On Valentine’s Day 1976, BB King did a concert at Northwestern University. I had bought tickets for it, then broke up with the girl I had planned on taking. I called a friend, who bought the other ticket, and we went to the concert.
When the concert started, Lucille, BB’s legendary Gibson ES-355, stood on a stand in the middle of the stage. His band played a couple of tunes, then BB took the stage, picked up Lucille, and jammed with the band for a few minutes. At one point, he hit a note, scrunched his face up into that half-grimace, half-smile of his, and held the note for 24 bars. My friend and I, who both played guitar, went slack-jawed: How the hell did he do that? The place went up for grabs. As I told another friend of mine this morning, that might have been the greatest guitar solo I ever heard.
BB King was not the most skillful guitar player of all time. But I can promise you, the most skillful players all listened to him, learned every note he put on a record, and absorbed what he could say with one note into their playing. He was more than a guitar player; he was an artist, a musician, a bluesman.
We had heard in the last week or so that BB had gone into hospice care, and knew he wasn’t long for the world. He died in his sleep this morning at the age of 89.
This is a performance of his most famous song, “The Thrill Is Gone,” at the 1993 Montreaux Jazz Festival. By this time, he was playing sitting down most of the time, but in the last minute of the song, he pulls himself to his feet and plays the last chorus or two standing up, like we always remember him. Seeing that never fails to get to me.
So long, BB.
from The Sound of One Hand Typing