April 5, 2001

Barton's Royal Visitor

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What would you do if you’d played an average of 300 shows a year for the last thirty-five years, won eight Grammys, four honorary doctorates, composed last year’s most critically acclaimed album, been honored by two Presidents, and invented the guitar tricks that have kept pickers from Hendrix to Beck humming in their sleep? You’d come show the Ivy Leaguers here at Cornell just where all the music they love came from, that’s what. And you’d do it on April 8th.

Then again, the overwhelming odds are that you are most likely not B. B. King. Indeed, neither you nor I will ever come close to brushing the shoulders of King’s cool, and there are probably even a few of you out there that will be surprised to find that the man owning the name B. B. King is still even alive. He is almost too legendary a musician to be thought of as a contemporary artist. Very few others than King warrant the fame, mystique and distinction of being so famous that his mortality is doubted even during his own lifetime. But King, at seventy-five years old, still has more pop to his personality, and more blues in his soul than most people half his age.

It has to do as much with musical ability as it does with his story and the cultural contributions that it suggests. Born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, the eventual prodigy left the Mississippi Delta — where he was born — with a guitar, some change, and an immediately recognizable potential for greatness. At a young age, he hitchhiked all the way to Memphis, where he went in just a few short years from playing on street corners and church steps to becoming a staple of the local radio stations and music halls.

But King was not to reach superstar status until the early fifties, when a string of R&B hits led up to his astonishing #1 single “Three O’Clock Blues.” However, King’s legacy was only beginning. Amidst a fickle cultural climate that spanned from the suit-and-tie Fifties to the stonewashed Sixties, King remained popular, a credit to his ability to capture the attention of any crowd. During these two decades, he played in every kind of place that had an outlet for the plug of his amplifier — jazz bars, night clubs, ghetto theaters, symphony halls, and concert auditoriums. And all this really only encapsulates the first third of his long and prolific career.

Next, King would prove that he not only could keep up with the times, but also continue to be a trendsetter, as he joined hands with the Rolling Stones just before the 1970s. During the same decade, he shared the stage with pop icons Ike and Tina Turner, and in the 1980s he would play several shows with Irish superstars U2 on their promotional tour for Rattle and Hum. King even shares a track with the legendary stadium band called “When Love Comes to Town.”

But King’s career is, in no way, defined by his relationships to other key musicians in their respective shining moments. It is important to note that King’s ability and talents have a universal appeal, or more specifically, that his ability to add a certain R&B flavor to such a wide array of genres is a testament to his universality and his deep-rooted cultural contribution.

He’s released albums in every age, and influenced countless genres. Indeed, his music has warranted release on vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, and DVD. Among his best releases are his 1965 Live at the Regal, and his 1976 collaboration Together for the First Time, with Bobby “Blue” Bland, who, incidentally, will be joining King at his upcoming April 8th Barton Hall show.

King’s setlist for the Cornell show will, most likely, draw heavily from his recent collaboration with Eric Clapton, called Riding with the King. And though “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “Three O’Clock Blues” are classics themselves, the album’s cover is every bit as striking. It captures well the respect and humility that even rock’s greatest stars feel in B. B. King’s presence. It is nothing elaborate or fancy, just a car and two men. The car is a boat-like, shiny, chromed convertible. Eric Clapton is in the front seat driving, and somewhere sunk in the supple white leather of the back seat is King, cool as a diamond, being chauffered anywhere he wants to go. He certainly deserves it; after all, he is the King.

Archived article by Ari Fontecchio