The Loss of a King
I was awakened last night by the news…the distinct and jarring tones of the BBC News World Service alerts. One of only two that I allow my phone to chime. When it goes off, I know it’s likely important. (Except the day the royal baby was born…I silenced my phone that day)
I got the chime around 10pm PST. It simply read “BB King, legendary blues singer, dies in his sleep at 89 confirms manager.”
I talk a lot about parenting, loss, home all that here. It is no small thing, no subtle metaphor to say that this man was a hero of mine. He was, without question, an icon – a uniquely American form of royalty that spread throughout the world.
I grew up with Mr. King playing in my home. His records played all while I was growing up in Nebraska. His 1970’s LP Completely Well was completely worn out. When we would go to the mall and I’d walk out with a Clapton or Van Halen record my father would have a cassette with a live BB King show. We always listened to it . . . and it first. None of us ever complained, either.
I went to my first BB King show in high school. My older brother had procured tickets at Red Rocks Amphitheater and it was a triple-bill: Taj Majal, Stevie Ray Vauhan, and BB King, with BB being the headliner. Taj was good as always. SRV was amazing, but a bit hesitant. We found out later that he’d spent hours the night before jamming with Jeff Beck and worn off his callouses. He’d super-glued his fingers in order to get through the night.
But BB King…the man was just brilliant.
Years later I learned to play guitar and it was important to me to learn who the influences of my influences were. When I looked at Clapton, Beck, Green, Vaughan, Allman, they all did songs I recognized. They all recorded BB King songs…but yet somehow, not quite BB King songs.
That tone. That crying . . . that singing tone . . . only he could do it. I learned from this master of the instrument and musical mediums (plural, lest you be fooled that all he could do was sing in 3 chords) that one note was all you needed if it was the RIGHT note. You could play 1,000 notes in a single song and he would tell you more by wringing a tone from Lucille than the best of guitarists.
When I met an amazing woman who loved me and cared and treated me well I sang her a song one night on stage.
“I got a sweet little angel…I love the way she spreads her wings.”
I called my wife, Andrea, that all our married life. Even in death, on her headstone, carved on the back, it says “fly on my sweet little angel…I love the way you spread your wings.”
In the late 1990’s I worked the phones, pushed, screamed and begged until I got the opportunity – during his tour promoting Riding With the King – to interview him. While he was supposed to give us just 5 minutes in a dark corner, deep in the bowels of Omaha’s Orpheum Theater, the maestro of the blues ushered us onto his bus. He gave us close to an hour there and we did almost a half-hour interview with him. He talked about how he had an incessant appetite to learn as much as he could. He toured with a laptop computer and a library of books he read constantly.
My father was unable to come to the show and I asked, rather sheepishly, if I could bring him my father’s worn-out copy of Completely Well and have him sign it. He insisted I bring it backstage after the show.
I told King that my daughter asked to see him for her birthday . . . and he insisted I bring her along.
My daughter was scared to meet this man . . . this American King. You can see it in the photo we took with him. But after we walked into the dressing room – following a stellar show – he said “you don’t have to worry about coming in here, Princess…” and he gave her a hug. He took her arm in his and sat down on a chair. He asked her “do you have a brother or sister?”
My daughter nodded. Her sister was just a baby. “I have a little sister, Hannah,” she told him.
King tipped over a cup on the counter, filled with guitar picks and plastic pins.
“Grab something out of there for your sister Hannah,” he told her. She obliged.
“You probably want something in there, too,” he told her. She nodded. “Well, I’m not going to give you any of that,” he said, a twinkle growing in the corner of his eye.
My daughter looked at him, crestfallen but quiet.
“You know why,” he asked her? She shook her head “no.”
He pointed to his lapel, where an enamel pin of Lucille hung…gold-embossed with her name on the headstock and his on the pin.
“I’m going to give you this one,” he told her. He unpinned it and put it on her collar.
On the way home my daughter just repeated, in hushed tones, “BB King called me Princess!”
My daughter marks the 3rd generation of my family to love this man and his music. For an American King to call her Princess is simply beyond description.
We saw him several more times…each time floored by the energy, tone and warmth this man projected.
When I put the phone down tonight I could only think . . . a beautiful woman is silent tonight. Lucille cannot cry, she cannot wail, she cannot shout for joy.
She cannot sing. The man who says his only love is Lucille left her behind, and she will be silent.
But for years they made music together, sang together, were sad and angry and sarcastic…and joyous.
And what an amazing body of work they left us.
A tuxedo and a shiny 335
You could see it in his face, the blues has arrived
Tonight’s everybody’s getting their angel wings
Don’t you know you’re riding with the King!