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B.B. King's Unmistakable Influence

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B.B. King's unique sound and a journey into the Blues.

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Author's Note: B.B. King passed away on Thursday at the age of 89. Though his death has nothing to do with the Oilers or hockey in general, his impact on my life was profound, so please allow this brief personal crossover to discuss the unmistakable legend of the King.

The first time I heard B.B. King's music, outside of "The Thrill Is Gone" occasionally popping up on AM radio when I was young, was on my B.B. King's Greatest Hits cassette, purchased on a whim almost 30 years ago for reasons long since forgotten. I can't remember my initial reaction as I played my way through "Hummingbird", "How Blue Can You Get", "Every Day I Have The Blues", "Worry, Worry" and "The Thrill Is Gone", but I must've been enraptured because I purchased my Live at Cook County Jail cassette a few days later.

Up until that point in my life, my musical frame of reference consisted of the 60's rock and Outlaw Country my parents loved and listened to regularly, Santana's Santana and Abraxas, Derek and the Dominos In Concert and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs that my father so revered, and the horribly junky pop of the late 70's and 80's that I grew up listening to on the radio. At the time, I was wearing out From This Day On from Jimi Hendrix and a Doors greatest hits cassette that I could never find on CD.

But something about King's music struck me, and profoundly so.

I don't know what I specifically liked about it then, but I loved the sound of his guitar, the passion in his voice and the mood in the music. I needed to know more, so I bought a book about B.B. and learned about his childhood, his nickname, and his career. I attempted to wow my friends with my new-found knowledge, but a group of boys into Van Halen and Metallica look upon tidbits ("The B.B. stands for Blues Boy! He was a disc jockey in Memphis!") with a raised eyebrow and a "cuckoo" spiral of the index finger. So my journey into the Blues was mine and mine alone.

B.B.'s music led me to Bukka White and Elmore James, and White led to Son House and John Lee Hooker while James led to Muddy Waters and Otis Rush who led to Lonnie Johnson, Magic Sam, Rory Gallagher, Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy Williamson and before I turn this into Genesis, the list grew and still grows today. I dove headlong into each new artist and sub-genre, finding a new "favorite" as often as I had the money to buy a new cassette and eventually CD.

But the in the interludes, there was Live at Cook County Jail. I always came back to it, and still do. Now I know what it was that that I liked about his music so much: not just the vibrato in Lucille's sound, not just the passion in his voice, not just the virtuoso technical gifts he had on the strings themselves, but it was the way he made Lucille talk. The notes were beautiful, but the silence in between, the expectations built into the responses, that made Lucille seem like a person on stage with him. It's a sound so distinct to B.B. and very personal to the listener.

I saw B.B. King and his Orchestra 20 years ago in a symphony hall, and though I'd see him a half-dozen more times in festival atmospheres, nothing I've seen since matched King sitting on a wooden stool, in the middle of a stage reserved for symphonies, filling a hall with sounds that could make the greatest musicians envious. He was 70 years old, on stage, telling the story of his and Lucille's life, winding his way through two hours of jaw-dropping precision. It remains one of the greatest live shows I've ever seen, along with two hours and thirty minutes of the Allman Brothers, Ana Popović in a smoky bar with less than 20 other patrons and Stackman Callier in an empty club on Bourbon Street in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Outside of familial ties and the bonds of friendship, nothing has shaped my life more than Blues music. It's been a pursuit and passion for so long that it's just part of my personality now and it's been this way for so long that I don't think about it anymore. I've received tickets and box sets for Christmas and my birthday so often that I can't remember all of them. My music collection is an anachronism, stacks of CDs and long playlists of MP3s that seem best suited for someone from Mississippi or Chicago in 1950. My family has befriended the absolute best local blues duo who now plays as the headliner at parties on my back deck. The music plays a part in everything, even my marriage, because when you find a gorgeous woman who is willing to tag along to shady, dirty, smoke-filled blues joints or walk around a blues festival with you all day, you marry that woman, my friend.

It was B.B. King that started it all.

Today, in the wake of his death, I'm in another "favorite" stage, one where I wouldn't name B.B. my favorite Blues artist, but he remains the backbone of what I love and what I listen to. Live at Cook County Jail is still one of the four or five finalists on my "desert island" list and his music is still as mesmerizing to me today as it was 30 years ago.

The world will move on as it always does, and hopefully B.B.'s death gives rise to a rebirth of his music with a new generation and that an artist of his equal is furiously picking away right now, trying to understand how B.B. moved so perfectly through a 12 bar progression, on his way to becoming the next King. But as of Thursday, mankind is far less talented and the world a little bit less amazing because Riley Ben King is no longer a part of it.