feature: remembering bb king: the last link to the memphis blues #soundcheck

May 15, 2015

Blues Boy King’s guitar work is recognizable with a single note. Whichever guitar bears the name Lucille, the sound is unmistakable: a clean electric stab with a fierce attack and a burst of tremolo. In one note, BB King can convey a well of joy and sorrow deeper than most guitarists can summon in an entire song. And then he plays a second note. And then he starts singing.


By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor


BB King died last night in his sleep. The undisputed King of the Blues had been in failing health recently, though even at 89, he kept up the rigorous tour schedule he’d maintained since his 20’s. His unwavering commitment to his craft—his genuine love for the blues—earned him 30 Grammies and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a legion of followers and admirers. Everyone from Tracy Chapman to Jimi Hendrix has cited him as a major inspiration. His classic hits “The Thrill Is Gone” and “When Love Comes To Town” have become an indelible part of the fabric of American music. Though the songs will always be associated with BB King, they have transcended mere songhood, and are something bigger than even King.

But BB King was more than a talented guitarist with a powerful voice and iconic sound. In many ways, BB King was the last connection to the country blues of the early 20th century. He came into his own in Memphis in the early 40’s, a city that birthed the careers of Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Minnie, John Lee Hooker, and Mississippi John Hurt. Before Sun Records became the home of Elvis Presley, and began courting a white rockabilly audience, the Memphis-based label was the home for some of the best blues on the planet. With news of BB King’s death, the world hasn’t just lost one of the greatest guitarists to ever pick up the instrument, it’s lost the final link to one of the purest manifestations of the blues in history. The blues will continue on. It will continue to evolve and change. As long as there is pain, as long as there is joy in the face of pain, there will be the blues. But the Memphis Blues are now gone forever. No-one can—and maybe no-one should—fill the shoes left behind by BB King.