News of legendary entertainer B.B. King’s death came as a jolt. The monumentality of his contribution to popular music created the impression that somehow he would always be around, striding onto someone else’s record to make you wonder why they were there, superstars or not. His ability to spark collaborations with unlikely partners – U2, The Crusaders, the GRP Big Band, Cyndi Lauper – meant that in the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t many genres you could approach without coming across him. This could seem surprising until you considered that all this music – stadium rock, smooth funk or state-of-the-art big band – all traced roots to the wellspring of Delta blues that formed B.B. King.
He tends to be labelled as a widely influential blues guitarist, but his singing was at least as striking as what came from his fretboard, and was what brought him to attention first. I saw King perform twice during his lifetime of incessant touring, and had never seen such blatant showmanship before: the band stoking the blues for a good 20 minutes before the great man walked on stage to top it all, and relentless encores infused with the same chutzpah as his advice for the queen of England (sic) when she corners him in the street during ‘You’d Better Not Look Down’. What I remember most from the live shows is that his voice and guitar seemed interchangeable. The voice rang out like an electric guitar, and Lucille (the guitar) sang back in the solos, a percussive approach and portamento wails perfectly recreating the vocal delivery. King himself acknowledged this link, stating that, ideally, ‘you wouldn’t know when Lucille stopped and my voice began’1. This gave his guitar playing the emphatic restraint so often lacking in overenthusiastic blues players since.
It is significant that King’s musicality was acquired and fostered beyond mainstream Western musical education, where instrumentalists are all too frequently encouraged to specialise and not explore their voice or other instruments. This contrasts with, for example, Kodaly’s alternative music pedagogy built on the primacy of singing, with children encouraged to transfer to an instrument what has been learned in a more embodied mode.
King represented a tradition where what was important was the performer and their story, not how well they executed their part in someone else’s. His prodigious abilities as a bluesman reflect that he was an improviser first and foremost and thus able to apply himself flexibly, pursuing an individual conception and career that has informed guitarists and singers ever since. Improvisation is ideal for self-expression and there is no music more expressive than the blues. The same quality underlies the use of improvisation in music therapy; it facilitates the exploration of individual potential, whatever capability one has or has not accrued, and improvisation is a universal capacity essential to our engagement with music from early life onwards.
In losing King, we lose yet another link to a musical vitality given little space in today’s entertainment industry. Prime-time talent shows increasingly encourage us to view music as a complex, rarefied task on which a gifted and highly managed few can be judged objectively, rather than a way anyone express themselves. A central concern with mastery makes us too ready to see diversifying across instruments as dabbling, diluting one’s achievement in any one of them. B.B. King, for all his evident mastery, is an outstanding reminder that music should express what you like, and is best built on the enjoyment of playing and singing your own tune, however you want and on whatever you want.
1Quoted in Lydon, Michael (2005) ‘B.B. King (1971)’. In R. Kostelanetz & J. Reiswig (eds) The B.B. King Reader: 6 Decades of Commentary. Hal Leonard Corporation, p80.