B.B. King … The Passing of the Real ‘King’ of the Blues, 1925 – 2015
By Joe Curtis
It was a sad day when I heard of the passing of the real king of the blues, B.B. King. It was quite a shock hearing of B.B.’s passing in a Facebook posting from guitar icon Eric Clapton, on the morning of May 15, 2015. B.B. passed away in his sleep the night before, May 14, in Las Vegas.
Clapton was visibly shaken when speaking of his old friend and blues mentor B.B. King. The sadness in Clapton’s face, and tone of voice, said it all. He mentioned B.B.’s early influence on him as a young guitar player, and B.B.’s Live at the Regal album. He also mentioned the "Crossroads" sessions he and B.B. collaborated on.
The same day, legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy also posted his sincere condolences at the passing of his old friend, B.B. He began with, “This morning I come to you with a heavy heart.” This says it all, about the closeness Buddy felt for B.B. He mentioned the way B.B. “squeezed the strings,” his “smooth guitar playing,” and that B.B. “was my best friend and father to us all.” Buddy ended with, “I miss you, B. I promise to keep these damn blues alive.”
Paul Nelson, the late Johnny Winter’s lead guitarist/business manager and friend, also posted on Facebook his sadness at B.B.’s passing. He mentioned Eric Clapton’s ‘Crossroads’ tour, and B.B. spending time in Johnny’s band bus, reminiscing about the old days. Paul also said B.B. was “one of the kindest, most sincere people I ever met”, and that, “he would always compliment me on my playing and what I was doing with Johnny.” He also said, he helped B.B. convince Johnny into being in B.B.’s recent documentary, Life of Riley. The next day, Paul posted a YouTube link to B.B.’s Live at the Regal from 1965, and said simply, “Listen and learn.”
Toronto blues guitar great Mike McKenna, also praised B.B., and mentioned B.B.’s early influence on him as a guitar player, including Live at the Regal.
Juno and Maple Blues Award-winning blues guitarist, Jack de Keyzer, opened for B.B. King and Buddy Guy at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, August 2000. Jack had this to say about B.B.: “I have never been more influenced by a musician than B.B. King, and as a person he was a gentle, kind, humble soul. There will never be another one like him.”
Gladys Knight, who appeared with B.B. on the Midnight Special in 1973, had this to say about B.B.: ““What a brilliant man. An inspiration to millions. Gone but not forgotten.” Then she added the heartwarming, “We love you Uncle B.B.”
Keith Richards, said simply, “We had some great times, and I will miss him. Peace, B.B.”
Blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt, posted this about B.B.’s passing: “I lost a dear friend today. B.B. has influenced more rock, R&B and blues musicians than nearly anyone else in history. He was one of the kindest, most humble and generous people I've ever known.”
Shortly after B.B.’s passing, Darlene Love went to her Facebook page, and said, "We lost one of the greatest blues singer, songwriter and guitarist last night!”
Guitar great Joe Walsh also had some B.B. King memories to share: “"B.B. King was a national treasure. He showed all of us how to do it with integrity and class. Rest in peace B.B. We'll never forget you.”
This writer was lucky to have seen B.B. King live onstage at least four times, from 1994 to 2006. I met him twice … once backstage at Toronto’s Massey Hall in January 2001, and again on B.B.’s tour bus after his Molson Amphitheatre concert in Toronto, in 2005, thanks to talent booker Gino Empry, who booked B.B. into various venues over the years.
Being in the presence of ‘the King’ backstage was really something. It was like listening to a wise sage extolling words of wisdom to his guests after the show. I remember him saying to us, “Muddy Waters brought electric blues to Chicago. I just followed along in his footsteps.”
B.B. was truly humble, and came from impoverished beginnings. He grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a plantation in Mississippi, where he was born Riley Ben King in 1925. He moved to Memphis, TN in the late 1940s, where his fame as a blues guitarist and singer grew. He was featured on blues harp icon Sonny Boy Williamson ll’s radio show back then, and was a DJ himself in the early days.
He was friendly and courteous to everyone who met him both times I was backstage after his concerts, where he autographed photos, albums and other items for his fans. He autographed a 1970s plastic toy guitar for me, the first time I met him. It looked a lot like his trademark ‘Lucille,’ a hollow body Gibson.
The second time meeting B.B. was on his tour bus in the summer of 2005. My girlfriend Maren had a tin toy guitar (that also looked like ‘Lucille’) on her lap while sitting next to B.B. He said to her (without her asking), “I’ll autograph that for you.” A minute later, an old friend of mine, Prakash John, former bassist for Lou Reed and Alice Cooper, took a picture of us, and B.B. Gino Empry was sitting next to us, but unfortunately was not in the photo.
A few years back, I showed my first photo with B.B. in 2001 to his old friend, blues harp player James Cotton. I handed it to Mr. Cotton to look at. He held it up to his heart, like a little kid with his favorite teddy bear, and had a big smile on his face. So, I said to James, “You can keep it.”
Gino Empry, Canada’s top publicist and talent booker for decades, (and Tony Bennett’s business manager for 12 years), was in this 2001 Massey Hall photo as well, sitting on a couch watching B.B. and I pose for it. Gino booked B.B. many times into the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, and other venues. I gave Gino a copy of the B.B. photo with him in it, a few months later at Jeff Healey’s club. Gino sent a copy of it, and my review of B.B.’s show, to B.B.’s house. That photo with B.B. and Gino, led to me writing articles for Gino’s clients like Petula Clark, Peggy Lee, Ronnie Hawkins, Julie Andrews, James Brown and the Rolling Stones until Gino’s passing in 2006.
The passing of B.B. King is a great heartache for this writer. Greatness on the outside is one thing. However, greatness within is a rare commodity, which B.B. and other special people have possessed - like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Their passing is a sorrow one does not overcome.
We’ll all be reminiscing about B.B. over the decades … remembering when we first heard his music, which concerts of his we attended, if we or anyone else ever met him, his influence on the blues and decades of musicians who worshipped his playing — as well as when we first heard of his sad passing.
B.B. King was a special human being … one of the true greats who have passed our way and, who in our hearts, will never pass away. B.B.’s musical legacy will endure, and his gift of the blues to the world will, I hope, be always cherished by music lovers the world over.
B.B. King was truly the ‘King of the Blues,’ and a true gentleman of the blues, as well.