Tuesday, August 29, 2006

B.B. goes home then to funeral

(Originally published: March 5, 2005)

B.B. King didn't seem his usual old self last weekend when he was performing in his hometown of Indianola, Miss.

He put on two fine shows in one evening, but he seemed a bit distracted.

For his homecoming, King played at the city park with his band, and then, well past midnight, he performed at the Club Ebony, where he's been appearing for 50 years and where he met his second wife.

Something was bothering B.B. in Indianola, but he didn't want to talk about it. Somebody later said he'd had a death in the family and was upset over the passing of Ray Charles, who'd died a couple of days earlier.

B.B. and Charles were friends and had recorded a song together for an up-coming CD of duets that Charles had made with other famous performers a few months before he died.

King was at Charles' funeral Frid-ay in Los Angeles, along with Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Clint Eastwood and many others.

A tearful King sang "Please Accept My Love" at the funeral. "He's a genius," he said. "One of the greatest musicians I ever met."

At 78, B.B. King is still a great performer and still keeps a busy schedule.

He's made live records all over the world, and they're among the best blues you'll ever hear.

Among our favorites is "Live at the Regal," recorded in Chicago in 1964, which is probably the greatest live blues record ever released. But he has several other superb live CDs out that are often neglected, including "Blues Is King" and "Live at Cook County Jail," which were recorded in Chicago in the late 1960s.

It was about that time that King became a crossover star with young whites, and his live appearances were frequently issued on LPs.

His "Live and Well" was partly captured on tape at a New York nightclub, while the rest was recorded in a studio, including a stunning version of "Why I Sing the Blues."

"Live in Japan" was recorded in 1971 but wasn't released in this country for almost 30 years be-cause his record label thought B.B. had too many live records out. How can a master have too many first-rate CDs?

MCA, his longtime record label, should collect all of B.B.'s live recordings, which capture the great man's artistry and humanity. They'd make a great box set for the holidays.

Leland, Miss., a few miles west of Indianola, had a blues festival the day after B.B. King kicked off his homecoming.

The High 61 Blues Festival showcased several gifted local bluesmen, including Eddie Cusic (who taught Little Milton guitar) and Dave Thompson, as well as Willie King, who came all the way from Alabama.

Cusic is an important country-blues musician, while Thompson belongs to a younger generation that keeps the blues alive. King is a bluesman with a social conscience. He sang about brotherhood and hard times and ended the festival with "Terrorized," his signature tune about the horrors he faced as he was growing up in Alabama.

"I've been terrorized all my life," King sang, and, looking mournful in his baseball cap, he makes you believe him.


Special thanks to St. Matthew's AME Church of Greenville, Miss., for letting us sit in as the youth choir was rehearsing for the church's 137th anniversary celebration held last Sunday.

The little red-brick church – which has hosted such visitors as President Herbert Hoover, poet Langston Hughes and opera singer Leontyne Price– makes everyone feel welcome. As the youngsters sang out with joy, we shared their happiness and felt the spirit that moved them.

We only wished we could have been there for the anniversary celebration a few days later.

Maybe next year, or the year after, when St. Matthew's turns 140 years old.


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