Jay Meehan: The King of the blues boys
May 5, 2015
As I sit typing what I thought was going to be a column dealing with the upcoming local outdoor concert season, word has come from his website that 89-year-old blues legend B.B. King is "resting" under hospice care at his home in Las Vegas.
A Park City outdoor concert favorite going back nearly forty years, the "Beale Street Blues Boy" appears to be nearing the end of a road that began on the Mississippi Delta back in 1925 and has taken him to most every corner of the globe.
As is the case most every time his name enters my consciousness, I’m immediately transported back to the Shrine Exhibition Hall, a counterculture venue in mid-’60s Los Angeles, and my first in-person experience with his quartet. Obviously, as he did each time he took the stage, he both educated and transformed those in attendance.
Proof that I actually attended that show, I suppose, centers on the old ’60s axiom that if "you remembered it, you weren’t there." B.B. opened and, for the life of me, I can’t recall any of the other performers on the bill. And the Shrine hosted nothing but major acts. Just one more example of being ahead of the curve: having senior moments in my early 20s
Imagining the musical landscape without him, which, it seems, we now must, won’t be easy, but, due to his influence on the current younger crop, the field won’t lay fallow for long. The future of "the blues" remains in good hands. You’d have to say we rebounded rather well from losing Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.
A good example of this would be to look back to his late-summer 2005 concert at Deer Valley when Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa opened for B.B. Both of those guys ripped the cover off the ball while leaving the genre safely intact. Of course, the shows he headlined out at ParkWest back during the ’70s and ’80s remain in our pantheon.
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The one we came to refer to as "the rainy day blues" stands out, I suppose, due, if nothing else, to the fact that Ramsey Lewis, James Cotton, and Muddy Waters preceded B.B. and his big-band orchestra onto the stage. That one flattened our 5th and had us speaking in tongues for a good long while.
Not to say that a somewhat more-recent day-long festival out at the Snyderville resort, once they had installed the more structured amphitheater, was found wanting. That day they trooped "The Fabulous Thunderbirds," Dr. John, and Buddy Guy, onstage as prelude to B.B. and what was then about an eight-piece ensemble, if memory serves. (I’m sure I’ll get corrected soon enough!)
I guess since I’m on this roll, I could insert another southern California sighting of note when B.B. and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue opened for the Rolling Stones at what was then termed "The Fabulous Forum." Teardown from a hockey game earlier in the day and the ever-so-methodic concert upload pushed the starting time well behind schedule.
Our show, the early one, got out sometime near 1:00 a.m.! The second at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. The then-L.A. Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn tagged his review "Let’s spend the night together" after the Stones hit. And, believe this or not, no one either exiting or entering the venue looked like they would be heading to the land of nod anytime soon. It was pretty much a blink-free landscape!
I believe I once mentioned in another column that, visually, from where I sat in the nose-bleed section for that show, Keith Richards might as well have been bending "Rebar." This was the first show on the ’69 Tour that ended at Altamont.
What I’ll miss most of all once he’s gone, I suppose, will be that contorted face he gets when either building or resolving tension within the 12-bar blues with that singular, piercing, single-note minimalist style he has turned into his signature. No doubt, his famous guitar, Lucille, will miss that dance they do even more than the rest of us.
I know you’re still with us, B.B. but thanks for the memories anyway! And thanks for taking those big fat notes of T-Bone Walker out for a stroll every so often.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.