Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Remembering B.B. King

B.B. King - Foothill College Gymnasium February 21, 1971
B. B. King and Jeff Beck - Arie Crown Theatre, Chicago 7/26/03

With B.B. King’s recent, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the two times I saw him play the blues. The first time I saw King was on a Sunday night in 1971 (Thanks to Lost Live Dead and JGMF for providing the correct date) at a venue not known for concerts, not to mention as being an ideal setting to hear  one of the world’s finest blues guitarists. Located in Los Altos Hills, a high-priced mid-peninsula zip code even at that early date, Foothill College was, and remains, one of the premier Community Colleges in the country, and somewhat of an architectural treasure to boot. Located atop a hill that is now directly adjacent to Highway 280 (which was built along its current right-of-way well after Foothill opened in 1965), the campus remains a masterpiece of mid-century architecture, with new additions blending seamlessly with the original buildings.

Although B.B. King was a regular visitor to the ballrooms in San Francisco, his appearance on a suburban college campus reflected the more widespread commercial success afforded by his two most recent albums, Completely Well (which included what was to become one of his signature tunes, “The Thrill is Gone”), and the more rock oriented Indianola Mississippi Seeds. That album,  produced by Bill Scymczyk (soon to become the preferred producer for the Eagles), was a successful attempt to make King more familiar to mainstream rock audiences. Scymczyk used Los Angeles session musicians rather than King’s band, and  paired the guitarist with mainstream rockers like Leon Russell and Joe Walsh.  At the time, Foothill did not book a lot of rock or blues shows, at least that I was aware of, but it gave me a rare chance to see a blues legend not too far from home. Foothill has a fine theatre, but I suspect that booking economics led to this show being held in the college gymnasium, as was the case for so many university gigs before events and performing arts centers became more commonplace later in the century.  We got reasonable seats (I think it was general admission) and, perhaps because it was a Sunday night, there was no opening act.

As was de rigueur  for King’s shows of the era, the concert began with a few instrumentals from his band. In striking contrast to most rock bands of that era, King’s group was decked out in matching slacks, blazers, and turtlenecks.
B.B. King and Band - Foothill College Gymnasium 2/21/71
 Photo: M. Parrish
 The band was tight, and capably performed their task of warming up the crowd for their boss. King came out and, if memory serves, he opened his set in customary fashion with “Every Day I Have the Blues.” King, dressed in a sharp cream colored suit, took command of the stage immediately. What made King such an icon among the blues performers of his era was his uncanny combination of skills – a master showman, an eloquent vocalist, and a remarkable player with an eloquent,  immediately recognizable instrumental voice. There have been many guitarists who played faster, indulged in more complicated chord progressions, or played louder, but what made King’s guitar sound so memorable was the emotion he squeezed out of every note. He had very strong hands, and could bend strings to elevate the notes played a whole step or more. Although this technique has become almost universal among blues-rock players, King, along with contemporaries like Albert King, Albert Collins, and Muddy Waters basically pioneered this style in the 1950s, and no one used it more effectively to wring emotion out of their solos. He also perfected the use of vibrato, something that was common among slide and steel guitarists but relatively rare among lead guitarists. King used these techniques individually or in tandem to generate his immensely appealing playing style.
B.B. King and Band - Foothill College Gymnasium 2/21/71
Photo M. Parrish

Equally important to both King’s music and his stage persona was his singing style. A smooth, engaging vocalist, King drew the audience in with his smooth baritone, and he blended humor and drama in his powerful vocal delivery. An imposing physical presence, King often used body language to appear larger than life and to lessen the barrier between him and the audience.

For King and his band, I suspect the Foothill gig was just another date on a long string of one nighters, but it left a lasting impression on me, as well as revealing where young white players like Michael Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel got inspiration and necessary parts of their instrumental took kits.

For whatever reason, I did not see King in concert again until 2003, when I reviewed a show at Chicago’s Arie Crown theatre featuring him and Jeff Beck for the Chicago Tribune. By this time, years of touring and advancing diabetes kept King confined to a chair for most of his set. He talked a lot between songs, let the band do a lot of the heavy lifting, but his playing sounded just fine. The contrast between Beck’s aggressive jazz-rock playing and King’s relatively laid-back, extroverted blues was striking, and the combination didn’t really jell as well as one might hope. Nonetheless, it was a fine evening of music, and I am glad that I got to see BB one more time.

King’s passing leaves yet another huge gap in the roster of the original artists who pioneered electric blues guitar in the 1950s. Although he spent his last few weeks under Hospice care, King toured tirelessly  until then, and he passed just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.