B.B. King, 1925-2015.10:47 AM, May 15, 2015 • By MICHAEL WARREN
B.B. King, born Riley B. King and also called the Beale Street Blues Boy and the King of the Blues, has died at the age of 89. Earlier this month, he announced he was in hospice care due to complications from diabetes. (Nearly 15 years ago, B.B. had become a paid spokesman for a blood glucose test device OneTouch. “OneTouch gave me everything,” he crooned in the TV ad.) Even at his advanced age, his death comes as a shock, since the blues legend toured well into his eighties. It was a bad omen, however, when B.B. collapsed during a performance and cancelled the remaining shows on what would be his final tour last year.
In losing B.B., we lose our connection to the original generation of rhythm and blues musicians, those black artists who took the rough acoustic sounds of the Mississippi Delta, stripped away the polished jazz elements that had come in Chicago, and created a new sound that combined syncopated rhythms and the 12-bar blues. B.B.’s contributions to the genre are many, but most important was that he gave R&B its first and most prolific guitar god.
Blues guitar playing might as well be divided into two eras: B.B.B. (before B.B.) and A.B.B. (after B.B.). The guitar had shifting roles within blues music, first as the lone, often out-of-tune accompaniment to the guttural singing of Robert Johnson or Son House. The guitar took a backseat once the blues went urban, providing a rhythmic backing to the louder horn arrangements. The advent of the electric guitar meant the instrument could again be heard, but still blues music didn’t quite know what to do with it. B.B. King didn’t invent the blues guitar solo, but he helped develop it into a new kind of art form. More virtuosic blues guitarists like Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Bonamassa, and countless others are indebted to B.B. King’s innovations and particular style of play.
B.B. employed string bends and vibrato to emotional effect, alternating between fast runs through several notes to holding out the long ones even longer than you expected. The opening solo on his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone,” is a perfect example of his technique. A great blues singer in his own right, B.B.’s guitar playing was like having a second vocal part, gliding naturally between notes that evoked a singing voice. His guitar had a name, Lucille, and her role was so critical that B.B. King was really a duet act.
In verses, B.B. would respond to his own vocals with short parallel licks in the pauses, a call-and-response between himself and his Lucille. Rarely did they talk over one another. Listen closely enough, and you’d start to hear Lucille talking back to B.B.
“Every day,” he would sing. “Yeah?” Lucille would seem to respond in the second of space before the next line. “Every day I have the blues,” he’d continue. “Tell me more about it, Blues Boy,” she’d shoot back. “When you see me worried baby, ‘cause it’s you I hate to lose,” he’d finish. “You’d know I’d never leave you, B.B,” Lucille would reassure him.
After a couple verses and choruses, it was Lucille’s time to shine. There was an open secret to how he created the B.B. King sound on his guitar solos. In a typical 12-bar blues song, say in the key of A major, the chord progression would go as follows: A, D, A, E, D, A. For a “happy” blues sound, a guitarist might play his solos in the A major pentatonic scale. For a “sad” blues sound, he’d play in the A minor pentatonic scale. What B.B. did was combine the two keys in one song, playing on the major pentatonic on the I chord (in our example, the A chord) while playing the minor pentatonic on the IV and V chords (D and E).
The result was a guitar solo that rode the line between brightness and pathos, and it gave B.B. a sound all of his own. It’s a part of what made him so accessible to wider audiences, black and white, and gave him the long touring career that sustained him long after blues music stopped selling in big numbers in record stores.
There was a sense of humor behind B.B.’s lyrics, the subject of whom was almost always a man tortured by all those women he loved so much. One of my favorites, no doubt "problematic" by today’s standards but clever just the same: “I gave you a brand new Ford / But you said ‘I want a Cadillac’ / I bought you a ten-dollar dinner / And you said ‘Thanks for the snack’ / I let you live in my penthouse / You said it was just a shack / I gave you seven children / And now you wanna give ‘em back!”
Sixty years on, the legacy of Charlie ParkerMar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By TED GIOIA
Charlie Parker never achieved stardom, at least not by the standards of the music business. He never had a gold record to hang on the wall or enjoyed a significant radio hit. He never had a contract with a major record label. His face didn’t appear, even in a bit role, in a Hollywood film. If you measure a musician’s worth at the cash register—the ultimate arbiter of talent nowadays, or so it seems—Parker can only be called a minor figure, operating at the fringes of the entertainment industry.
6:12 PM, Jan 27, 2015 • By DANIEL HALPER
It's worth re-reading Fred Baumann on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born 259 years ago today:
IN BEYOND Good and Evil, Nietzsche rejoices that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "the last chord of a centuries-old great European taste . . . still speaks to us" and warns that "alas, some day all this will be gone."
1:02 PM, Feb 14, 2014 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Millions of people get their music through Pandora and this being the age when no data is left unmined, the preferences of this vast audience will soon be used for political purposes.
7:49 AM, Jan 31, 2014 • By JERYL BIER
The State Department is presenting a global webcast on February 4, titled "From the Street to Mainstream: The Evolution of Rap/Hip Hop Music." The host of the webcast, rapper and State Department Music Ambassador Toni Blackman, will be joined by Pras Michel, a founding member of the hip hop group the Fugees, to discuss "how rap and hip hop have increased social awareness of the African-American experience — and raised even broader issues in contemporary society." Some of Michel's more inflammatory comments in the past raise questions about the appropriateness of his appearance with the U.S.'s music ambassador on a government-sponsored webcast representing America to the world.
3:43 PM, Dec 9, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
In the East Room of the White House Sunday night, President Obama hosted the Kennedy Center Honors Reception to recognize five American artists: Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, and Billy Joel. The president gave a brief synopsis of each artist's career, including making light of the drug-induced hallucinations of Carlos Santana as he was introduced to the music world at the 1969 Woodstock music festival:
3:03 PM, Nov 13, 2013 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
There's a black and white photo, a little grainy and slightly out of focus, of Igor Stravinsky greeting Mstislav Rostropovich at the Royal Academy of Music, London, in June 1964. Standing in the background in the upper left hand corner is a tall lanky figure, a 20-year-old music student named John Tavener. Also in the photo, just to the right, is John's brother Roger who was friendly with Ringo Starr.
Lou Reed went down and found a song that will survive.1:03 PM, Oct 28, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
Lou Reed died yesterday in Amagansett, N.Y., thus ending his life on the same island, Long Island, where it began more than 71 years ago in Kings County, better known as Brooklyn.
Joseph Bottum on the guy who knew Jim Morrison
Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I met him once. Well, met in the loosest sense: I was introduced to Ray Manzarek at a Los Angeles restaurant in the 1980s and got to shake his hand. No more than that, but even at the time it felt like an encounter with passing greatness, a brush with the fading mythology of the age, and down through the years, I’ve never forgotten it.
12:36 PM, Apr 30, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Willie Nelson turns 80 today. As Kelly Phillips Erb writes in Forbes, it has been an interesting, prolific, and unusual career:
Will White House release guest list?7:34 AM, Apr 9, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
On Barack and Michelle Obama's schedule for today, this event is listed:
8:14 AM, Feb 13, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
This morning, the State Department announced, "Hip Hop Group Audiopharmacy to Tour Southeast Asia and the Pacific with American Music Abroad."
How music and commerce combine to make America.Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By TED GIOIA
Could Mozart write jingles? “Are you kidding,” responds the ad copy for a 1990s music marketing production house. “A Little Night Music had ‘beer commercial’ written all over it.”