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T Bone Burnett Remembers B.B. King: ‘He Conjured the Very Soul of Our Country’

3 minute read
T Bone Burnett is a songwriter, producer and performer who has won 13 Grammy Awards

B.B. King was, is, and will remain an American hero of the highest order. He rose from deep Southern poverty to carry the true history and the highest spirit of our people around the world with a most extraordinary grace and generosity, following Louis Armstrong out of the Mississippi Delta to become one of our most significant cultural ambassadors.

The music and the history he carried in his heart and gave to us in the most openhanded way will long be remembered. In his music, he conjured the very soul of our country.

I will give you this one small story.

Thirty some odd years ago, on a night off in Houston, Texas, I wound up at a small club where B.B. was playing. It was a listening type night. It was mid week, and B.B. was in a mellow place, singing some Lonnie Johnson and some T-Bone Walker. The crowd was sitting down, hanging on his every bend. He was taking it easy, so we were all taking it easy. The set went on for a couple of semi quiet—by Texas roadhouse standards—hours before B.B. called a young Texas musician named Stevie Ray Vaughan to the stage to play a number. Stevie Ray was just getting started. People in Houston didn’t know about him yet. I had seen him with his trio at Nick Kithas’ club in Fort Worth, which was the size of a small bedroom, with two other people in attendance, one of them Nick, but he hadn’t gotten down to Houston before.

Look Back at B.B. King's Life and Career

B. B. King Early Portrait
B.B. King a local DJ at WDIA Radio poses for a portrait circa 1948 in Memphis, Tenn.Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty images
B.B. King poses for a portrait in 1950.
B.B. King poses for a portrait in 1950. Gilles Petard/Redferns
King, Clapton & Bishop Jam
From Left: Musicians B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Elvin Bishop perform together in 1967 in New York City.Don Paulsen—Michael Ochs Archives
Blues man BB King
B.B. King performs on a TV show in Los Angeles in the early 1970's . Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty images
B.B. King Performing at Farm Aid
B.B. King performs at the Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Ill. on Sept. 22, 1985.Bettmann/Corbis
Photo of BB KING and Adam CLAYTON and BONO and U2
From Left: U2 and B.B. King perform onstage during The Lovetown tour on Sept. 1, 1989 in Australia.Bob King—Redferns
B.B. King and John Lee Hooker
From Left: B.B. King and John Lee Hooker pose for a portrait on Jan. 1, 1997.Bill Reitzel—Corbis
A Family Celebration 2001
From Left: President Bill Clinton plays the sax with B.B. King at 'A Family Celebration 2001' at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. on April 1, 2001 Kevin Winter—Getty Images
Legendary Ray Charles Funeral in Los Angeles
B.B. King performs during the funeral for legendary singer and musician Ray Charles at the First AME Church in Los Angeles on June 18, 2004.Genaro Molina—Reuters/Corbis
US blues musician Riley "B.B." King (L),
B.B. King smiles while President George W. Bush presents King with the Medal of Freedom on Dec. 15, 2006 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Tim Sloan—AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama waves alongsid
From Left: B.B. King watches as President Barack Obama waves during the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 9, 2010. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images
USA - Music - Peter Frampton's Guitar Circus Tour Performs in Atlanta
B.B. King performs at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Aug. 13, 2013 in Atlanta.John Davidson—Corbis

Stevie Ray seemed a little nervous to be getting on the stage with the guitarist all of us Texas guitarists viewed as one of the best all time. B.B. had been a legend down there for 30 years—an authentic link to Charlie Patton and Son House and Sun Records, for that matter. But Stevie didn’t play nervous. A couple of choruses into the first song, B.B. looked over at him to take a solo, and Stevie began to absolutely rip it up for about eight measures before he broke his B string. You would have to say it was a disappointing moment for the young virtuoso.

B.B. didn’t miss a half a beat. He threw back his head and laughed, then said over the mic, “That happens to me all the time,” then he cranked the volume on his guitar several notches and finished a most burning solo while Stevie Ray changed his string. A couple of choruses later, Stevie Ray had his guitar back together, and they tore that crowd completely apart for about 20 minutes before getting off the stage to ecstatic applause—actual ecstatic applause.

B.B. King was an ecstatic musician who mined his ecstasy from deep in the ground—from deep in the mud and the silt of a brutal region and a brutal world.

And we will ask the future generations—please see that his grave is kept clean.

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