He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the R&B Music Hall of Fame. In 2011, he was voted No. 6 on the list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time in Rolling Stone magazine. He has won countless Grammies and myriad other awards in his 89 years. He has opened blues clubs in several cities around the U.S.
He is a legend. He is B.B. King. And I've never cared for him.
So I found it odd that last night I dreamt that I was given a chance to play one of his old guitars. I was in a museum of some sort, and the guy giving me a tour took a guitar off the wall and handed it to me. He never spoke, but somehow I knew this beat-up Gibson with just the top three strings once belonged to the man born Riley B. King in a cabin on a cotton plantation in Berclair, Mississippi.
My father-in-law, who is a huge blues fan and certainly a man who likes B.B. King, was in the dream. He stood next to me as I tried to emulate King's style of string bending solo work. I sounded pretty awful; let's blame it on the old, hardened strings and warped fretboard.
Don't get me wrong: I acknowledge that King is a giant of the blues. I don't dislike him. I like this video with U2:
He seems like a gentle, humble man. I'm sure if I were given the chance to sit down with him, I'd be entertained for hours by his stories. I bet he pours a nice shot of whiskey.
My disregard for him dates back to the 1980's.
As a guy who'd always liked music, and who played guitar starting in 8th grade, I was aware of King. My older brother, Steve, was into blues music a bit, so maybe he played some of King's music for me.
One summer day when I was either a senior in high school or a freshman or sophomore in college, I saw King at a free concert in Hartford's Bushnell Park. I went with my best friend, Andy, and my brother and his buddy, Jimmy.
Growing up in a rural suburb 10 miles north of Hartford, I didn't get into the city much, except to see bands including Rush and The Police at the civic center, and Whalers games once in a while. So the idea of going to a free outdoor concert appealed to me.
Andy is also a guitarist. He and I spent a lot of time during high school and college jamming and listening to records. I don't believe he was into the blues much, but he certainly was up for going to see a blues legend.
We stood fairly close to the stage as King and his band played. After a few songs, Andy and I realized that while King certainly had his own style and flair for soloing, his backup guitarist was a better technical player. I have no idea who the guy was, and conducting a Google search for "B.B. King band members 1980s" didn't get me any closer to knowing.
We watched a bit more but found it boring. Andy and I kept joking that all King did was bend a few strings, while the guy behind him was the real star. "That guy should be up front!" we told each other as we walked away from the stage.
Now, if our experience at blues legend B.B. King's concert had ended there, I might've found it easier as the years went by to come around on his music. Perhaps I would've realized that King wasn't famous because he was a fretboard virtuoso, but because he wrote great songs, was a wonderful singer and a charismatic bandleader.
But as Andy and I walked away from the stage, eager to just walk around and enjoy the day, we were accosted by three or four teenagers. They were smart and efficient, somehow separating us from each other before we knew what was going on. Two of them cornered Andy, one of them grabbing his wallet while the other bullied him. A third kid (there might have been a fourth) pounced in front of me, slapped my right front pocket and barked, "What's in there?"
"Huh?" I said.
"Don't play stupid with me!" he yelled. "Gimme your money!"
Before I could react one way or the other, he took off with the rest of them. I walked up to Andy, both of us shaken.
"They stole my money!" he said. "Two bucks!"
I probably didn't have much more than that in my wallet. I imagine our assailants figured a couple of suburban kids would have been flush with cash, maybe be wearing expensive watches. They picked the wrong two guys to assault in that regard. Sure, neither of us did much to defend ourselves, but there wasn't much point with hardly enough money for a couple of cheeseburgers between us.
Do my feelings about B.B. King get mixed in with that memory? I suppose they do. But really it just came down to his guitar playing, and with experiencing a legend at a time in my life when I didn't appreciate music as much as I thought I did. Well, not enough kinds of music. I was into New Wave, punk rock, Southern rock -- rock of just about all kinds. I thought I was cooler than King.
In the ensuing years I've gotten into blues much more than I was back then. Lightnin' Hopkins is my favorite. I also like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Howlin' Wolf.
And I'm putting B.B. King on "Music to buy" alongside the likes of Mary Lou Lord, Azaelia Banks and the Crystal Method. Landing on this list doesn't mean that I'm gonna buy your music, but it means I've found a reason to listen to some stuff and evaluate whether it has a place in my digital library.
After all, how can I ignore a man with such a distinguished history, a cavalcade of accolades and the ability to find his way into my dreams?
Here are a few videos:
This is from a documentary, "B.B. King and Joan Baez in Concert at Sing Sing Prison." Introduced by Jimmy "JJ" Walker.
Here's a more upbeat performance from 40 years ago:
That's the most B.B. King I've watched in my life, right there. I have to say, he's a better guitar player than I recalled. Gonna have to do more than evaluate. Gonna have to buy.