The King is dead. Long live the King.

In my youth, B.B. King was the undisputed King of the Blues. Clapton may have been God, but BB was the King. Just like Chuck Berry, not Elvis, is the King of Rock and Roll. Get the picture? Growing up where I did, surrounded by blues and those who suffer through it in a way I could never understand, he was a hero to many for more than just playing guitar.

Here is my B.B. King story. He changed my life.

From the first old scratchy record my dad had of B.B. King playing guitar, I learned the 12-bar blues and roughed out the blues scales by ear. I would play for hours to that thing. Again and again, over the years, I tried to get that sound out of various guitars. It was a clean, pure guitar sound; no distortion, no effects. As I got older and my guitars got better, I finally found a blues combo that worked for me – first, a sweet maroon SG played through a Gibson G-30 amp and, soon after, a Gibson ES345 Stereo, just like Lucille only no gold hardware and a sunburst finish.

I listened to everything and I spent time in the Village listening to blues and the jazz coming out of Harlem and really got excited about playing music. It was a turbulent time of life and things were changing. You could see it in the little clubs and dive bars where musicians hung out. Sitting there among the hippies and modsters out on the town were the locals and some of the most amazing musicians. It was no wonder that when touring musicians came to town they, too, showed up there and sat in with the regulars. If you were lucky, B.B. King would wander in, or some guy in the back in a hat and sunglasses that sounded just like Clapton or a British guy with a weird haircut… You never knew who was who and who was not a Who, but you knew you were hearing the best blues on the block. No one gushed, no paparazzi, just good music; the best spontaneous sounds you could wish to hear. When it was your turn you’d betta be good but they were the most supportive jams ever.

The year B.B. King historically played “Why I Sing the Blues” in Africa he also toured the States and when I heard he was coming to the Apollo Theatre I immediately did whatever I had to do to get tickets. It was the 70s and it was still a little scary in those days for a pasty white kid to go to Harlem. While the Village was neutral ground, there were still parts of Harlem I couldn’t go, but I was fearless and obsessed with seeing him play and the Apollo was safe haven. Through only slightly nefarious means I worked, begged, borrowed and stole enough money to snag second-row-center tickets for the show. I couldn’t wait. The few days before the show it was all I thought about and B.B. King was on as permanent a rotation as a stack of LPs on a record player can be. Flopping down one by one, until just enough were stacked so as to not slow the whole thing down too much, then flip the stack over and go again, occasionally putting the stack on “shuffle.” Man, that was bad for records!

So the day comes and my brother and my girlfriend and I take a bus and a couple of trains to the city and walk from the subway to the theatre. It was the end of an era in most of the country but here the impact of the sixties was still evident. People were still hurting or recovering and there were a few moments on the journey that sort of made it clear that we were not in our neighborhood anymore. We were the folks peope were looking at, wondering why we were there. We had faces that didn’t match and in our town back home that meant trouble. My girlfriend was terrified and my brother and I tried to be true to our upbringing and remained tolerant and suspicious and wary. We didn’t hate anyone; on the contrary, we thought they hated us. We weren’t racist in the lynchem kind of way but our white bread neighborhood had bred in a sort of nonchalant-ness to our racism. We didn’t actively hate anyone but we thought we were somehow better than “them.” Suffice to say, it was always dose of reality to journey out of the burbs to the inner city. What happened when we got there changed my life forever.

Once at the theatre you could feel the excitement. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation and we rushed inside to avoid the stares and glances and sotto-voiced snippets of conversation using distinctly Harlem tones. Everyone was dressed up and very nice but we were the center of attention for a moment. The sing-song jive of the locals in the crowd even as they talked was a wonderful intro to the show. They were so genuinely… cool. The colorful outfits and hats, the smiles and hugs and all the “fives” as they greeted each other - so real and loud and boisterous. Family. The vibe was infectious and you almost had to walk with a little swagger’n’dip like a jazz guy in a porkpie hat.

I’ll admit we caught a little buzz on the walk from the subway and maybe I was paranoid but I felt really out of place as the tall, skinny, long-haired hippie kid. I wore my concert uniform: barefoot with sneakers hanging off my belt, peace sign patches and upside down flags on my jeans, my “rock the blues” tee under my work shirt and, of course, the requisite Marlboro pack with a couple of doobies in it in my pocket. A hippie flower girl on my arm in fringe and my little brother in his army flack-jacket and ponytail tailing after us completed the cartoon. We made quite the entrance and I must say folks were genuinely happy to see us there, surprised to be sure but they welcomed us with real smiles and more than a few fives – but fives were low then, and horizontal.

We took to our seats, and for a moment I went back in time…

Since 1914 when the Lafayette Theatre first opened, it was a major venue and gathering place for talent of color. Not just musicians but actors and poets, dancers and comedians. Performers of all types played there, dreams came true there, people were inspired there. It was also a gathering place for the people who came to listen, to learn, to catch up on the gossip and be seen dressed up with their shiny shoes on. The tradition of the tree stump that you can see each performer touching before their shot, began outside the famous Harlem Lafayette Theatre which was once located on 7th, a street known as the Boulevard of Dreams. There was a tree near there, halfway between the Lafayette and Connies Inn… people, black performers in particular, believed in a legend that standing under it, thankful for your good fortune, helped you gain the good fortune of those that came before and they would go there before every show, grateful for each opportunity. It came to symbolize the hope of the community aching to escape the blight and poverty as they reshaped Harlem into a cultural Mecca where art blossomed, music rang out, books were written, plays were played and people of color began their artistic lives with similar opportunities as the rest of the world. A place where, just like my ancestors had to do, a generation mentored and passed on values and traditions and history to the next, then they, the next. Traditions like the Tree of Hope, the Music, the Art, all passed down in unwritten form, eye to eye, hand to hand, sometimes in secret, so they wouldn’t be lost. They passed on the values earned by the history, the tragedy and the triumphs – a disenfranchised culture finding tribal roots again in a communal effort to make things better. A real Village formed and it raised children and thus began Harlem’s rebirth. Every good Village needs a Meeting Hall in the middle where all of that and more can happen.

By 1934, when the Apollo Theater first began the Amateur Night Contests, the City of New York had widened Seventh Avenue and all the trees that lined the Boulevard of Dreams - including what had become known as the Tree of Hope - were removed. To this day, a portion of the trunk sits on the stage and performers touch it still on the way in and on the way out.

A superb venue, the Apollo plays an undeniable role as the place to begin a career in blues or jazz, R&B, gospel or soul. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, and countless others began their journey on the Apollo stage. Not just stars began there. Some of the best session players in the world began careers in the backline there and they, too, touched the Tree of Hope.

To sit there, in the second row, ten feet from his microphone and maybe thirty from the Tree of Hope and look around that building was sublime. Not because of its grandeur but because of its simplicity: turn-of-the-century elegance and old world craftsmanship that beautifully surrounded the stage with people and the people with sound, well-lit and rich in a history that you could sense. It was as if the voices over the years all piled up at the ceiling and you could still hear them like angel’s echoes in the distance.

We sat there speechless for a minute as the room filled up, just looking around and getting settled in. From down front, when I turned around, there was a sea of smiling faces. None of them looked like mine. There were three of us. We were greeted warmly by our row mates and I had a great B.B. King/blues stuff talk with the guy behind me, also a guitar player. My brother, who didn’t play an instrument but knew every lyric to every song, was laughing with the guy on his left and my once frightened, now much calmer, girl was squeezing my hand. The second-row surprise tickets to her favorite blues guy made me a hero. It was delightful, and though out of the corner of my eye I could see folks pointing like “oooh look white people!” It was not nearly as scary as I thought it would be.

To be honest, I don’t remember who opened the show. I remember B.B.; not his face, not his band, not his voice, not his tapping foot. I remember his hands. I watched them effortlessly make 1500 people cry then laugh, holler and clap, then stomp their feet and dance in the aisles. I was transfixed as he manipulated the crowd’s emotions and inspired us as he sang his songs. Though some of the songs couldn’t touch me in the way they did the rest of the crowd, I was so touched by how they knew he was singing their songs. With their voice he was singing their songs. His success an inspiration, his giving to the community with programs for kids during the week at the theatre a model for others passing through. Three of the most powerful icons of hope on the same stage: the spirit of the Apollo, the Tree of Hope and B.B. King. It was like going to church, with that ancient choir of angels above me and that sea of smiles behind me.

I don’t really recall which song, but at some point toward the end of the show we caught his eye. By now, if he could see me at all, he must have known I was a guitar player. I made all the motions and faces as I watched him like a hawk. Savoring licks I was learning and playing air guitar to riffs I knew, I caught his eye, and eye to eye he wailed and took a long solo that I missed entirely. I longed to look at his hands for riffs like this… it began with one of those B.B. King notes - a single, stunning note that went on forever. A bent note, held high, that made women behind me gasp and applaud… and I couldn’t look away. He just gazed right at me and played that thing like I had known he could. As if he was playing to me. I stopped breathing. The song ended and he stood up and leaned forward, reaching out as far as he dared holding Lucille, and handed me his pick.

What happened next is hard to describe. It happened in the time between the seconds. One second my guitar hero was handing me his pick after playing me, ME! a song and the next, well… time seemed to stop. The only sound or movement in the room was me blinking and the excited young girl in front of me sitting down, showing off her treasure to her friends, tears streaming down her face. Next I realized what happened and looked around. All around me people were clapping and cheering for her. She stood up and turned and waved and held the pick up high and we cheered again. I looked at BB who was the only other person in the room who knew what happened. He looked right at me, looked at the girl, smiled that infectious smile, looked back at me, then behind me, then back at me, right in the eye and shrugged, winked and started the next song.

It was in that moment, with time stopped, that I realized I was genuinely happy for her. I didn’t make a fuss and realized it wasn’t because I was scared to say something. I wasn’t pissed because I thought I deserved it more or that there might be trouble if I did. The reason I didn’t make a fuss was because she was just like me. She had front-row seats and was riveted by the show and, I found out later, was a blues singer. She was 15 or so and it was a simple misunderstanding, and she was so happy that there was no way I would have stepped on that in any way. My life changed in that moment. I wasn’t scared anymore and when the show was over we walked out different people. We said hello and we shook hands and people hugged us and welcomed us with such joy. My disappointment was a minor footnote to an irreplaceable guitar guy memory and this story.

It was music that allowed me to finally bond with the room, the people, the neighborhood and even my friends and neighbors back home. It was the music and the joy and the loving family that, had I allowed them, would have embraced us on the way in as well. Had I only known then what I know now…

The city had changed and people were people.

Official image from bbking.com

Before you pass by on your way, my friend, I am compelled to Thank You. You changed my life; you made me see colors in a different way. You made me a better person, a better musician, a better human. I know I am not alone. I taught my children what I learned and now they theirs. I’ve taught, literally, hundreds of kids how to play their first 12-bar blues and many of the riffs that I stole from you. I taught the “thrill is gone” and how to bend a note and make it last a long, long time.

You taught me well B.B. King, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

You sir, get to live forever. Someday your voice will join the Angel’s Choir and I am sure they will learn from you too. If I could, I would sit beside you just once and bend a single note and hold it high and give it a gentle sustain-wiggle - the one I learned from you - and I’d let it ring until we couldn’t hear it any more.



Publisher’s Note:

We were born on the same day, 26 years apart. He picked cotton as a child, I rode in a Cadillac to guitar lessons. I can’t believe we are still having this conversation. How I wish I could say that the struggle is over. How I wish that we had learned better from our pasts and people were people and not judged by their address or their color or their history or their ancestors. How long should we deny such simple truths. If nothing the tumultuous past has taught us that when you cut us, no matter who we are, we bleed red. We are the same but different, individually equally worthy of dignity or disdain based on our actions and character, our value based on our contribution, our ability to excel limited only by our opportunities and personal goals.

The world needs more B.B. Kings and more Apollo Theatres where communities can provide opportunities. Places where they can bond and, together, raise children, spread the love and share the music. - Dan Grigor

The incomparable King, Live in Africa, 1974, “Why I Sing the Blues”

“Why I Sing The Blues”
Artist: B.B. King

Everybody wants to know
Why I sing the blues
Yes, I say everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
I really have paid my dues

When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
And everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
Mm, I’ve really paid my dues

I’ve laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
To give the roaches some
Everybody wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
Yes, I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve paid my dues

I stood in line
Down at the County Hall
I heard a man say, “We’re gonna build
Some new apartments for y’all”
And everybody wanna know
Yes, they wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
Yes, I’ve been around a long, long time
Yes, I’ve really, really paid my dues

Now I’m gonna play Lucille.

My kid’s gonna grow up
Gonna grow up to be a fool
‘Cause they ain’t got no more room
No more room for him in school
And everybody wanna know
Everybody wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
I say I’ve been around a long time
Yes, I’ve really paid some dues

Yeah, you know the company told me
Guess you’re born to lose
Everybody around me, people
It seems like everybody got the blues
But I had ‘em a long time
I’ve really, really paid my dues
You know I ain’t ashamed of it, people
I just love to sing my blues

I walk through the cities, people
On my bare feet
I had a fill of catfish and chitterlings
Up in Downbill Street
You know I’m singing the blues
Yes, I really
I just have to sing my blues
I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve really, really paid my dues

Now Father Time is catching up with me
Gone is my youth
I look in the mirror everyday
And let it tell me the truth
I’m singing the blues
Mm, I just have to sing the blues
I’ve been around a long time
Yes, yes, I’ve really paid some dues

Yeah, they told me everything
Would be better out in the country
Everything was fine
I caught me a bus uptown, baby
And every people, all the people
Got the same trouble as mine
I got the blues, huh huh
I say I’ve been around a long time
I’ve really paid some dues

One more time, fellows!

Blind man on the corner
Begging for a dime
The rollers come and caught him
And throw him in the jail for a crime
I got the blues
Mm, I’m singing my blues
I’ve been around a long time
Mm, I’ve really paid some dues

Can we do just one more?

Oh I thought I’d go down to the welfare
To get myself some grits and stuff
But a lady stand up and she said
“You haven’t been around long enough”
That’s why I got the blues
Mm, the blues
I say, I’ve been around a long time
I’ve really, really paid my dues

Fellows, tell them one more time.

Ha, ha, ha. That’s all right, fellows.

B. B. King

September 16, 1925 - May 14, 2015

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