Modern Blues Legends

How B.B. King kept the music alive

When word leaked this spring that B.B. King’s health had taken an ill turn, a photo of the iconic musician lying in pain on a hospital gurney spread across social media.

Someone at the hospital had taken the photo with a smartphone and auctioned it to a tabloid media site. The social media mob didn’t mind taking part in this sick voyeurism of a dying man. Instead, the focus was King’s undignified state. Never mind that he was 89 years old, suffering from severe diabetes and losing a battle with dementia.

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The experience was the continuation of the “dying with dignity” fallacy, which is absurd for someone like King who lived, breathed and, ultimately, died the blues.

He came of age in the Jim Crow South. He had been in the cities when crime was at its worst in the mid-20th century, played the clubs, and famously, almost died in a fire rescuing his guitar. Life was cheap.

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He spent much of the last 25 years using his name and fame to spur younger artists, to make sure the art would outlive him. While it seemed that King might live and play forever (he was still touring just a year ago), he knew it wouldn’t be the case and spent the last three decades preparing for this eventuality.

Jonny Lang, Joe Bonamassa and Kenny Wayne Shepherd are in their mid-30s now, but at some point in their early teens each shared a stage with King. While most blues musicians dismissed these “kids,” King saw the future and gave them a gift — his own credibility.

Bonamassa first played with King at 12 years old. He later opened for him. Lang opened a tour for King at 15. Shepherd’s first tour was with King. He continued to mentor these three until his death. Coincidentally, Bonamassa’s current tour is a ‘Tribute to the Three Kings of Blues” (Freddie King, Albert King, and B.B. King).

Lang and Shepherd regularly played B.B. King songs live before he died. Some were regular parts of their set.

These three, along with Austin guitarist Gary Clark Jr., are keeping the genre alive with King’s music living on inside all four. They continue to stretch and spin the blues into original and even controversial areas.

info_2Joe Bonamassa — Bonamassa’s success came from sheer will, ignoring industry status quo and releasing new albums every year, on top of live DVDs and collaborations. Bonamassa is a guitar virtuoso but eschews pure skill for focusing on songs the crowd could sing back to him at shows. He started his own organization to introduce blues to school kids, while adding different genres and influences to his own work to keep the blues fresh. He has added everything from Eastern influences to country-influenced rock slide guitar, perhaps the best since Duane Allman.

info_4Gary Clark Jr. — King was a major influence on Clark, but not a direct mentor. Jimmy Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist and brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, took a note from King and mentored Clark early in his days playing Austin clubs. Clark eventually shared a stage with King at the White House in 2010. Clark’s first EP featured “Bright Lights,” a track that has become the go-to background music for seemingly every commercial and TV show. His playing is highly distinctive, featuring a muddy, growling tone and a deliberate approach while adding elements of soul and R&B to his music. That gives it a contemporary feel that is propelling him to the mainstream on albums with the Foo Fighters.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd 
— Shepherd met Stevie Ray Vaughan as a child, and Shepherd made it his life’s mission to keep Vaughan’s style alive after the musician’s 1990 death in a helicopter crash. Shepherd’s Vaughan influence was just the beginning. His songwriting chops are among the best in guitar-based music. He’s won multiple Grammy awards and his albums went Platinum. His songs combine shuffle blues, acoustic playing and rock with a distinct approach that’s recognizable at the first note. Shepherd described himself as the bridge between Vaughan and Vaughan influence Jimi Hendrix, taking the pure blues of one and combining the all-out rock of the other.

Jonny Lang
— Lang and Shepherd’s mainstream careers launched almost simultaneously, with Lang debuting in 1997 and Shepherd in 1995. The comparisons between the two were never-ending but made little sense. The two shared some, but Lang was addicted to Chicago blues legend Albert Collins (remember the movie “Adventures in Babysitting”?) and based much of his playing off the “Master of the Telecaster.” Lang, a born-again Christian, added a plethora of influences to his bluesy approach, while his band has a jam-type edge to it live and delves heavily into funk a la Lang’s beloved Stevie Wonder.” His vocals bring memories of Al Green and James Brown and ’60s and ’70s soul singers, while his band has a jam-type edge to it live and delves heavily into funk. His albums have wandered the gambit from traditional blues and rock, even a gospel album.

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