I was privileged to see B.B. King several times. What a brilliant performer! You could listen with a blindfold and know who you were listening to with just a single note of his patented vibrato. Riley King had more feel in his little finger than anybody else around and he was a kind gentleman to boot.
There are only a handful of guitar players who can sing as well as they play, B.B. was one of them. T-bone Walker and Eric Clapton are two more but it is a very short list indeed. Paul McCartney definitely. Paul Simon maybe.
I enjoyed reading this article after B.B.'s passing, in the Washington Post, How the Church gave B.B. King the blues.
"The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers weren’t actually famous but did achieve some popularity in black churches across the Delta region. The group even performed several songs live on the radio, at stations in Greenwood and Greenville, Miss. The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers ran into trouble, though, because of King’s guitar. He pushed, musically, bringing the blues into church. It upset the more staid Christians. The group got a reputation for being rebellious and a little too inappropriate for church. Some of their invitations were rescinded.The New York Times had a nice piece as well on B.B.'s passing.
King, at the same time, was growing frustrated with religious audiences for his own reasons. When he played for church people, they would say “God bless you,” but wouldn’t give him any money. He noticed non-religious audiences were different while playing on the corner of Church and Second Street in Indianola, at the intersection of the black and white parts of town.
“People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me,” King recalled in 1999. “And they’d say, ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.”
When he played the blues, though, people would give him a little money or beer. On at least one occasion King recalled singing a spiritual song, changing the word “my Lord” to “my baby,” and getting a tip and a free beer.
“Now you know why I’m a blues singer,” King said."
Mr. King considered a 1968 performance at the Fillmore West, the San Francisco rock palace, to have been the moment of his commercial breakthrough, he told a public-television interviewer in 2003. A few years earlier, he recalled, an M.C. in an elegant Chicago club had introduced him thus: “O.K., folks, time to pull out your chitlin’s and your collard greens, your pigs’ feet and your watermelons, because here is B. B. King.” It had infuriated him.
When he saw “longhaired white people” lining up outside the Fillmore, he said, he told his road manager, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” Then the promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the chairman of the board, B. B. King.” “Everybody stood up, and I cried,” Mr. King said. “That was the beginning of it.”
I had a teacher in New York in the early 1970's named Dom Michel who wrote his dissertation at Princeton on King and followed him around in the late sixties. He had a rather sour attitude on the singer, felt that he was manipulative and had sold out in some way by trying to appeal to a white audience. I think that history has amply shown that my teacher was far off base and that B.B. was truly a kind and genuine man. Another lesson for me to follow your own intuition about people and to keep your own counsel.
We will all definitely miss B.B. King.