Saturday Single No. 447

By now, I’m sure that anyone who comes by here knows that B.B. King is gone. The blues legend passed on at the age of 89 at his Las Vegas home late Thursday evening (May 14). And blogworld and Facebook are filled with tributes, memories and clips of King’s performances both live and in the studio. I spent a fair amount of time reading and listening yesterday.

I was lucky enough to see B.B. King in concert once; he was the headliner at a blues program offered in 1995 at the Minnesota State Fair. He was nearing the age of seventy, he told us, and so he sat down as he performed, but the notes still came clear from the guitar he called Lucille, many of them shining with that silvery vibrato wrung from his dancing left hand.

But the music he brought forth and offered the world for almost seventy years was only part of the story of B.B. King. As I read a very good account of King’s life, written by Tim Weiner of the New York Times, this caught my eye:

B. B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose nicknames fit their hard-bitten lives. But he was born a King, albeit in a shack surrounded by dirt-poor sharecroppers and wealthy landowners.

That shack was in Berclair, Mississippi, which Weiner describes as “a hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta.” And by the time he passed on in his Las Vegas home nearly ninety years later, he was a multi-millionaire. That arc from poverty to riches might be nearly as important to King’s story as is his music. I say that because from everything I’ve read over the years and then over the past day, none of it – the money, the adulation – really changed Riley B. King. He was, from what I’ve seen from far more than one source, one of the nicest men a person could ever meet.

And that’s good to know. I mean, I listen to and enjoy a fair amount of music made by people who I know were mean-spirited. So it’s nice to know that part of B.B. King’s legacy is that the good cheer with which he played his often broken-hearted blues was real.

There is, of course, a fair amount of B.B. King’s music on the digital shelves here, and more in the vinyl stacks. Sifting through it to find one track to feature here this morning was a little daunting. Then I came across a track from King’s 2008 album, One Kind Favor, an earthy album of covers produced by T Bone Burnett.

“Sitting On Top Of The World” is a song first recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks (though Second Hand Songs notes that “[m]ore than half of its melody was in Tampa Red’s instrumental composition ‘You Got To Reap What You Sow’ from the previous year”). Since then, it’s been covered by folks ranging from Howlin’ Wolf and Bob Dylan to Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys and Mitch Miller. King’s version from One Kind Favor seems to make for a nice curtain call, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

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