Left: Alfred Kappes, ‘Tattered and Torn’ (1886). Collection: Smith College Museum of Art.
‘Uncle B’: A Remembrance
“The Blues are a simple music and I’m a simple man. But the Blues aren’t a science, the Blues can’t be broken down like mathematics. The Blues are a mystery, and mysteries are never as simple as they look!” ~ BB King Music, color and deepest emotional expression converge in the African-American musical form known as the Blues. Derived from the color blue, the blues, in the plural form, express a wide range of emotions musically. Just as the color blue has wide variety of shades, so do the blues in terms of their intensity. xxxxxx Describing the technique for playing the Blues on guitar, harmonica or piano quickly gets you into the technical weeds of music theory, harmonics and cord structure. Reaching for that shimmering “Blue Note” (a diminished fifth in the minor key of E, achieved by severely warping the string over the fret), breaks the rules of musical protocol, but sure makes for easy listening. You know the blues when you hear it—like the salt-and-sour wakeup call of a cool Marguerita on your tongue. This particular musical idiom was born in the Deep South in the early 20th century, when African-Americans picked up traditional Western instruments and began manipulating the segmented seven-tone scale in search of those extra, middle notes that evoked the sounds of their native Africa. Add to that tonal mélange the centuries-long narrative of suffering, hardship and exclusion that typified Black plantation life, and the result is a unique American musical sound—one whose appeal touches almost everyone.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to meet BB King. I had a work connection to one of his fifteen children who understood of my love for ‘The Blues,’ and he had invited me to New York for the opening of his stepfather’s newest restaurant and club. I sat in the audience watching the first half of the performance. At the break, a big guy shaped like a wall came out from behind stage to invite us both into the green room.
It was at that point that I entered BB’s world, a small, windowless room filled with people and activity. Friends and family were sharing food and laughs, and I was invited to join in. King–very much the center of attention–was called “Uncle B” by those around him, and for good reason: many in his entourage were related him in some way—great aunts, cousins, step children—along with his band mates, manager and assistants. The room was crowded and hot (to preserve King’s singing voice while on break), but the festive atmosphere made it seem more home-like, than congested.
”Blue is the typical heavenly color: deep, inner, supernatural, peaceful. The ultimate feeling it creates is rest. The more intense it is, the more it calls us to the open sky, and demands purity and transcendence. Light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello, a still a darker the double bass, and the darkest an organ. When it darkens to black, it evokes a profound grief. Sinking toward black, it has the overtone of a mourning that is not human.” ~Vassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in) Art (1925)
Raucous story telling seemed to be on the menu, along with an endless flow of food being delivered from the restaurant’s kitchen. I sat on the black couch next to my musical idol and was instantly made to feel like one of the crew. There were stories of his younger days picking cotton, ‘kethin’ the devil from his momma’ and the early years he spent playing gospel songs on the sidewalks of Memphis’ Beal Street (right, in 1950s), before he realized the tips were bigger when he sang blues numbers.
There was the story of the day Elvis called him to announce he had purchased a used Boeing 707 jet plane and he didn’t quite know what to do with it. “Would BB like to come over so we can fly around in a big circle to get used to the idea of what it’s like?” Uncle B, of course, agreed. The brief sortie high above the southern countryside, with the usual compliment of women, liquor and song, stretched into the evening back at the mansion. King related to me that back then, Elvis seemed as mystified by the reality of his success as any young pop star would be today.
Left: Elvis Presley and B.B. King backstage at the December 7, 1956 WDIA (Radio Station) Photo: Earnest Withers.
He described his encounter with Jimmy Hendrix in his early days as a soft-spoken guy who played in Little Richard’s bass section. He never said much and never drank or smoked. King’s interaction was short-lived, as Hendrix quickly went the way of may rock stars of his day, and was dead three years later. King had lived in Las Vegas for several years at the time I met him, and his proximity to the strip meant that on more than one occasion he was invited by the ‘Rat Pack’ to party. Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawton and Bishop and innumerable hangers-on were constantly surrounded by female admirers, as the parties went all night. One small fact of entertainment history: Dean Martin actually drank very little. His dazed and boozy behavior on stage was part of the act, believing it made him more alluring as he worked the audience for laugh lines.
Ralph Ellison, novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer offers this penetrating definition of the evocative blues musical form: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger the jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolations of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
At one point, ‘Lucille,’ King’s famous Gibson guitar was being carried through the room in preparation for the next set. I asked if I could hold it and the assistant looked to King for approval. With a nod, it was handed to me and I felt the full weight of the instrument and the legend in my lap at that instant. I asked how many ‘Lucille’s’ there had been over the years. Rolling his eyes thoughtfully to the ceiling, King said, “Let’s see, I gave one to Richard Nixon at the White House, I gave one to the pope, and one to the Smithsonian. I think this is my fourth, but I really lost track.” At that moment, more food arrived and we all finished a hasty dinner. The menu from King’s brand new restaurant lay on the table.
Sensing that the intermission would soon be over, I picked up the menu and shamelessly asked for an autograph. He asked what he should write. I responded, “From the man who taught me everything about the blues.” He looked at me wide-eyed as he considered that request for a moment, studying my white face and, no doubt, recalling his people’s long, hard journey and the years on the road playing back rooms and smoky clubs. Instead, he scribbled, “To Rick, All the Best, BB King” and handed it to me with a chuckle. The joke was on me, and I and everybody in the room got it. My hand nearly disappeared in his massive paw as we shook hands goodbye. I was just thrilled to have this time with him and to feel so included with Blues Boy King and his extended family.
Left: Romare Beaden, ‘Empress of the Blues’ (1974), mixed media. Collection: Smithsonian American Art Musem. “
But no one, when you stop to think, has ever equated abstract expressionism as a movement with music. It’s based on improvisation. The rhythms, the personal involvement, all of this is part of the [Black] experience.” ~Romare Bearden, Artist
The second half of the show seemed somehow more poignant for me, as the Legend had become the Man during the last 45 minutes. He featured “Stormy Monday” in the next set, and I am including it here from my readers’ listening enjoyment. As many times as that piece has been performed, King’s passion for the blues and his visceral connection to its sounds and message remained vibrant and alive. In the wake of his recent departure after 89 years, may they always remain so. The King is dead. Long live the King!
“The blues is everything. The sea, the sky, the blues. And I know all colors; sea and sky, the blues. And I know all colors: all shade, all hues…all blues” ~Billy Holliday
Thank you for reading ARTES Magazine
Best Wishes, Richard J. Friswell Publisher & Managing Editor
Read more about the color blue‘s grip on our emotions and imagination here: http://www.artesmagazine.com/2015/01/editors-letter-january-2015/ https://youtu.be/pVGu0visDbE