B. B. King defined the blues. With his shimmering guitar picking and deep velvety voice, King brought the blues into mainstream music without ever sacrificing its quality or sound for fame. B. B. King died Friday morning. He was 89 years old, and had been playing the blues for almost 70 years.
There will be plenty of beautiful obituaries written for King in memory of the incredible impact his sound and style had on American music. But one of the best examinations of what made King such an unstoppable force, and such a beloved musician, was written only 17 years after King signed his first record contract. In his 1966 book Urban Blues, Charles Keil examined the state of blues and the relationship between blues singers and their audiences. The book is part blues history, part scholarship, and part unedited transcripts of interviews with B.B. King and his fellow blues musician Bobby Bland.
It's a profile of two men who were playing uncompromising music for a black audience in a decade when tensions over Civil Rights were coming to a boil and more and more black artists were diluting their sound to make it more popular in the mainstream.
Here's how Keil introduced King, who was 40 years old at the time:
B.B. King has never been to Europe, has never done a college concert or appeared at a folk club; he has never been on a jazz festival stage and, aside from a few obscure records with strings and trimmings, he has never directed his efforts toward a pop or teenage market. In other words, he is still singing to the audience he always had — that is, the people who know best what the blues are about. Further, unlike Ray Charles and Bobby Bland, he has never attempted to enlarge his audience using gospel chord progressions or other churchy effects. Certainly B.B. sometimes looks like a preacher when he sings; like that of so many blues artists, his earliest musical training was in the church; but no trio of "Amen" girls like the Raylettes or the Bland Dolls play a part in his presentation; and there are few if any songs in his repertoire that can be traced directly to the church.
All these observations and facts lead to one striking conclusion: B.B. King is the only straight blues singer in America with a large, adult, nationwide, and almost entirely Negro audience. If the adjectives "unique," "pure," and "authentic" apply to any blues singer alive today, they certainly apply to B.B. King.
Kiel's point isn't that King was inexperienced; it's that he safely guarded his sound and refused to compromise on what his art was. There aren't many musicians like B.B. King left in the world, who want the sanctity of their sound more than fame or fortune. B. B. did stand for Blues Boy after all.
Two years after this book was published, though, King did make a commercial breakthrough. His connection to truth coupled with an incredible talent on the guitar made him a favorite of late 1960s and early 1970s rock-and-roll fans. In 1968, King played a sold-out show at the San Francisco rock venue, Fillmore West. Years later, King told a television interviewer that when he was introduced and walked into the bright stage lights that night, "Everybody stood up, and I cried."
“That was the beginning of it,” Mr. King said.
By the 2000s, he was in his 80s, a multimillionaire, and still playing dozens of concerts a year — his sound still solidly, stoutly, and undeniably the blues.
Listen to some of King's biggest hits here:
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.