By now, thousands of words have been written celebrating the life of B.B. King and his immeasurable contribution to the world’s music. I have just a little to add. Many of the photos we saw after B.B.’s death were shot in his later years, when he was struggling with health problems. But I remember seeing him for the first time in 1969 in Cincinnati, on his feet for hours, playing two long shows a night for two nights, with different audiences for each show (except for me).
Although he could have easily played the same songs four times in a row, instead he crafted each set from the emotional feedback he felt from the audience, choosing different songs, feels and tempos for every show. One set was almost all uptempo, another centered on slow blues, another got funky and one mixed all these grooves together. Of course, on every one he delivered majestic guitar solos and straight-from-the-soul vocals, plus the undeniable B.B. charisma. At the end of each night he was drained, soaked in sweat, having delivered all he had. They were amazingly physical, intense and exhilarating performances by a musical giant at the peak of his powers.
I also remember being with both Hound Dog Taylor and Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials when, not long after cutting their first albums, they had the thrill of opening for B.B. B.B. took time to reach out to both of them, meet them backstage, shake hands and pose for pictures. He was the King Of The Blues; he didn’t need to welcome his opening act, but, as he said, he never forgot when he was the opener. The enormity of his talent was matched by the enormity of his graciousness, intelligence, spirit and soul. That’s the B.B. King I will always remember.
Just before B.B.’s death, I attended the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, where the highest artist award is appropriately named for B.B. The evening is more a night of music (20 short sets) than a night of presentations and speeches. It was a pleasure to share Elvin Bishop’s happiness as he won three BMAs –Band Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Album Of The Year for Can’t Even Do Wrong Right. Though he’s had many previous nominations, this is the first time Elvin had ever won. (It’s been quite a spring for Elvin –he was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and made a guest appearance on the Conan TV show.)
Selwyn Birchwood was thrilled to win the Best New Artist Debut Album award for Don’t Call No Ambulance. Marcia Ball deservedly won her sixth Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Of The Year award. Elvin and his wonderful band delivered a terrific mini-set featuring a soaring dual-slide guitar rendition of “Honest I Do” (with Bob Welsh on second guitar).
Alligator’s “young guns,” Jarekus Singleton and Selwyn Birchwood, were both scintillating, playing the last two sets of the night. Other outstanding performances included three by artists I had never seen live –Annika Chambers, Vaneese Thomas (with her sister Carla guesting) and R&B legend Candi Staton. The BMA celebration weekend also included multiple club events and showcases, plus the grand opening of the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. If you missed the BMAs this year, you need to come next year.
Sadly, our community lost another important figure in May. Randy Chortkoff, the founder of Delta Groove Records and leader/harp player of the all-star Mannish Boys band, died of cancer on May 4. Randy put everything he had into his label; no one could doubt his love for the blues and his commitment to recording and promoting some of the genre’s finest artists. At the end of his life, Randy made plans to insure the future of the label, so hopefully we’ll have new Delta Groove releases for many years to come.
As you read this, we’re releasing Meet Me In Bluesland, the raucous, never-before-heard 2003 collaboration of the legendary blues and rock ‘n’ roll piano wizard, Johnnie Johnson with the rowdy and reckless Southern blues-rockers, The Kentucky Headhunters. It’s full of two-fisted blues, party-inducing rock and good-humored, down-home songwriting. You can preview tracks on our online jukebox at alligator.com.
More next time,