Today the nation and the entire music world are mourning the loss of guitarist B.B. King, the last Mississippi Delta-born bluesman to become a worldwide household name. After entering hospice care at his Las Vegas home two weeks ago today, King, who was 89, passed away in his sleep at 9:40 p.m. Pacific time Thursday, according to his Web site; the headline read “The Thrill Is Gone.” King had been suffering from diabetes for years, even endorsing the OneTouch glucose-monitoring system in a series of amusing recent TV commercials.
King's visits to the Houston area were legion dating back to the 1950s, when he and longtime touring partner Bobby “Blue” Bland were both tour-managed by Don Robey's Buffalo Booking agency, to last spring, when the Press opted not to review his concert due to King's declining health; he had been booed offstage in St. Louis a few days earlier. King finally canceled his remaining tour dates this past October; fittingly, his final performance came in the capital of the blues, Chicago, although King's own trajectory to stardom passed through Memphis and Los Angeles rather than the Windy City. But he really lived on tour, and was said to have performed 342 dates in 1956 alone.
From his earliest days on the road, King's band was stocked with Houstonians, including the bandleaders Calvin Owens and James “Boogaloo” Bolden (both trumpet players), the latter of whom was with King when he left the road. Other Houston musicians to log time in King's orchestra included guitarist Milton Hopkins, saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Richard “Dickie Boy” Little, vocalist Mildred Jones, pianists Connie Mack Booker and Eugene Carrier and drummer Sonny Freeman, although there were others. (The Press will expand on King's deep Houston connections next week.)
Certainly the memories King gave local audiences could fill up more than a few pages. In June 2007, the Press's William Michael Smith wrote this the day before King performed at Galveston's Grand Opera House:
I remember seeing B.B. King a few months after the Hofheinz Pavillion opened on the UH campus (1970?). It was King’s birthday. Blues phenom Johnny Winter opened the show and then King and his band, which included half a dozen Houstonians, roared through a huge set that culminated in his mega-hit “The Thrill Is Gone.” As the show ended, King told the crowd to follow him down Scott Street to the Continental Ballroom, a showcase black club in those days. Well, my buddies and I made our way there. King and Winter jammed with King’s band, and it was way beyond insane, way beyond anything that I can imagine happening today.
Eventually, a huge multi-tiered birthday cake was wheeled in and King called out that everyone should come down and get a piece of cake. We were three out-of-place young hippies standing at the rear of the room, but the smallest guy in our group said, “I don’t know about you pussies, but I’m going down there and get me some of B.B. King’s birthday cake.” He came back in five minutes empty-handed, and we asked why he didn’t get any cake. He told us he’d made it to the cake but “my knife wasn’t long enough to cut a piece.” It was one of the most thrilling evenings of my musical life.
The next year, I was lucky enough to see King at House of Blues that November, shortly after it opened. It was my third or fourth time after once at Austin's Frank Erwin Center, another on the Strand during Galveston's Mardi Gras in the early '00s and a few more times in Austin, where the venues escape me. That November 2008 night at HOB, King had recently turned 83 and his concerts were becoming as notable for his corny onstage banter as his musicianship, although he still had his moments.
“Luckily, King's hamming it up didn't preclude the octagenarian from getting around to the blues (eventually),” I wrote. “His voice in fine fettle, he can still sell the pain of 'I Need You So' or joy of 'Let the Good Times Roll' – done as a sharp Kansas City-style jump – like few others. The slow, deliberate 'Key to the Highway,' punctuated by the spine-tickling blurts from King's trusty guitar Lucille, froze the hourglass altogether; House of Blues might as well have been the Eldorado Ballroom on one of King's first visits to Houston in the early 1950s.”
But he still had magic in his fingers almost until the very last. About five and a half years after that HOB show, when he was 87, King pulled ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons onstage at Houston's House of Blues. Our Marco Torres was in the crowd.
"'Come out here, man!" [King] called to the side of the stage,” Torres wrote. “And Billy Gibbons did. And the crowd went crazy. I was told that there would be a special guest, but this was still surprising and awesome. The two men embraced and smiled like two old high-school buddies catching up after decades of loosing touch.
“Indeed, they joked with each other and told old stories of recording in the studio long ago. Something about a fan asking, "'Yeah, you may be Billy Gibbons, but can you introduce me to B.B. King?!'"
So the thrill may be gone this morning, but B.B. King will never be forgotten. Don't take our word for it, though. Among many others, some of King's best friends have already told the world via social media:
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Eric Clapton (on video): “I just wanted to express my sadness and to say thank you to my dear friend B.B. King for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave me as a player over the years, and for the friendship we enjoyed. There's not a lot left to say, because this music is almost a thing of the past now, and there are not many left that play it in the pure way that B.B. did.”
And one more pretty big one: