By Devon Wendell
I just cannot process the fact that B.B. King is no longer on this earth. How can it be? It’s like trying to imagine life without oceans, trees, and air to breathe.
No one in history changed the approach and sound of the electric guitar like B.B. King. Sure, there were T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian before B.B. came along, but no one made the guitar sing like the king did. That bright tone, that fast vibrato, those trills and string bends all made the electric guitar sound even more vocal than the human voice.
B.B. played with a confidence and finesse that has influenced generations of guitarists such as Freddie King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and just about every blues and rock guitar player that I can think of, including myself. Even Miles Davis claimed to be inspired by B.B. King’s guitar voicings in his autobiography.
My greatest memories of B.B. are personal. After I got my first guitar at the age of 12, I would obsessively practice along with his records, trying to learn every lick. The albums that I focused on the most were Live At The Regal Theater, Live At The Cook County Jail, and Live And Well. I wore those records out. I knew that if I could learn to play that clean and with that much finesse that I could not only be taken seriously by adults, but I could also play in any genre of music.
I was right. After a lot of hard work, I was taken seriously and I could make that B.B. King style fit anywhere. But no matter how much so many of us have tried to imitate his style, there was only one B.B. King. Anyone can discern the copy cats from the real thing by listening to one note. That’s all it takes.
On my 21st Birthday, I spent at least a couple of hours upstairs at The Blue Note in N.Y.C. hanging with B.B. after one of his spectacular performances there. We spoke about music, life, the road and women. He briefly let me play his beloved guitar Lucille and warned me about how the music business can wear you down in time. He was right about everything. I know that more today than I did then. But at that time I felt completely lost. I was head first down in the bottle and had briefly considered quitting music. That changed for me on that cold January night with B.B., and I decided not to stop playing for anything.
B.B. King never gave up in any situation and displayed more true dignity, strength, and humility in the face of adversity and hardship than any musician I have ever met.
That memory still keeps me going strong, even when the chips are down. I still go back to that night when I think of putting down the guitar. What B.B. had passed on to me that night was not mere wisdom, but the strong spiritual connection felt within the heart of the blues. B.B. King’s sound is reminiscent of that feeling we get when we first fall in love. No one could get to that mournful yet celebratory place that is the blues quicker and more gracefully than him.
B.B. King may have passed away on May 14th, 2015 at the age of 89, but his spirit and music will live on forever. I pray that the true king of the blues shall rest in peace. Thank you B.B., for giving me and so many around the world a true purpose in life.