It started with a $2.99 LP from the Columbia Record Club. It wasn't very good. It was called Bobby Bland and B.B. King Together Again...Live, and I'm sure the pairing looked great on paper.
But the famed blues vocalist had become a bit lazy by this time, and too often resorted to phlegm-y exclamations as a substitute for actual singing. And half of B.B. King's appeal lay in his voice, and reduced to the role of back-up singer, his guitar playing seemed to suffer as well.
I put the LP away and didn't reach for it again until one of my periodic vinyl purges. But B.B. King's name continued to pop up in the rock star interviews I spent way too much of my adolescence perusing.
In a survey of the all-time great live albums, I found the B.B. King album I was looking for: a live LP recorded in my hometown of Chicago featuring perhaps the most scalding performances this side of James Brown's Live at the Apollo.
Live at the Regal had entered my life.
The stinging guitar, roaring vocals and an audience for whom 'engaged' seems woefully inadequate made my first listen one of those indelible events that shape our youth. Live at the Regal swung, swaggered and forcibly insinuated itself into my existence.
Was the band sharp? Let me put it this way: you could shave with some of the performances he put down on that Saturday night in November of 1964.
B.B. King went on to enjoy a long career and a longer life. He was loved. He was admired. He succeeded without the semi-literate menace and unvarnished veneer of his peers. King regularly appeared onstage in tuxes and suits, yet was rarely accused of selling-out or compromising his music for the sake of a larger audience.
With an openness that mirrored his personality, King played and recorded with just about everyone. Fellow blues stalwarts, rock stars, jazz bands—King was always eager to explore, recombine and experiment.
Forty-six years after the fact, it's hard to appreciate just how radical it was to feature strings on a blues song, but that's just what King did on “The Thrill Is Gone”. Naturally, it became his signature song.
B.B. King amassed over ten-thousand gigs before falling ill at one last autumn in the same city that birthed his landmark album. He outlived all of his contemporaries, becoming—fittingly enough—the last of the first-generation of amplified bluesmen left standing.
It's not an overstatement to say that King's death is more than the passing of a single man—it's practically the expiration of a genre. A genre that electrified not only the blues, but so many of us.
In the deaths of those who informed our lives, our own mortality is made painfully clear. With another leaf fallen from the tree of my musical loves, the barren branches of winter move one step nearer.
Bless you, B.B. And thank you.