At the beginning of April, blues legend B.B. King had what his publicists called “a bad night.” Now 88, B.B. and his band had driven 1,600 miles to the show in St. Louis, Missouri, and on top of the rigors of travel, King missed taking his diabetes medicine, resulting in elevated blood sugar. The result was, by all accounts a rather shaky performance, to say the least, with King rambling on at length and playing only a couple of complete songs. After 15 minutes of “You Are My Sunshine,” part of the audience booed loudly and yelled for some real music, while other left. Eventually the show came to an untimely end.
There has been quite a lot of comment about what many felt was the fans’ disrespectful behaviour towards a man, who, after all, is a living link to the very earliest days of the blues in the Mississippi Delta and who has given audiences and record-buyers huge enjoyment for over half a century. I can see it both ways, though. Yes, there’s a sense in which just getting to sit in the room with the man is enough – I saw him play in Paris a couple of years ago and that was pretty much my attitude. (See my earlier post on this). Yes, we did get “You Are My Sunshine” and some flirting with women in the first few rows and the characteristic B.B. King guitar licks were a little thin on the ground. But just to be there, to hear him sing and play “The Thrill is Gone,” with that sweet vibrato on Lucille, was good enough for me.
But, on the other hand, the audience in St. Louis, who had spent their hard-earned money on tickets and travel, didn’t even get as much as that by all accounts, so one can understand their frustration. But afterwards King apologized for what had happened and said he humbly asks for the understanding of his fans.” I’m sure King and those around him will make sure there’s not a repeat of what happened.
We all want to remember B.B. King as the legend he is. King is typically quite deprecating about his guitar skills – but ask any guitarist and they’ll tell you that they can tell it’s B.B. King playing after one note. That takes a deep appreciation for the music and for the blues. Growing up in rural Mississippi in poverty in the 1920s and 30s, King has lived the blues, witnessing lynchings and experiencing first hand the hardship of the Jim Crow South. “I’ve put up with more humiliation than I care to remember,” says King. His song, That’s Why I Sing the Blues, recalls his people being brought to America on slave ships, living in the “ghetto” with vermin for company, being excluded from educational opportunities, having a poor diet and being subject to unjust harassment from the police.
“Guess you’re born to lose
Everybody around me, people,
It seems like everybody got the blues.”
B.B. King reminds us of the roots of the blues – he takes us back to the source. That’s why we respect him so much; that’s why we want him to be around for a long time to come; that’s why people will continue to go to his shows as long as he chooses to play. But at the same time, we want to remember him as a great artist, and there’ll come a time, maybe pretty soon, when those around him might need to persuade the great man to call it a day. Whatever happens, the good news is that we still have his recordings to keep us in mind of what a great guitarist, singer and performer B.B. King has been all his life.