At 89, The Blues Stops For BB King
Perhaps the first major blow dealt on jazz this year 2015, is the exit of the King of the blues himself, Riley B. King known by his stage name as B.B. King. He died on May 14, 2015, in his sleep.
Not for nothing did he acquire the accolade, ‘King of the blues’ over the years. A prolific songwriter, singer and guitarist, he introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed.
His live action was a wonderful spectacle to behold:
I saw him in live performance in 1983 both at the residence of the American Ambassador to Nigeria and at the University of Lagos auditorium. He was a gas. His control of the guitar and the gimmicks of circumstances that he generated in the manner of show business added to the blues-wailing voice that accompanied the instrument – put the audience in no doubt that he was the king of the blues!
Perhaps second to Duke Ellington in artistic stature and greatness, King received countless awards and honours, recorded numerous albums and travelled round the world with performances at the White House. Some of his numerous hit songs have continued to remain fresh in the consciousness of jazz and blues aficionados. A grammy Hall of Fame Award was given to The Thrill is Gone, his biggest hit for example in 1998 – a special award attracted by recordings that are at least 25 years old and still have qualitative or historical significance.
King was known for live performances into which he invested glamour and artistic finesse. On February 21, 2012, he was one of the performers of “In performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues” during which President Barack Obama sang part of Sweet Home Chicago. But perhaps his greatest and most memorable concert was “The Royal Jam “showcasing B.B. King, The Crusaders and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (from which the recording project took its title) in 1981. The session was royal in many respects:
The participation of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a non jazz outfit introduced a ring of royalty to the session while the fact that it was recorded at the famous Royal Festival Hall, London put the final seal on it.
Suffused with regal charm, the orchestra remains the Queen’s favourite. In 1966, Queen Elizabeth conferred upon the orchestra the title “Royal” as the orchestra’s name – Great Britain’s only major independent orchestra to be so honoured.
In addition to its many concert engagements, the orchestra has continued to appear on radio and television; and has made many classical recordings, providing music for numerous films most notably Hooked on Classics for which it earned Platinum and Silver status throughout the world. The orchestra’s appearance was a healthy alliance between jazz and classical music which both belong to the ‘art’ music category. The fusion of the Philharmonic Orchestra with both B.B. King on the one hand and The Crusaders on the other was a perfect blend which successfully amalgamated elements of jazz and rock with those of classical music.
Comprising pianist Joe Sample, tenor saxophone great Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper, The Crusaders featured prominently, incorporating B.B. King and The Philharmonic orchestra as guest artists.
But it was a cohesive fusion which challenged the ability of the orchestra in terms of functioning in a jazz setting, a cultural habitat different from the symphony setting which it was used to.
It provided a big band atmosphere dominated by strings with the propulsive sound of the Crusaders setting the agenda for jazz while the blues defined the moment with B.B. King, his voice and his guitar.
At the time of this special concert, the Crusaders, who were being touted as the main act, had gained a wide international following, having completed their first European tour.
This was clearly evident in their annual tours of such capitals as London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm.
The Crusaders had been nominated for a Grammy Award and started off in 1982 with a standing room only tour of the Far East, performing before more than a million people.
Also during their long and illustrious career as one of the foremost proponents of fusion jazz, they have unselfishly helped spotlight other performers on their albums, including guest vocalist Joe Coker, Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, and Randy Crawford
On the other hand, in 1982, B.B. King, the living legend of the blues, was celebrating his 35th year in music. He was honoured with a Grammy Award and also performed at the 5th Prison concert in his well known and respected relationship as co-chairman of the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation (FAIRR).
The legendary B. B. King was already widely known at the time of this concert. He was the only American popular singer to extensively tour the Soviet Union in a 22 – concert series.
Incidentally he became the biggest attraction in the Royal Festival Jam, almost pulling down the house with an inspired version of The thrill is Gone into which the Crusaders invested their entire creative arsenal in terms of solos, improvisational design and accompaniment.
Quite unexpectedly, B.B.King turned out to be the star of the show, doubling on guitar and vocals; and cutting an imposing figure on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall.
His rich, bluesy voice floated through the entire hall with profound intensity and soulfulness. His guitar solos which reached out with dramatic swoops defined by vibratos were very well designed even as he involved the audience in a call- and- response participation exercise. Excitement almost reached bursting point!
It was two years after in 1983 that B.B. King came down to Lagos, Nigeria with a full band; and performed at the University of Lagos Auditorium – with the late great John Chukwu (one of Nigeria’s pioneering comedians) as master of ceremony.
This was an essentially personal show where the spotlight was more on his guitar (which he named ‘Lucille’) even though we also experienced the best of blues singing and orchestral backing from a semi big band.
At The Royal Jam, the influence of the Crusaders, in particular, pianist and composer Joe Sample was dominant, amalgamating with the Philharmonic Orchestra in the performance of such songs as I’m standing Here Today, One Day I’ll Fly Away and Fly With Wings of Love composed by Joe Sample.
But the blues legend took the center stage, enjoying extensive spotlight from The Crusaders even as they also complimented the backing session together with the Philharmonic orchestra – on such selected songs as The Thrill Is Gone, Better Not Look Down, Hold On, Street Life, Encores, I Just Can’t Leave Your Love Alone and Never Make A Move Too Soon.
As an album, Royal Jam was recorded under on-the-job conditions at the Royal Festival Hall, London in September, 1981 – with B.B. King at his creative best. But now, the king of the blues is gone. The metaphoric thrill is gone!