B.B. King, legendary bluesman and American cultural icon, died on Thursday. He was 89. An artist whose music lifted him from rural poverty in Mississippi to superstardom, he remains one of the most visible icons of the blues, a talent that inspired generation after generation of musicians and performers. To honor the passing of this musical great, let’s look back at some of his most beloved songs, and explore what it is that made them so special.
3 O’Clock in the Morning
“When you see me worry, baby- it’s you I hate to lose.”
B.B. King’s incredible performance at the Regal in 1965 is considered one of the greatest live performances in the history of modern music. This track, and the immediacy with which the bluesman precedes to take over the entire hall after his introduction should explain why. There’s an incredible energy to B.B.’s playing here, and it’s the kind of infectious power that would follow him to the very end of his long career. B.B. had thousands of performances in his time- he earned the reputation of hardest working bluesman. But the constant performing never seemed to blunt his skills or his incredible enthusiasm for his art.
“Oh ghetto woman, what’s on your mind- Sometimes I look in your face, can’t help but cry.”
At its best, the blues offer its listeners a powerful look into the human soul, providing a fleeting snapshot of life that endures through the music. Like many of B.B.’s classics, Ghetto Woman has a simple narrative, a despondent tale of waiting, hoping, and of loss. Each blues song is like a bit of microfiction, and in a few short sentences we sympathize completely with the woman in question- a tribute to the power of B.B.’s narration.
The Thrill is Gone
“Someday I know I’ll be open armed baby- Just like I know a good man should.”
Written for the stage and adapted for West Coast blues in the 50s, The Thrill is Gone would eventually become one of B.B. King’s unquestioned greatest hits. Employing a unique cohort of strings, the song has even more of a hauntingly powerful effect for the addition. The song would provide King with one of his incredible fifteen Grammy awards, the most of any blues artist in the award’s history.
Riding with the King
“We’re on a TWA to the promised land, Every woman, child and man, Gets a Cadillac and a great big diamond ring, Don’t you know you’re ridin’ with King”
Even a fellow legend like Eric Clapton takes a back seat when performing with someone like B.B. King. Their duet would become one of B.B.’s most popular tracks, and it’s easy to see why. The incredible life lived by the bluesman roars out in every lyric, and the result is something amazing, especially with the assistance of Clapton, on what some critics consider King’s best album.
B.B. King may be gone, but his music lives on. Over the course of his lifetime, the country he lived in changed dramatically, and B.B. was there to see it. But one truly consistent reality has been the love that his listeners have shared for each successive stage of his career. B.B. King will certainly be missed. But we can say unequivocally that he will never be forgotten.