Happy Birthday B.B. King!

In the mid-60s, when I was a teenager of 15 years or so, I fell in love with the guitar style of B.B. King and the Blues in general. I had been playing music since taking up the organ on Christmas Day, 1958. This was when I discovered that I would be a musician, primarily because playing that little electric organ gave me so much joy. My Dad, in the guise of Santa Claus, brought the organ into the house. I started playing guitar several years later and had the great fortune of having a life-changing teacher, Ann Stanley. My beloved parents insisted that I would study classical guitar if I were to play guitar at all. No problem on my end, that requisite was fine with me.

As the Sixties progressed, American music came to the fore internationally because of musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King, all of whom became global stars due to their devastatingly benign effect on young English musicians such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger, whose lives were forever changed by their exposure to these great blues artists. In one of the great cross-cultural events of all time, Americans of all backgrounds became aware of their cultural birth-right, through the recordings and touring of the Rolling Stones and other British rock and blues bands, who brought the music of the blues masters to people globally. The originators of rock music were finally getting their due.

I was one of the young people who became enraptured – and turned ON – by the personal discovery of B.B. King and his cohorts. Through the universality of the blues I was eventually led to the music of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and John Coltrane and the course of my life was set. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. 

I was fortunate to live in the Cleveland, Ohio area and to have easy access to Cleveland’s downtown. Sometime in the mid – to – late sixties, I went to hear the “King of the Blues,” (B.B.) at an upscale club on Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s main thoroughfare. I had recently read “Urban Blues” by Charles Keil. In this book, Keil wrote about touring on the road with B.B. In one chapter, he described the scene in B.B.’s green room, how it was very crowded and active, with people coming and going and getting things done. I decided that I would sample this bustling scene for myself and, upon arriving at the club, I snuck into B.B.’s green room and grabbed a seat. I stayed there, not saying a word, until he noticed me and asked why I was there. I replied that I was a guitarist and was going to be a musician and I asked if he would give me some advice as to how to proceed. Anyone who ever met Mr. King would agree that he was a very gracious, kindly, and magnanimous being. B.B., speaking softly, advised that I learn to play many different kinds of music, thus enabling me to work in a variety of musical situations. He then returned to preparing to go onstage. I left and went out into the audience. I thought the story ended there.

A few months later, B.B. was back in town to perform at Public Hall, the primary space where the rock groups of the day performed in The Land. I had seen Hendrix and Cream there a few months earlier. This time, I had brought a close friend, Jim Fishel, with me. He was a fellow blues fanatic who later worked at Columbia Records in NYC. I wanted to crash B.B.’s dressing room again which, in those days, was easily done. There was no security in those innocent days. After some searching, we found the room. Upon entering, B.B., seated with Lucille, looked up at us with a most forlorn, downhearted look on his face. I immediately saw that something was wrong. He was fiddling around with a guitar string. Going closer, I saw that he was trying to tie his high E string together, which of course is an impossibility. He was in trouble. There was a crowd of thousands in Public Hall and this was his first venture, in Cleveland, into a huge crowd that consisted of many of the young people who had been converted to the new (for us) sounds. The animated, busy scene of our previous encounter had been replaced by a somber, downcast vibe.

The King does most of his playing on the the high E string. Anyone who has studied his style knows he bends the strings a lot and subjects them to a lot of pressure, with an intense vibrato (the butterfly) on the high E. He was up the creek without a paddle. Jim and I stood there for a few minutes and watched him try to salvage the situation. 

Suddenly, I remembered that I had been to a music store that day and had purchased two high E strings! Not only that, I had them in my coat pocket! I reached into my pocket, pulled out the strings, and held them high where B.B. could see them. His face underwent a rapid transformation when he saw what I brandished aloft. He broke out into the biggest and happiest grin, illuminating the room with light. His dilemma was resolved. 

He then showed me how to tie down a string so that it would not slip. He put on a new string and held Lucille up to me, saying “Play something for me!” He either remembered me from the club meeting months earlier, or he identified me as a player – who else would walk around with guitar strings in their coat pocket?

I ripped the fastest A minor pentatonic scale I possible could on the beautiful Lucille. B.B. shouted out “Whoa, whoa, slow down there!” He grabbed Lucille back from me and showed me some jazz chords, one of which I continue to use to this day, a Bb 13thin 4thinversion. Happiness restored, B.B. went back to preparing for the concert and we found our seats in the Hall.

I did not become aware of what had actually happened until many years – decades - later. It was a perfect demonstration of karma. B.B. King, being the benevolent, noble, and yes, kingly being that he was (is), had previously treated me, an unknown and awkward kid, with kindness and respect and, in an hour of need, the Lords of Karma arranged for that kid to go to the music store that day, and buy two high E guitar strings. I was to keep them with me in my coat all day, not put them into my case, or on my desk, but to have them with me and to deliver them to B.B. exactly when he needed them. What goes around comes around, an immutable, cosmic law. No accidents!