Some people were made for this.
Last Thursday, I had the privilege of listening to a legend. B.B. King was performing at the Fox Theater in Oakland, and, knowing it was my birthday, a friend invited me to go. I hadn’t been to a concert in years. How could I say no?
I made the right choice.
“Thank you. Thank you. You’re too kiiind,” said King as he entered to a standing ovation, waving, from stage left. His voice was rich and deep. It went well with his glittering jacket.
“It’s good to be here . . . Oakland. Oakland, California. I’ve got stories about Oakland.” King sounded mischievous as he sat down on a chair at center stage. “But . . . Well. I’ll save those for a-nother time.”
The audience laughed. I was amazed by his stage presence. It was as though he’d been in the spotlight all his life.
. . .
“I’m eighty-seven.” The audience erupted into applause. “Eighty-seven! Can you believe that? . . . Now, you young folks: Don’t be goin’ ’round sayin’, ‘He’s eighty-seven younggg! B.B., you’re younggg!’ . . . No. Eighty-seven is olddd! I’m olddd!”
We laughed again.
And then B.B. and his band started to play.
And took my breath away.
The band, which consisted of trumpets, a flute, an alto and tenor saxophone, bass guitar, drums, and piano took off, and B.B. and “Lucille” followed along. They performed classics like “Rock me baby,” “Nobody loves me but my mother (and she could be jivin’, too),” and “Every day I have the blues.” The ease with which B.B. floated over the notes astounded me. I’ve studied jazz—played the alto saxophone for eight years—and I sucked at improv. B.B. made it look as natural as breathing.
But that’s not what took my breath away.
B.B. King was born on a plantation in Mississippi in 1925. As a kid, he played on street corners for dimes. In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, where he studied blues with his cousin, Bukka White, and got his first big break on the radio. Success followed. Soon B.B. began performing all over the country, and, over the years, he developed one of the world’s most identifiable guitar styles. He became a model for artists like Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Jeff Beck. Today, more than fifty albums and inductions into the Blues Foundation and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame later, B.B. is a living legend. Truly, he is the “King of the Blues.”
But that’s not what took my breath away, either.
What took my breath away was the way he loved it. And the way he loves it. And the way he’s always loved it. He had a talent, a passion, a dream—and, no matter the obstacles (he was born before the Civil Rights movement, if you remember), he worked and worked and worked, and, against all odds, he made his dream come true. And it’s still coming true. And it’s always going to be coming true.
Long after B.B. is gone, his reign will go on. B.B. won’t be forgotten. He’ll be remembered. And looked up to. And aspired to.
He’ll be loved. By people like me. And people like you.
“It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales.”
“I never use that word, ‘retire.’”
“The way I feel today, as long as my health is good and I can handle myself well and people still come to my concerts, still buy my CDs, I’ll keep playing until I feel like I can’t.”
“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”
—B.B. King (pictured above in his youth)
After the show: