The King of the Blues

In June of 1992, I went to the Cincinnati Zoo on a clear summer night — the kind of early summer night in the Midwest before the humidity absolutely chokes the want out of you — to see someone I had been dying to see my whole life.

I took a date, my wife now. We sat on folding chairs on a lawn with a few hundred other people, in a concert series the folks at the zoo called “Jazzoo.” And we listened to B.B. King.

Now, B.B. King was not known as the King of Jazz back then. Never was. He was then, and is now — even after his death last night at 89 — The King of the Blues. But  “Jazzoo” was more than Jazz, and this was B.B. King. He could’ve been playing “Banjoo” and I would’ve been there.

King was, I guess, 66 years old, still touring like a maniac (he toured hundreds of nights a year well into his 80s) and still toting Lucille with him everywhere. As I said, I had never heard him play before, and this was, I figured, maybe one of my last chances. As it worked out, I could’ve probably waited 20 more years and still been OK.

I don’t remember a lot about the show itself, other than the nice night, the big band behind him and the fact that he sounded, looked (from where we were) and acted exactly like I expected. I remember thinking, “What a perfect night. What a great show. What … this is the blues?”

And that was a funny thing about King. He wailed like the true bluesman he was, his eyes squeezed into slits, his face a contorted mask of pain. He urged notes out of Lucille that would make you cry. He made you live his hard times (he was the son of sharecroppers and worked the fields as a kid in Mississippi).

At the same time, though, because of his artistry, because of his authenticity, listening to B.B. sing the blues was (and still is) an uplifting experience. The man could sing. He could play. He could make you feel the blues, even on a gorgeous summer night in Cincinnati with a beautiful date on your arm. And that was fantastic.

Mary Jo appreciated it, I think, but she wasn’t a big fan — she was into Country back then — so I know we didn’t stay for the whole show. But we stayed for most of it, I’m sure. And I went home after a night of blues feeling on top of the world.

There’s a great story, as told by B.B., on how he came to sing the blues, in this The New York Times obit:

Growing up on the plantation there in Mississippi, I would work Monday through Saturday noon. I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play.

I’d have me a hat or box or something in front of me. People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me, and they’d say: ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.

But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me and maybe give me a beer. They always would do something of that kind. Sometimes I’d make 50 or 60 dollars one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.

Once, I saw Ray Charles sing “America the Beautiful” before a World Series game, the only time I ever heard him perform live. Charles is probably my favorite singer, ever, and I regret never seeking out a show of his while he was still around. There are other gaps in my concert-going resume that I need to remedy; James Taylor comes immediately to mind.

But I can say that I saw the legendary B.B. King sing the blues one wondrous night in the Queen City, with my future wife next to me and a starry sky above. I’ll never forget it.

This is him at Montreux in ’93, the year after I saw him.

The. Man.

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