Why I Sing the Blues: B.B. King

BB King (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

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Tim Van Schmidt | New SCENE


It was a hot California afternoon sometime in 1972, and I was alone in the house, just hanging out. I had the radio on and at just the right meditative moment, B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” came on. I was transfixed. The slow, even sadness of the song echoed throughout the house. And his thin, purposeful guitar work — it just kind of hung in the air. I became a B.B. King fan at that very moment.

I got to see King live later that year. It was at a theater-in-the-round in the San Fernando Valley. King and his band opened the show — spotlighting his rough and ready vocals and piercing guitar lines — followed by Ray Charles and his orchestra. At the end of his set, Charles called King back on stage. Meanwhile, keyboardist Billy Preston was pulled out of the audience to join this once in a lifetime blues and soul super group. Great stuff.

But I didn’t get the MEANING of the blues until I saw King at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973. I got a kick out the jaunty attitude of “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”, but it was the strong delivery of his song “Why I Sing the Blues” that dug into my young brain. I listened and realized “blues” was so much bigger than guys with guitars — it was personal, social, cultural, economic and racial — as well as therapeutic. My head caught fire while my toes were tapping.

I photographed King at Fiddler’s Green, and the last time I saw him was in Fort Collins at the Lincoln Center. Wouldn’t you know, I was seated in row BB.

Keep up to date with NOCO blues by visiting the High Plains Blues Society’s site at highplainsbluessociety.com.