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Appreciation: B.B. King Built A Bridge To The Blues For The World

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Appreciation: B.B. King Built A Bridge To The Blues For The World

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By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The least important historical fact about B.B. King, who died in Las Vegas on Thursday, is the one most people know: that he played the blues on a guitar he’d named Lucille. But that ax and her tone, while melodic and often transcendent, are the least of King’s contributions. In fact, Lucille’s presence has nearly eclipsed her owner’s striking influence on American music.

Unspooling King’s history during his rise in postwar Memphis through his breakout success in the late ’60s is to illuminate crucial cultural moments: when Southern black sounds migrated from the country to the city, spread across America and over the Atlantic to Britain to help transform popular music.

King not only participated in this disruption. He was connected by birth to the land where blues began — his older cousin was first-generation country blues singer Booker “Bukka” White — and helped refine the music for mass consumption. An early performer on the southern “Chitlin Circuit” in the 1940s and ’50s, King shared the stage with musicians who included James Brown, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and “Big” Joe Turner.

As he did so, King recorded a string of sublime blues, R&B and blues-soul gems including “The Three O’Clock Blues, “Sweet Little Angel,” “Woke Up This Morning” and his 1969 crossover hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Through the decades the musician became the genre’s most visible figure, the so-called King of the Blues. A tireless monarch, King toured hundreds of dates a year.

He played the Apollo in New York thousands of times, calling it his second home, and while doing so established himself as the bridge connecting the Rolling Stones to Memphis R&B and the Delta sounds of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House. King’s influence on rock guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix, spread his ideas to new generations. For them and others, King became an obsession.

“That’s what we lived for, basically,” wrote Richards in his autobiography, Life. “It was very unlikely that any chick would get in the way, at that point, of getting a chance to hear the new B.B. King or Muddy Waters.”

Equally important: King, who would go on to win 15 Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award, was present at a historic juncture. In 1948, a white-owned Memphis radio station, WDIA, made history when it introduced the country’s first all-black format, hiring black DJs, including King, to play popular blues, rhythm & blues and proto-rock ‘n’ roll to an unsegregated listenership.

History turns on this moment. The charismatic King, who had received his first break on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show, joined a roster of on-air personalities playing the sounds of electrified Memphis and its northern hub, Chicago. King picked cotton in the morning and then hit the station for an afternoon time slot. Then he’d head to Beale Street to absorb the sounds.

In his 1996 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, King recalled being awed at first by the scene around Beale, where intermingling sounds of guitar, harmonica, brass, woodwind and string players awakened him. “I stood spellbound. I wasn’t about to play; all I could do was listen and learn,” he wrote. “Before Beale Street, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. After Beale Street, I knew I stunk. The cats could play rings around me. The guitarists seemed to have four hands, and I felt like I had all thumbs.” Within a few years that would change.

The sounds and spirit that King and his WDIA peers broadcast fueled the imaginations of a host of young white artists _ Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and others. King met all of them at Sun Studios, where he recorded some of his best early work with Sun’s Sam Phillips behind the boards.

“I was in the very delivery room — Sun Studios — where that baby called rock ‘n’ roll was being born,” recalled King in Blues All Around Me.

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