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music: Still Mining the Blues

Although his music has become canon, B.B. King still captures the essence of the blues.


He was killing a little time shopping alone, surrounded by records featuring a style of playing that he invented.

If King's bent notes and tremolos have become the foundation of the modern guitar vocabulary, what he says with them remains fresh. "The song is different every time I play it," he says. "Because I don't feel today like I did yesterday."

In his sixth decade of success, King's frame of reference is still his sharecropping childhood in the Mississippi Delta. It was a harsh life, bound by poverty and racism, released by the tragic candor of the blues.

"I listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson from the border of Louisiana, Bob Hammond who played single-string blues, T-Bone Walker and Mississippi John Hurt," King remembers. "I also liked jazz; Charlie Christian, first black man to play in a white orchestra, and a gypsy named Django Reinhardt. Believe it or not, they were my idols then and are today."

His style blended them all, the blues earthy universality, jazz improvisations and the soaring gospel music of the black church. "It's like something we had at home called a 'juice mixture,' it has a little bit of everything in it," King says.

After moving to Memphis in the late '40s, he soon had a radio show, a nickname ("B.B.," short for "Beale Street Blues Boy") and his first recording contract.

In his long career he has had a handful of hits, including the iconic "The Thrill is Gone," but it's his charismatic live performances that sustain him. At 77, he still averages 250 concerts a year. "It's something I call 'doing the best you can each time I go onstage,'" King says. "I don't know how to hold back. I have the best band I ever had, going places, paying bills and making friends."

His guitar, "Lucille," not a single instrument but a succession of cherry-red and ebony hollow-bodied Gibsons, invariably accompanies him. He plays intricate, precisely articulated single-note runs; he once famously told U2 "I don't do chords." His singing is assured and conversational, all the pyrotechnics come from the guitar.

Just as Louis Armstrong's broad success tainted his appeal to the avant-garde, King's popularity makes him suspect to some blues purists. They can draw solace from the scratchy authenticity of their old shellac records; it's probably too late to do anything else. The show is sold out, even if B.B. King never has. S

B.B. King plays the Carpenter Center, 600 E. Grace St., March 1 at 8 p.m. Terry Garland opens.

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