Bluesman B.B. King (1925-2015): the Thrill Is Not Gone for Us
Bluesman B.B. King, a legend in his and many people’s times, a man who personified the music he played, influenced hundreds of black and white singers and guitar players who played the blues, died in his sleep in Las Vegas May 14 at the age of 89.
He died forever famous and died rich, but he did and could and would still play the blues, especially “The Thrill is Gone,” which was the biggest hit of a storied career that probably began when he heard all those sounds swirling around him and his life, beginning in Mississippi. There was gospel, Robert Johnson at the cross roads and all those Delta blues guys, sharecroppers at some point or another, visitations to the road side boogie joints and jukebox joints and front porch guys, soon to be on the road, playing for quarters and dollars in edgy, hazy, sweaty place where the local brew could make you sick or crazy.
Listening to the blues could evoke that whole world and B.B. King evoked better than anybody ever—the blues were about remembered pain, but sometimes they could just make you get up and jump around, like kicking the demons out.
Born Riley B. King, B.B. was Blues Boy, which was pretty apt, although it is hard to think of him, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Woolf, the Reverend Blind Gary Davis or Johnson as boys of any sort. Nothing much playful in that song, or many of his songs or any of the blues songs—they’re about loving, losing, about back-breaking and heart-breaking stuff and not ever, ever getting over it: “The thrill is gone away/you know you done me wrong baby/and you’ll be sorry someday."
He was a sharecropper who made less than five dollars a day for a time, and he heard gospel, and blues, and country music and Count Basie, and for a time he played in places on Beale Street in Memphis. He was married a couple of times, but everybody says the love of his life was Lucille, his guitar. According to reports, he once ran into a burning hotel to rescue his guitar.
Once King got successful—with a hit called “Three O’Clock Blues"—he toured extensively with stops at the Howard Theatre in Washington, along with the Apollo and the Royal Theater. He had a star on Hollywood Boulevard and was inducted double duty in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. He also received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1995 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
He influenced people—especially some of the blues rockers from England in the 1960s, especially Eric Clapton who paid him a online special tribute. “Thank you for everything, your friendship and your inspiration” says Clapton, looking older, too.
King can be found all over YouTube—including a rendition of “The Thrill is Gone” from 1993—glitzy blue jacket, black bow tie, sweating a little, squeezing the music out of Lucille, you guess, alive as you and me and then some. “You know I’m free, free now baby, free from your spell,” he sings, "and now that’s all over/all I can do is wish you well.”
You, too, Blues Boy. Wish you well. The thrill is NOT gone.