B.B. King Saved My Life

He played blues so we can find a way through ours

They called him “King of the Blues” for the past 50 years, but for me, Riley “Blues Boy” King remains the man who showed me how to live. When my older brother Bob and I found out one fall day in 1965 that the famed guitarist was playing Club Delta on the outskirts of Houston in the Sunnyside African-American neighborhood, we knew we had to go. I was 15.

B.B. King and Lucille in Austin at the Paramount Theatre, 1.13.13 (Photo by Gary Miller)

His songs had drilled their way into my soul, and I felt if I could only see him play electric guitar live the world would become understandable, maybe more of a joy instead of a constant challenge. I was in search of salvation, and somehow I knew B.B. King could give me that. I’ve never been more right in my life.

That night, everything became three-dimensional as King and his small band started their set. It was like they had thrown gasoline on an open fire. Every song exploded with promise, and when he suddenly hit the high notes on his big Gibson guitar, every single woman and man in the audience started shrieking.

At that instant I knew the blues would take care of me for life. That timeless music born of pain and heartbreak is meant to give its believers a way out of despair. It offers a new world of love, and the man leading the parade since that night 50 years ago was always B.B. King.

I’ve spent a half-century listening to a man who became a monument of emotion, a musician who created his own style and changed the way people feel about the blues. As surely as King sang and played the truth, he demonstrated that the blues is a dignified music and that bluesmen can carry themselves with strength and grace. It was a sometimes slow process, but Riley King put blues in the White House and everywhere else in the world that people are doing their best to survive and thrive.

Sometimes it may have seemed like a one-man crusade, but slowly and surely B.B. King gave the blues to everyone on the planet.

For me, my second King concert was at the Pladium Ballroom on a cold winter night in 1967. I went alone, and walked into a big room with only about 100 people. His devastating live album Blues is King had just been released, immediately becoming my new lifeline. I listened constantly, and when King says near the start, “We’re gonna do our best to try to move you tonight. If you like the blues, I think we can,” I’d found a new mantra.

That night at the Pladium was cold and chilling. I noticed much of the male crowd was in overalls or work clothes, while the women wore their Sunday church outfits, with fifths of whiskey on top of all the tables. They were there to be soothed and saved by the blues, and given a glimmer of relief from the hard Houston years of racism and poverty in the Sixties. When B.B. King came out, he bore down on the first song, “Gamblers’ Blues,” with such a scalding intent it felt just like a preacher had taken the bandstand.

For the next two hours, King’s hardcore blues fans were given the gift of another day – a way to get up the next morning and try again. I left in tears at what I had just witnessed, vowing to also do my best to do better. Listening to the music, it felt like God himself had put the warmth of his hand on my heart.

B.B. King at Austin Music Hall, 2008 (by Gary Miller)

Only two months later at the Pladium, King came out on Christmas Eve evening in a whole new mode. The club was packed and everyone was ready for lift-off. As he started the night, the guitarist declared, “I’m B.B. King and I’m drunk,” and proceeded to drop a nuclear bomb of blues on the agitated audience.

The Pladium levitated a few feet off its cement foundation and it felt like the promised land was at hand. A few months later when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, a lot of racial doors closed. For awhile, the blues world seemed a million miles away.

Luckily, in mid-Seventies Austin, Clifford Antone kicked down those doors and started bringing bluesmen of all stripes to his Sixth Street nightclub, mixing them with local heroes like the Vaughan brothers and all the others. In those endless nights of celebration, none could beat the Bicentennial show on July 4, 1976. B.B. King was headlining and the Cadillacs were out in force.

His band had grown to nearly a dozen players by then, and King himself had risen to the blues throne. It didn’t stop him, though, from opening his heart and playing the kind of guitar that could erase the years of hardship and hardened social barricades separating Americans. King tore that wall down brick by brick, and when club-goers left Antone’s at 2am the beat-down sidewalks and stores on Sixth were glowing.

We’d been delivered, once again, by B.B. King’s blues.

There would be many more nights sitting at the feet of this Buddha of blues for the next 40 years, and there was never anything short of thrilling transcendence in that time. One afternoon I went to A&M Records’ studio in Hollywood to watch King record – via long-distance phone lines – with Peter, Paul & Mary. A strange idea, but producer Phil Ramone had the technical side covered, so King could burn on guitar for a few bars and then pack up his Gibson and leave.

I took with me an old photo taken in Houston in 1970 at the Continental Ballroom on Scott Street. I asked King for his autograph. He inquired about my name, gave me a big smile, and wrote, “From one B.B. to another B.B.” I think he had picked up telepathic love from me that day, and wanted to give it back.

I left the studio on a cloud, knowing that for all these years one my proudest possessions is that I shared B.B. King’s initials.

The last time I saw him was a year ago, and he performed sitting down. At first I was a bit overtaken, acknowledging that mortality is tapping on all our shoulders, but maybe a little stronger on King’s. The deep feeling was there, though, as the man who saved my life did all his great songs.

I left knowing that the man from Berclair, Mississippi, just west of Itta Bena, where I had driven once just to see where King began his life, would live forever in my heart. When I found out King died last night, I went and pulled a guitar case from under my bed. Fifteen years ago I won a new autographed edition of Lucille, the namesake guitar that has been B.B. King’s constant companion almost his entire life.

I don’t play guitar, and rarely look at it. Still, knowing it’s there beneath where I sleep has always felt like a spirit is watching after me, making sure I awake each day. Last night, as I looked at the beautiful black instrument, my tears began falling on it.

I had lost the man who had taken me into his care 50 years ago, someone who guided me through my time here and never left me alone. Now, I’ll have to listen and try to remember. B.B. King will always be with me, playing his blues so we can find our way through ours to the other side.

That eternal gift is what made him King.

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B.B. King, Riley “Blues Boy” King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Clifford Antone, Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Phil Ramone

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