are the other two, no relation), but everybody knows that BB was the true king. Like James brown was the Godfather of Funk. Like Aretha is the Queen of Soul.
"I stood in line, down at the County Hall. I heard a man say, 'we're gonna build some new apartments for y'all.'"
When I was a teenager, I was fortunate enough to see the greatest concert I've ever seen to this day. Buddy Guy, opening for BB King. Buddy ran up and down the aisles, imitated Jimmy Hendrix, and was a consummate performer and entertainer. That would have been enough. Then BB King came out. he wasn't all that flashy, but he didn't have to be. All I can say is that we were in the presence of a legend. A man who was both great and humble, and played like the devil.
"My kid's gonna grow up, gonna grow up to be a fool. Cause they ain't got no more room for him in school."
BB King lived through World War II, the Civil Rights movement, a new Millennium, and the election of the first African-American President. He was a mentor to other blues musicians, an early adopter of the electric guitar, an iconic songwriter, and a vocal activist through his music. He played with just about every important musician and band, from U2 to Eric Clapton to Big K.R.I.T. He influenced millions of musicians. He won every award in music and was inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. He toured into his late 80's, playing thousands of dates across North America. He was an entrepreneur, owning multiple BB King Blues Clubs across the U.S.
A few years ago, I saved up enough money - and got some help from my dad - to buy the guitar I still play today. A black on black Gibson ES-335. For those who don't know, that's BB's guitar. The first time I played it, unamplified, I felt the warm tone through my whole body. It's a beautiful hollow-body guitar, built to sing.
And last night, the King died. He died in Las Vegas, because of course he did. And this morning, millions of people just like me - with BB King biographies on their bookshelves, or Gibsons in their offices, or posters on their walls - woke up and really felt the blues. BB King wasn't just a musician to me. He wasn't just, abstractly, an icon or a legend. He was a voice on my darkest days, howling at me to keep going. Telling me he understood pain I couldn't imagine, and pushing me to express myself. And he was a joyful shout in my happiest moments, a celebration of life, music, and possibility.
"Yeah, they told me everything would be better out in the country. Everything was fine. I caught me a bus uptown, baby, and every people, all the people got the same trouble as mine. I got the blues. I say I've been around a long time, I've really paid some dues."
Rest in Peace, BB King. Thank you. Thank you so much.