The King Is Dead

BB King

Wherein Sam Taylor and I come to terms with the passing of a legend…

BB King, one of the most towering giants of modern music, has left this earth. For 89 years he trod our planet making beautiful sounds out of thin air. I chatted with avowed King acolyte Sam Taylor this morning to try to fathom his legacy.

Audio Reckoning: How do you feel today, after hearing the news?

Sam Taylor: I woke up this morning with about 10 different texts/ messages from people who heard the news. I have always said I wouldn’t do much else but sit inside listening to his records on the day of his death. I pulled out all my BB records and that’s what I’m doing today. I listened to “Worry Worry” from “Live at the Regal” and lost it. Just thinking about the impact he had and how lucky the world has been to have him stick around and play a few last shows up into his late eighties. He was so giving and his music was literally his life. If he had hung up the towel after his 80th birthday celebration and album, I would never have had the chance to see him twice.

AR: It’s not exactly a shocking thing, given that he was quite aged and had by all reckoning a full life. But the thing that struck me when I heard this morning was the idea that somehow he had outlived them all: Muddy, Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Little Walter….

Sam Taylor: BB has said many times that he was told as a kid by his bluesman cousin, Bukka White, to never drink or smoke. He was told his body was his temple and he needed it to carry on his message to the world.

AR: Seems like good advice. Bukka was amazing too. But going back: BB had such an interesting journey in the form. He was a real innovator and sort of forced traditional blues into bed with big bands and horns and whatnot. So really he was an outlier from the very beginning, right?

Sam Taylor: BB was sometimes frowned upon (though still admired) by some traditional delta and Chicago blues musicians for being too commercial. He made way more money than any of those legends combined. He didn’t struggle into his senior years like many did. I believe his positive and energetic attitude was what kept him around so long as well. He seemed to be overjoyed to be playing for just about any audience that would see him.

BB recorded albums and singles for various labels for about 10 years or so before he finally started to sell well. He was heavily influenced by T Bone Walker who fused jump jazz, blues and swing into one sound. I think that’s how BB came to play with horns, etc.

He had a more educated understanding of music than a lot of his peers. He listened to Charlie Christian, Django, you name it. Music wasn’t just about the raw emotion with him like it was with Muddy, Wolf, etc. He was very into production, sound and the people he chose to play with him.

AR: I was really affected by Clapton’s video message this morning. Have you seen it yet?

Sam Taylor: I have not seen the message yet.

AR: It’s really touching, but the thing that stands out is him saying that the blues is now basically a thing of the past, that this is our last glimpse of it. As a guy who gets labeled as a blues artist, what do you think of that?

Sam Taylor: I think that’s nonsense. I don’t think BB would agree with that. Buddy Guy has been touring with Quinn Sullivan who is a bit younger than me. He is a virtuoso blues player and Buddy has stated many times that there is a ton of great blues still to be put into the world. What about Derek Trucks? He is one of the finest players in the world, and he just keeps evolving. He will be around for years to come.

The blues doesn’t die with the artists that pioneered it. That’s because it can’t be held or possessed by just one person.It’s the true passion, emotion and attention to tradition that keeps it alive.

Gary Clark Jr. was the best concert I have ever seen , I think. It was like being at the Regal that night BB’s famous album was captured. He was on fire. The vibe and fire of a guy on the rise in his late twenties with the sound and integrity of a 100 year old legend.

AR: That’s the thing: the blues to me is driven by this interesting symbiotic tension between reverence for tradition, and a consuming need for freedom and experimentation. And in many ways BB is a prime example of that; in his time, he pushed the form forward almost single-handedly. And it’s because of that tension, that continual self-destruction, that the music is able to constantly renew itself.

Sam Taylor: I would also like to point out that if BB King had never gone to England and embraced so many of the white men trying to imitate him, he wouldn’t have the status he achieved. He embraced all these young guys trying to steal a bit of his magic and caught the attention of so many musicians and fans in another segment of the world. BB King said Peter Green was the only player to ever give him chills, and Green was directly ripping lines from him. That’s a genuine spirit there. It’s not about ego.

AR: Tell me more about his guitar playing (another great example of that limitation/innovation dichotomy).

Sam Taylor: My favourite musical quote comes from him: “notes are expensive- spend them wisely”.That sums up his magic. He could make you weak at the knees with one bend, one trill, one stinging pentatonic run. BB King had a shotgun when the rest had six shooters. He didn’t need to give you much, but when he decided to pull that trigger you were blown halfway across the planet! Stevie Ray was such an incredible player, but many argue he was more about speed and technicality than taste.

AR: There’s this jazzy smoothness to BBs playing that I really admire. He’s got such sensitivity from these big hands and this massive hollow-body guitar. And of course, the famous vibrato, which looks so easy to do but is actually impossible!

Sam Taylor: BB used a solid state amp most of his career as well. Almost all players on the scene today use tube amps for their extra warmth and smooth qualities. BB didn’t need that because his tone was all in his hands. Albert King was the same way, plugging into a PA most of the time. It’s not the effects or the gear.

AR: Wild! I didn’t know that.

Sam Taylor: And yes, that vibrato has been the most gigantic pain in my ass since I was 16! Hahaha. My wrist hurts now just thinking of it.

AR: It’s crazy to watch him do it. His whole wrist just starts spinning.

Sam Taylor: I really appreciate that you asked me to comment today. I absolutely love talking about BB, or any blues in general.

AR: No problem! I don’t know that many people that also enjoy geeking out on the blues like I do either. Anyone who plays an electric guitar is walking in the path of the blues giants, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. It’s in the DNA of all guitar players.

Sam Taylor: Exactly. I wish most metal players would acknowledge that. Seriously.

AR: Metal is a direct decedent of the blues! It’s the common ancestor of all of rock and roll. Tell me the story of how you played BB’S club when you were what, like 12 years old?

Sam Taylor: So I went to Nashville with my dad for a 3 day getaway. I showed up at the door of BB King’s Blues Club for 3 days straight just trying to get a chance to play on their stage. The club was packed at all times of the day, had the best soul food, amazing staff and some of the best musicians I had ever seen. The manager just kept brushing me off until on the last day, I showed up with two guitars and my amp and basically pleaded one last time. The manager pointed out the obvious- I was a 16 year old white kid from Canada wanting to play for a much older and deeply blues rooted audience. There was no room for fluff basically. He said that if he liked my first tune and the crowd did as well, I could play that lunch show. I started off with a Colin James song. A few people in the crowd cheered and were fans of his. The manager gave me the thumbs up and I played the rest of the show, just myself, a guitar, a mic and an amp. I finished with “How Blue Can You Get” I think. Afterwards, the manager told me he and the crowd loved it and he proposed a residency for me their, every lunch show. I told him I had to go home as school was about to start up again but how much I would love to be able to work for him. He asked me to open for BB when he was going to be coming to play the club that December. I was thrilled. I was booked for months, until the state changed their laws sometime around November I believe. Because I was a minor, I could play most clubs as long as I had a guardian. BB’s club sold fine cigarettes and cigars as well as booze, though, so as of that time I was not legally allowed in the door. The manager was very apologetic and invited me to come back any time after I was 21. I haven’t been back, but I wonder if he remembers me.

So that day, I bought “Live at the Regal” from some massive CD warehouse just outside Nashville and probably played it 10 times in one day. The tone, his voice, his adoring fans. I wanted all of it.

AR: Amazing story! Thanks for sharing. Obviously BB had a profound influence on you. To wrap it up: if you could talk to BB now, in the afterlife or wherever he is, what would you say?

Sam Taylor: I would simply say thank you. He did so much in his time for so many people. When words failed, BB King spoke. Or should I say, Lucille spoke!

AR: Beautifully said. Let’s hope that they still together jamming somewhere. Thanks Sam.

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