The Thrill Is Still Goin'
To know B.B. King is to love him—and Lucille
Sorry if this sounds melodramatic, but B.B. King is playing Orange County, and you should go see him before it's too late.
The blues legend will be 83 years young in September. It doesn't take a brainiac to understand that somewhere beyond here, Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson are waiting for King to join a heavenly jam session that now includes the recently departed Bo Diddley.
Merely sticking around long enough is reason for some critics and fans to anoint a new monarch, but King's legacy reigns supreme due to its merits, not some sort of woeful wishing by those latching onto the remnants of a vital culture because they were too young to experience firsthand a genre's halcyon days. No, King is not the best simply because he's outlived many of his contemporaries: He's atop the blues list because the man wields a Gibson guitar like Michael Jordan knifed through defenders in the 1990s.
To continue with the basketball analogy, King's current repertoire has more in common with No. 23's days with the Washington Wizards than the Chicago Bulls. Gone were the high-flying, tongue-waving dunks over big men, but we were still glad to see Jordan on the court. Same goes for King. The guitarist gives his band a few minutes to generate a steady groove before he takes the stage. From there, King slowly walks out and reclines in a chair front and center. His group's warm-up is an aural trip featuring some of the world's best blues players, but once King plugs in and turns on Lucille, suddenly you're the 7-footer getting dunked on. And you're okay with it. In fact, listening to King as his left hand meanders blues scales with the freeform approach of a jazz musician is like being on Angola's Olympic basketball team in 1992—you're getting schooled, but you still want to take pictures with your opponents before the game. It's that nice.
Born Riley B. King, the guitarist earned the nickname B.B. (short for "Beale Street Blues Boy") after his stint in Memphis during the late 1940s as a radio DJ. Although his first single flopped, King became a rhythm & blues star in the '50s and '60s with the hits "Sweet Sixteen," "You Upset Me Baby," "Every Day (I Have the Blues)" and "Sweet Little Angel." He found continued success in the '70s with "The Thrill Is Gone," "I Like to Live the Love" and "To Know You Is to Love You" and later achieved some notoriety in 1988 when he collaborated with U2 on "When Love Comes to Town."
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If King were a band and not a solo performer, he'd probably not be worth seeing because oldies acts rarely have anything to offer other than a watered-down version of their peak-years greatness. Again, King does not fit this model, as the only difference between his current shows and those from earlier days is the fact that he sits while he plays.
We are lucky not just to be able to see King, but to be part of what could be the final chapter of his career. We are witnessing a true genius not resting on his laurels, not willing to go through the motions for a fat paycheck and not walking onstage with a look that suggests we should be happy just to see him. Similar to Miles Davis' fusion period or Charles Bukowski's final novel, Pulp, King is still creating, pushing forward, improving on skills that are already superior to everybody else's.
If my hyperbole isn't enough to convince you to see him, consider this: In 2003, Rolling Stone named him the No. 3 guitarist of all time, behind Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. Imagine how desperately we'd all love to see those two onstage. Well, King's right behind them, and more important, he's still here. The blues will survive King's passing because the genre revels in life's misery—namely, drinking, cheating hearts and being broke. Those things ain't going anywhere, but without King, the blues won't sound the same.
B.B. King performs with Leon Russell and Mavis Staples at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-1870; www.ocfair.com. Fri., 7 p.m. $29.50-$75.