Good Bye BB King Thanks for a Lifetime of the Blues

It seems strange to say thanks for the blues, but the joy putting BB King's Live and Well gave me when I was a teenager was exactly that. A Joy. 

My family loved music and I grew up with everything from Puerto Rican love ballads to Andres Segovia to Broadway show tunes and gospel music of my parents. Then came the Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Hendrix and of course researching where this music came from.

My friends Karl Hoffman and Steve Wilson who worked at Keif's records in Lawrence Kansas started to educate me. They would bring over armloads of records, take off what I had playing and let the lessons fly.

BB King's Live and Well was one of the records they brought out after school one day. I could not get enough of that sweet sound. The way he bent notes. How he make me feel so much using so few notes. His phrasing, vibrato and note bending. Perfection. 

Why I Sing The Blues. A number of years later I had the opportunity to meet both the producer of that album Bill Szymczyk and more exciting, I got to record BB King in the studio. It was not one of his greatest performances, nor was it really the blues. It was a Budweiser Beer commercial in the style of the blues with BB King performing. It was still an honor to hit record and commit BB King's voice and guitar playing to tape.

This is the story.

Besides being one of the most influential and well known blues players in history, he was a wonderfully humble and nice man with a great sense of humor. I saw him perform multiple times, but one of the highlights of my early days as an engineer was to record BB King and his band in the studio.

No, it was not one of his many great records, but a Budweiser beer commercial. At the time, Bud’s ad agency out of St. Louis was using various recording artists to do their take on the “This Bud’s for You” theme. I did the Tubes version and BB King’s version.

We had 6 hours booked. The King’s big purple bus pulled up, the band got out. All of the amps and drums had been rented per the band’s spec and were ready to go. They walked right into the studio, shook everyone’s hand and got to work. He was all business.

They young ad team (I think there were six of them) obviously did not know much about either the blues or BB King other than probably an intern telling them that he had a guitar he called.
Lucille. They had the band play the song with BB just singing the lyrics which they had written out. The lyrics were wall to wall for the entire minute.

Then the lead producer said “Now BB, get Lucille and play some blues”. I cringed.
Mr. King picked up his guitar, plugged into the Fender Twin and I pressed record.
The song played for a minute and he did not play a note. The producer looked confused. “BB…ok. I want to hear Lucille sing” King looked up, nodded, then I pressed record. A minute later…nothing. The producer looked concerned. “One more time”. Nothing. Again he said “BB, you’re not playing…we need to hear Lucille”.

Mr. King looked up, the band shook their heads and replied, “I’m singing. BB King does not sing and play at the same time”. The rather dense producer said, “yes, but we have your vocal on tape already. I need you to play now. We need to hear Lucille”.

I realized that BB King was hearing his vocal in his headphones. Since the lyric basically just repeated through the whole minute, I asked if I could try something. The producer said “whatever…I just need that guitar on there”.

This time when I hit play, I let the vocal go for a short verse, then muted it. Immediately, Mr. King started to play. When the phrase finished I unmuted the vocal and he stopped playing. Another vocal phrase…then mute it and BB King started to play. Vocal…guitar…vocal…guitar.

The minute finished. BB King put down the guitar, smiled and said “That is the blues…now order us some lunch, you have what you need”.

We did. The King of the Blues had spoken.