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THOMPSON: The Thrill is Gone

March 06, 2017 - 12:09 PM

 


OPINION


I was a teenager when I discovered the blues. While waiting in the family room of a girl I was dating, I listened to one of her father's Ray Charles albums, The Genius Plays the Blues. One cut stood out: (Night Time is) The Right Time. Ultimately, the father's music moved me more than his daughter. The blues - like food and wine and galavanting around the world - would become a consuming passion.

No different from most teenagers in the mid-1960s, I followed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But there was something in the blues that spoke to me, even at age 16. Back in the day, however, finding out about anything was more involved than a simple Google search. Even so, I diligently sought and soon found blues giants...John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Billie Holliday, Robert Johnson and dozens of other artists. Rarely were any ever played on Top 40 radio.

Six years later, as a 22-year-old Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, I lived near the French-German border. I had hundreds of blues artists on my Nakamichi reel-to-reel tape deck - state of the art back then - and most Friday and Saturday nights the blues played backdrop to poker games with friends in a smoke-filled room that usually smelled like booze. It was a perfect blues setting.

That year - in Germany - I saw my first live blues concert. B.B. King played two nights...and I saw them both. During the next four decades I would see him play and sing the blues six more times. Now, when I think of the blues...a picture of him pops into my mind's eye.

B.B. died two years ago this coming May 14 at age 89. His reign as the King of the Blues, an unofficial but nonetheless apt title, spanned more than 60 years...longer than any real monarch on earth. This icon of American music filled concert halls until a couple months before he died in a performance schedule that would tire someone half his age.  

He might well have been - no disrespect to the late James Brown - the all-time hardest working man in show business. On a flight from Atlanta to Montreal ten years ago, I found myself sitting beside him. Despite being a huge fan, I was reticent to take advantage of my good fortune. But, this was one of my heroes, and I told him what his music meant to me. We hit it off immediately, and there was no gap in our conversation for the two-and-a-half-hour flight.

At one point I wondered aloud how many performances he had given. He smiled, rolled his big brown eyes and estimated, "About 15,000...more if you count the ones before I was somebody." Where was he playing that night? He leaned forward and called to his young nephew across the aisle, who confirmed that he was on stage at 9 p.m. at the Place des Arts in Montreal.

"I pay him to get me to the right hall," King explained with a slight shrug. "It only gets real for me when I hit that first note on Lucille." As every fan knows, Lucille is his guitar.

In the early 1950s B.B. was playing a gig in Arkansas when a fight broke out between two men. They knocked over a kerosene stove and flames quickly engulfed the place. King ran, realized he left his prized possession - his first Gibson guitar - and ran back into the blazing jook joint. Later, he learned the fight was over a woman...Lucille.  

"I named that guitar Lucille right then and there," he laughed. "It's always been a reminder to never fight over a woman."

Born on a cotton plantation near Itta Bena, Mississippi, Riley played for dimes on street corners in his youth. By the time he was 20, he'd go anywhere to play and sing the blues, often traveling to four towns in a single night. At age 22, he hitchhiked 140 miles to Memphis, TN, intent on making his passion for the blues his life's work.  

He garnered the nickname B.B. on WDIA, a radio station with an emerging following among black Americans in the early 1950s. He worked a half-hour show as a disc jockey - the Beale Street Blues Boy - which was later shortened to Blues Boy, and then simply to initials...B.B.

Always true to his blues roots, B.B. added touches of jazz, rock and pop genres almost instinctively over the years, always remaining relevant to new audiences. He was a musical genius.

By 1952, his first hit, Three-O'Clock Blues, topped the rhythm and blues charts for five weeks. Since then, he's had a string of more than 50 albums and hundreds of singles, dozens of them number one hits. He's won 17 Grammy Awards. He's a member of the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. He was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among scores of other honours.

B.B. didn't play chords...never did. Rather, he played distinctive single notes, bending strings and coaxing more sounds from a guitar than you'd think possible. His upbringing in the Mississippi Delta and early years on Beale Street in Memphis coursed through his veins in every performance I ever saw...eight of them.

Early blues artists and guitarists - names lost to all but the most ardent R&B aficionados - T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bukka White influenced B.B. So did jazz guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart. His large hands and fat fingers seem the antithesis of a perfect guitar player and yet, not a single list of great guitar players fails to have his name near the top.

Amid dozens of my questions, he asked a few of his own...my favourite tune? I replied, "What's you favourite kiss?" He laughed. I could have named a dozen, but finally I settled on The Thrill is Gone, and he nodded, smiling, and admitted, "That's a good one."

I was only in Montreal overnight...a business dinner meeting that turned out to be more dinner than business. Before we landed at Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, B.B. asked me for a business card. He scribbled on the reverse, "Let this gentleman back stage - B.B. King."

"If your dinner ends early," he said. "Go to the stage door, ask for George and give him this card."

I made sure dinner ended early, called a taxi, arriving at the Place des Arts at 9:15 p.m. I knocked on the stage door...nothing. A second knock brought a hulk of man to the door...George. He took the card, and I followed him back stage to the left wing, where he pulled up a stool. I looked on stage. B.B. glanced toward me, pointed and mouthed the words, "For you," before striking the first notes of The Thrill is Gone. I'll never forget that night. I'll never forget B.B. King.


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