2005-02-18 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance B.B.
by Susan Hartenstein

Rockaway Artists Alliance
B.B. – The Blues King


B.B. King is considered a pioneer who has brought blues to a world-wide audience and is largely responsible for making it an internationally celebrated musical form. Over his five decade career, his distinctive, uncluttered style of guitar playing has been a major influence on the important popular musicians of the day and therefore on the musical sensibilities of two generations of audiences here and abroad. He began his professional career playing street corners, for spare change, with a gospel group in Indianola, Mississippi. At the age of 79 he is still going strong — concertizing, appearing in winning TV commercials and being honored with awards for his achievements. He was nominated for a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Traditional R & B Vocal Performance (“Sinner’s Prayer” with Ray Charles).

Born Riley B. King near Itta Bena, Mississippi at a time and place where being African American could easily be fatal, King was raised by his maternal grandparents. Beginning as a youngster, his musical tastes were forming from various strains, listening to the great bluesmen that included his cousin Bukka White, Lonnie Johnson (who was for King a link between jazz and blues), Sonny Boy Williamson and jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. In his teens King worked on a plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. He saved his money to buy an acoustic guitar and started singing with the above-mentioned gospel group, sometimes playing four towns in a night. In the mid and late 40’s he traveled to Memphis a couple of times to pursue a career. Through tenacity, persuasiveness and enormous talent, King was eventually signed to the new RPM record company. By 1952, his re-recording of the hit “Three O’Clock Blues,” that wound up number one on the R & B charts, established him. By then he had also changed his name to “Blues Boy” or B.B.

B.B. King’s style of acoustic blues guitar playing is unorthodox and innovative, synthesizing gospel, jazz, swing, pop and deep Delta blues. It has been described as uncluttered, with frequent use of vocal-like bends, tremolo and jazzy blues runs and distinguished by an economy of phrasing. Rock musicians that include Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Michael Bloomfield and Jeff Beck recognize King’s enormous influence on them. King, in turn, credits these younger talents for spreading the word and the sound of the blues, in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In a 1999 interview with Rick Petreycik, King states that because of them, white America began listening to the blues, opening up doors to the black musicians that had previously been closed. King has traveled the world, playing blues for enthusiastic audiences, teens to middle-aged. In the same interview, he cites a 1979 concert in Russia – the young people of that country were not allowed to buy blues and jazz records, but had managed to get them on the black market. They were familiar with all of King’s music and were crazy about it. They enthusiastically attended that concert. On this same tour, he and some of the Russian musicians happily grooved together, even without speaking one word of each others languages. In the same vein, King believes that music has done more in our own country than politics or even the church to bring people together and ease racial tensions.

B.B. King continues to do what he has a passion for – playing music and entertaining people. He plays more than 200 concerts a year, performing songs like his 1970 crossover hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.” He records. He composes. He continues to receive honors and awards that include 13 Grammys, a 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Swedish “Polar Music Prize for 2004” for his “significant contributions to the blues…proved of fundamental importance to the development of modern popular music.” He has opened “B.B King Blues Clubs” in Memphis, Los Angeles, Nashville, Times Square and Connecticut. Close to 80, he is not stuck in any one era. He appreciates contemporary rap and hip-hop. Among his 21st century marketing devices is a cool website: www.bbki ng.com. Through it all, King remains, like his music, in the words of Rick Petreycik – “down-to-earth, sincere and totally captivating.”

Celtic music fan alert!

*The fantastic Celeste Ray and Celtic Legend will perform for the second year in a row at St. Francis de Sales R.C. Church on Saturday, February 26 at 2 PM. The concert will include local Irish dancers. Ray is an accomplished singer, songwriter and musician, who plays the bowed psaltery and harmonium. Influenced by an eclectic range of musical styles, she brings a very special quality to the traditional and original music she performs. Ray has toured extensively, as a solo artist and with her ensemble. Her four CD’s include many of her original compositions. This year’s concert will feature an original vocal Celtic Blessing and several Celtic instruments. Joining Ray are James Gilchrist and Queens native Darius Kaufmann, playing several Irish flutes/ whistles. For tickets and information please call 917 306-8729.

“Black and Light on Silver” opened this past Sunday and continues through April 3.

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