We tend to greet the death of titans at a grand age with professions of sorrow, but also with a certain resignation. After all, what did we hope for instead? That they would live for ever? But B.B. King is different, chiefly because there was no one like B.B. King. He was a figure of towering stature whose life and career not only spanned the era of rock'n'roll, but contained it. If, as Muddy Waters put it, “the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll”, then King made up a large part of its DNA. The rock-guitar solo runs in a direct line back through the British blues boom of the mid-Sixties to his clear, sustained, soaring, string-bending technique, just as his bullish, impassioned singing style prefigured so many subsequent vocalists. Try to imagine Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” or Pink Floyd’s “Money” without his influence. He was a fixture on the American R&B chart before rock’n’roll arrived, and remained there while rock and soul dominated pop throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He opened shows for the Rolling Stones and collaborated with U2 at their respective commercial peaks. With his death at the age of 89 we haven't just lost a musician. It feels like a museum has burnt down.
King was old enough to have emerged from what is now a mythic landscape. He grew up amid the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta in a family of sharecroppers, when the reality of the place had none of the spurious glamour now conferred on it by the music it birthed. One man’s cultural fetish is another man’s living hell. But the reason King’s death is headline news, rather than a footnote in the arts pages, is more intimately connected to that sense of glamour, and that cultural fetish, than it is to his extraordinary body of work—which would merit those headlines on its own, but would not necessarily get them.
King always understood this. He was immensely innovative, anticipating both soul and rock by combining a sonic wallop and an emotional range hitherto rare in a single artist, a beefed-up, yearning R&B he later perfected on such hits as “The Thrill is Gone” and “Let the Good Times Roll”. But he was also canny. Look up any filmed interview with him and you will see the sharp showman’s mind behind the wry and genial manner. He devoted himself to the blues, he said, rather than gospel, because when he sang gospel the audience applauded, but when he sang blues they gave him tips and drinks. That is the attitude which propelled his entire career. King was a great artist who never gave a damn about artistic purity, in the sense of sticking to a singular internal vision of what he did. He adapted to the times at every turn, giving the people what the market told him they wanted—aiming, indeed, to get out in front of the market. It’s a trait he shared with performers from country & western and hip-hop—genres, like his own, that grew up in the school of very hard knocks indeed.
No wonder that when later generations came calling, white men who saw him as a touchstone of all that was authentic in the music they worshipped, he cheerfully accepted their endorsements. He was doubtless aware that, in truth, it was he who was endorsing them. He afforded them credibility by association; they gave him publicity and a platform to boost his renown. Which is not to say the transaction was cynical or insincere on either side, only that he surely knew its nature. Eric Clapton revered and promoted him as a player, and rightly so: rock guitar without B.B. King would be something entirely unimaginable. U2 came to him at their moment of most gargantuan hubris, on “Rattle and Hum” (1988), seeking connection with that mythic America they imagined he represented. They ended up looking so bombastic and absurd that they were obliged to retreat into irony on their follow-up album, “Achtung Baby” (1991). King’s star reascended and never came back down.
His career suggests he grasped that authenticity in popular music is a chimera, pursued by those who grew up at sufficient distance from its purported habitat, ignored by those close enough to discern its illusory character. When he returned to stark simplicity on his final studio album, “One Kind Favour” (2008), it must have been at least in part because the market had spoken, and advised him to attempt with the blues what Johnny Cash had done for country with “American Recordings” (1994). That is, to return it not so much to its roots as to a popular, inadvertently revisionist and—yes—glamourised idea of what those roots are.
And the upshot of this shrewdness? B.B. King contributed more to pop, and transformed it more profoundly, than many thousands of its uncompromising idealists combined—and is today mourned as the giant he was.