The Blues lost one of its most enduring and long-serving masters this month. At 89 years of age, B.B. King had not only outlasted virtually all his contemporaries, but was one of the very few Blues artists who could claim to be a household name. While you might get a blank look from the vast majority of folks to whom you mention, say, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sun House, Robert Johnson, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy or even Susan Tedeschi, I wager you'd still get a knowing nod for mentioning B.B. Joe Average might not be able to name any B.B. King tunes, but he can picture the big guy with the big Gibson guitar, the big voice and every vocal phrase punctuated by those big fingers making the Gibson wail in sympathy. The bluesman had etched himself into public consciousness.
A cynic might suggest it was just singularly capable management that put B.B there – it's a lot easier to become so widely famous if you get onto Sesame Street, the Cosby Show, a U2 movie/soundtrack, television commercials and a signature series of Gibson guitars. If Albert King (no relation) had lucked into the same gigs, would we not be singing his praises now as widely?
Probably not. Although it's a pretty hypothetical question, and there's no way to prove the hypothosis, it's fair to say the reason B.B was welcomed into the mainstream before the likes of Johnny Winter was King's onstage personality. Although his music stayed true to the blues, he never came across as negative, bitter, wild, unstable, nihilistic or enduringly angry. He expressed cause for sorrow, but also hope and love for the human condition – and humour. To put it another way, he didn't scare or cause discomfort to white America. He could put a spotlight on a uniquely American musical heritage without compelling anyone to look too closely at the origin of that heritage.
Shortly after the death of King, the internet was awash with tributes. Some were cringe-inducingly ill-informed (a particular American newscast accompanied the obituary with the song “Stand By Me”, written and performed, in fact, by Ben. E. King...at least no one went so far as to show clips from the Shining and Carrie. There are a lot of Kings out there, after all...), while some were obviously heartfelt and genuine. Eric Clapton made a brief webcam appearance to speak of his personal sense of loss, his love for B.B.'s music – and almost as an aside, his belief that the Blues were nearing extinction as a practised art form.
I must say, I was struck hard by that little half-sentence from Clapton. The Blues are dead? When did this happen?
Of course, Clapton does have a knack for brutally unvarnished statements. Upon accepting an award for co-writing “Tears in Heaven”, he professed reluctance because “it's not really such a good song”. He also denigrated the sales success of his Unplugged album, protesting that acoustic guitar is not his passion, his comfort zone or his forte; an inferior product, by implication.
Still, upon reflection, the man might have a point. Mainstream radio certainly never plays any Blues per se, and even a blues-based guitar solo, riff or chord changes are getting more rare by the year. Even Classic Rock stations appear to be lightening the Blues content of their playlists (aside from Blues-based mega-sellers like Floyd, Zeppelin and the Stones) away from the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Cream or even Jack White – to say nothing of Muddy Waters or B.B. King.
Perhaps as mystifying a question as why Blues is dying in the mainstream, is: how and why did it get into the mainstream to start with? While it was alive and well (if not especially thriving) in black America in the '50's and '60's, it took a bunch of young male English enthusiasts and artists to fully ignite it in universal youth culture of the late '60's. The Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin/, Cream/Jeff Beck Group, Humble Pie, the Faces et al wrote the blueprint for mainstream acceptance for the time. For the next 30 years, it was a challenge to hear any rock song that didn't owe much of its DNA to the Blues. I have always been perplexed by the idea that music rooted in the misery of slavery, poverty, bigotry and underprivilege could be adopted and embraced so heartily by privileged English male teenagers – arguably the top of the social food chain for the entire planet at that time. Meanwhile, back in the US, B.B. King and other original Blues artists enjoyed bittersweet success: while bands like the Stones made a point of drawing public attention to authentic American Blues artists, B. B could see bands like the Stones still enjoying paydays and fame a hundred times greater than those whom the Stones were emulating. Even Jimi Hendrix, the one artist who had solid credentials as both an authentic black American blues artist and a leading member of the British Blues-Rock invasion never enjoyed much of a payday in his brief career – his exploitative manager snapped up most of the profits. Blues stylings became so pervasive in the '70's that it was the very few guitarists who consciously and actively avoided its cliches (Steve Howe of Yes, Andy Summers of the Police, Alex Lifeson of Rush, Allan Holdsworth) who stood out from the sea of other players. The avoidance wasn't out of dislike, but merely a very effective means of distinguishing themselves.
These days, the pendulum has swung the other way: employing the Blues with reverence can actually be of benefit to concert ticket- and recording sales (if not radio airplay). Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer, Susan Tedeschi and Jack White have all built very large and loyal followings with their versions of the Blues, whether or not you hear them on mainstream radio or see them on television. Meanwhile, Zeppelin's re-mastered back-catalog is putting their proudly blues-tinged repertoire back in the charts. Even the nutty histrionic melisma-seizure versions of the national anthem at baseball games owe something to the blues, whether anyone cares to admit it. As for me – blues rock was fresh-sounding, hugely vital and a little dangerous when I was a young and impressionable little guttersnipe. It hooked me, and built my bones as an improvisational guitarist. Whatever happens to Blues in the mainstream, it will be in good supply at my house whenever I pick up a guitar.
Did B. B. take the last of the Blues with him when he died? I don't think so. We're probably at a trough in the waves of Blues popularity, but I believe the timelessness and universality of the Blues will help maintain its presence in the mainstream. It helps that the genre lends itself so naturally to basic guitar-playing, too. B. B. King departed the Blues scene only when he was physically incapable of continuing – and I suspect the Blues will hang on just as stubbornly until its next wave of popularity. Thanks for keeping it going, B. B. You will be missed.