The news came as I drove my busted car to work on a gray, rain-spitting morning when my fiancée stayed home sick. Blues legend B.B. King passed away in Las Vegas, just short of 90 years old, announced NPR’s typically cheery Morning Edition. The news crushed everyone else listening. It really got me, at least.
The much lauded, Mississippi-born bluesman and his legacy struck a chord with listeners across genres. No matter if you mostly listen to ’80s house music or the 98 Degrees or some other nonsense, you’ve heard his top hits. You recognize the resonant pain in his thick voice. You know the plaintive weeping of faithful Lucille, a guitar that never played a superfluous note. You remember the simple but downright honest lyrics of tracks like “Everyday I have the Blues” or “The Thrill is Gone” or “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss.” B.B.’s entire catalog is gold and, even as an octogenarian, he continued to tour, flawlessly plying his musical wares.
I didn’t stop to weep and didn’t change the station. Next, NPR played a StoryCorps recording of a Brooklyn father talking about his 13-year-old son who was gunned down 20 years ago by an NYPD officer. The boy, wielding a plastic gun, was playing cops and robbers with his friends. The story eerily paralleled the slaying of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland last year.
By the time I logged onto my work computer, a wave of the blues had swept across social media. All the RIPs and You’ll be missed, candle-in-the-wind-style elegies. This was coming. B.B. admitted recently he was on hospice care. Nevertheless, 89 years is a long time.
B.B. King was one of the last true faces of the blues. Sure, other musicians came after, including Clapton and others who rocked the blues. But it’s not the same. With B.B.’s passing, the blues have waned more at a time when they’re as relevant as ever. B.B. lived through turmoil, uncertainty, and unrest. He experienced the Great Depression, watched the madness of World War II and subsequent wars, and witnessed fellow African Americans being beaten for civil rights.
As far as we’ve come, it feels like little has really changed. Need proof? We can’t get away from sad stories like Tamir Rice, a kid who was gunned down for something I did all the time while growing up. The blues are still here, everywhere, even if B.B. is gone.
“You talk about hard luck and troubles?” B.B. sang on “Chains And Things.” “Seems to be my middle name.” In “Why I Sing the Blues,” he adds: “Blind man on the corner / begging for a dime / The rollers come and caught him / And throw him in the jail for a crime.”
So, how blue can you get? While B.B. brought us the depths of pain, discouragement, and depression, he delivered the call and the response. He followed the deepest of blues with a true joie de vivre. “My music is love, and my love is music in perfect harmony,” he sang in “I Like to Live the Love.” “So when I sing, I have sung all about the love of you and me.” In tracks like “Guess Who” and “Sweet Little Angel,” he proved that in spite of sorrow, even when a hero dies or a child dies for no reason, there’s still a place for love. Whether it’s good or bad, life is always worth celebrating. Bitter or sweet, it’s over too soon. On this blue day, let’s celebrate B.B. King the way he celebrated life—with his music.
James Figy is a writer from Indianapolis. He has two cats, two rabbits, a coffee dependency, an amateurish collection of Duke Ellington LPs, and a degree in creative writing from the University of Indianapolis. His creative work has appeared in Flying Island’s Best of 2014 anthology, Punchnel’s, and UIndy’s student literary journal, Etchings.
Photo by Heinrich Klaffs (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AB.B._King_3011710050.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.