This is a very personal post for me.
B.B. King played a special role in my musical life. I first was introduced to him when I was 15, at the Summit Inn in Uniontown, PA. My parents had dragged me along on a weekend getaway and left me to amuse myself. It wasn’t so easy in a place where shuffleboard passed for entertainment.
Down in a mostly empty recreation room was a jukebox. I can’t remember specifically, but I’m guessing there was a lot of Perry Como, Al Martino and Percy Faith–the records reflected the median age of the guests. But then there was B.B. King and “The Thrill Is Gone.” I bet a quarter and was astounded by the result: one of the most doleful, soulful voices I’d ever heard and a guitar that had a voice all its own. I was immediately hooked.
Back home in Wheeling, WV, I flipped through the record stacks at Boury’s Appliance Store and was shocked to discover “Completely Well,” the album that included “The Thrill Is Gone.” The cover let me know this album was OK for me: although this older bluesman (he must have been about 45 at the time) wore a suit and tie, the album art had a Peter Max vibe and a hippie type font. He was a blues pied piper for a new generation.
My friends hadn’t heard of King and they showed only polite interest in him, allowing me to put on my record between spins of Led Zeppelin or Grand Funk. But I soon found that my other rock heroes were B.B. fans, too. Leon Russell (whom I’d stumbled upon in the same appliance store) showed up on my next B.B. King album–“Indianola Mississippi Seeds”–as the writer of the single “Hummingbird.” While watching “The Mike Douglas Show” after school one day, I was delighted to see King perform the song, with Leon accompanying on piano. (In the days before YouTube, being able to see your idols was a matter of chance and fleeting opportunity. If you missed it, there was no recording to fall back on; it was lost in the ether forever.)
Leon, Eric Clapton, even George Jones–it seemed like all my heroes idolized B.B. King.
I never managed to see King in person, although God knows he gave me every opportunity. He toured relentlessly deep into his 80s, and he made it to my current home of Minneapolis many times. Last year I consciously decided not to see him. His age and declining health had taken its toll, and I wanted to remember him as I had found him, singing duets with his faithful Gibson Lucille and wearing out the needle on my stereo.