Tag Archives: Tribute

Reflections On BB King: The Legend Is Gone

When I was in High School I got into Blues music thanks to one caring English teacher and a bunch of 1960’s blues rockers. I was listening to Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, and Eric Clapton pretty heavily my senior year. Near the end of my last semester, I was assigned a research paper by my honors English teacher.  She suggested I write about the blues after she found out I was really into Clapton. This was probably the first time I ever considered writing about music, which looking back on it was pretty big moment for me.  Anyway, I went to the library and checked out a couple of dusty tomes on the history of blues music and over the course of writing that paper (which earned me an “A”) I feel in love with the blues. I’ve been hooked ever since.

bb-king

That’s how I first got into BB King. I picked up a copy of his greatest hits and by the time I had successfully digested that, his album with Eric Clapton, RIDING WITH THE KING, came out. RIDING WITH THE KING is a fantastic record and a brilliant primer for someone just getting into the blues, which was perfect for me. In a few short weeks I knew RIDING WITH THE KING top to bottom, I must have played it a hundred times.

BB King, who was pretty much always touring, was scheduled to play in Kansas City (where I was living at the time) and I knew I had to go. My dad and my sisters came with me, and it was a concert I’ll never forget. It was a drizzly evening and unfortunately the show was outside. The seats were wet but it luckily didn’t rain on us too much while we waited for the show to begin. John Haitt opened for BB King, he was promoting his album THE TIKI BAR IS OPEN, and we were all impressed with him.  My sister Amber was particularly smitten with Haitt, which looking back on it is pretty amusing since she was into bands like Hanson and The Backstreet Boys up until that point.

Man, what a great show. Thanks for the memories, BB.

Man, what a great show. Thanks for the memories, BB.

I remember BB King sitting on a wooden stool during his performance. He balanced Lucille upon his knee, like a grandfather tenderly holding his grandchild. He was old, and clearly not in the best health, but his voice was still strong and his guitar playing was still exceptional. After playing for about an hour, he took a short break then came back and played a few more songs. And then he was done. There was no encore, which I thought was strange, but not unexpected considering BB’s age.  Everything about that concert felt historic and important, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

I’d read a few weeks ago that BB King was very sick and that he was essentially broke. Initially I was upset to learn that such a respected, successfully musician had no money, but upon further reflection I realized that this cemented BB King’s place in the pantheon of great bluesmen. To die penniless is almost as important as song writing when it comes to the blues. BB King’s health had been poor since I was a child, so the fact that he lived (and played) as long as he did is kind of a miracle. I know that 89 years isn’t nearly long enough, but that’s what we got from BB King and I’m grateful.

bb-king-1950s

The topic of BB’s death came up today and someone asked me “why was that guy such a big deal?” I’m paraphrasing, but that was basically the question. I didn’t really have a very good answer at the time, mostly because I’m terrible at thinking, but after giving it some thought I think I know why BB King was so important. BB King was the most famous blues musician alive. He was an ambassador of an entire genre of music, how many other artists do you know that fit that description? BB King was a mentor to generations of artists and his influence is still felt today in the world of blues and rock music. He transcended age, race, socioeconomic status, everything. Today marks the end of an era, not just the music world but in the popular culture at large.

Rest in peace, BB King.

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Happy Birthday Keith Richards!

Today is Rolling Stones guitarist/mummified junkie Keith Richard’s birthday.  It’s sad that Richards (who turns 70 today) has become a bit of a joke simply because he’s managed to not-die.  Although to be fair, the joke isn’t that Keith Richards the musician is still alive, it’s that Keith Richards the vagabond-druggie is still alive.  There’s cheating death and then there’s dropping your pants and taking a huge dump on Death’s chest–Richard’s been doing that for decades.

Kids these days are more likely to know him as Johnny Depp’s pirate-dad than for “Satisfaction.”  That bums me out because Richards has contributed a lot to the world of rock n’ roll beyond his off-stage antics.  It’s widely accepted that Keith Richards is a fantastic guitarist and that his ability to write amazing riffs is second to none.  What’s not so widely-accepted is his ability to sing songs.  Since 1967’s BETWEEN THE BUTTONS Keith has been allowed to sing lead on at least one song per Rolling Stones album.  This has been viewed by many as a bit of rock n’ roll charity, similar to an arrangement The Beatles had with Ringo Starr.  But I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that, with all due respects to Mr. Jagger, 80% of my all-time favorite Stones songs are sung by Richards.

Keith is 70 and doesn't look a day over 700.

Keith is 70 and doesn’t look a day over 700.

Does Keith Richards have a pleasant singing voice?  No.  But there’s a haggard, raw quality to it that Mick Jagger’s voice lacks.  When Keith sings about hard living and late nights alone, you can hear his suffering in the timbre of his voice.  Time (and cigarettes) haven’t been especially kind to Richards voice, but in a way his rougher sound serves to accentuate his songs with a extra layer of desperation.  Much like with Bob Dylan, another take-him-or-leave-him vocalist, I find that hearing Richards sing his own songs adds an extra dollop of sincerity.  I’m sure Mick Jagger could have sung all the Stones tracks, but we’d be much poorer for it.

To that end, I present to you my Top 10 Keith Richards songs.  These feature Keith on lead vocals and while they may not have set the Top 40 charts ablaze, have a special place in my heart.  Here’s to 70 great years!

My Top 10 Keith Richards Songs

1. “Before They Make Me Run” off SOME GIRLS.  First off, this song has an amazingly good guitar riff.  The song is all about Keith’s legal problems following numerous drug busts.  At the time, Richards was facing the real possibility of doing some serious jail time.  So of course he writes a boozy song about “walking” before he’s forced to “run.”  It’s a badass song.

2. “Happy” off EXILE ON MAINSTREET.  This is Richards signature song, the one you’re guaranteed to hear him sing if you see The Rolling Stones live.  It’s heralded as his best song and with good reason.  Despite being recorded during one of the darkest periods in Rolling Stones history, “Happy” is bouncy and well…happy. There’s a real off-the-cuff aspect to his singing on the song, it’s almost like he’s making it all up as he goes.  This joyous spontaneity and the bright horn section make “Happy” truly great.

3.  “Wicked As It Seems” off MAIN OFFENDER.  This track is not a Rolling Stones song but rather a straight-up Keith Richards solo-song.  The song’s a slow burn with a  great groove.  This is the track that convinced me that Richards really was the heart-and-soul of the Rolling Stones.

4.  “You Got The Silver” off LET IT BLEED.  Keith Richards may be a rocker but he’s got the soul of a country artist.  In fact, my all-time favorite Rolling Stones affectation is when they do a country song. “You Got The Silver” is a mix of country and dirty blues, it’s simple but damn earnest.  I still get chills when I hear it to this day.

5. “Coming Down Again” off GOATS HEAD SOUP.  A gentle piano ballad sung by Keith Richards? Yep.  Add a knowing nod to drug abuse and you’ve got yourself a fantastic song.

6.  “Little T&A” off TATTOO YOU.  People give TATTOO YOU a lot of grief, and while it’s not the best Rolling Stones album it does have this tight little gem on it.  Many considered Richards past his prime by 1981, but Richards proves on this track that he’s just as spry as ever.

7.  “Locked Away” off TALK IS CHEAP.  Another Keith Richards-solo track, “Locked Away” almost sounds like a serious Traveling Wilbury’s song.  Richards is full of self-doubt and this track which also makes reference to prison/jail which like death has always loomed threateningly over the guitarist.

8. “Hurricane” off VINTAGE VINOS.  A short little acoustic bonus track recorded during 2002, “Hurricane” finds a creaky-voiced Richards quietly singing with just a guitar.  Even though it’s just a short, dashed-off track the song is endlessly compelling.  I think it’s the world-weary voice.  Keith sounds sound beaten it’s kinda heartbreaking.

9. “We Had It All” a bonus track recorded during the SOME GIRLS sessions. Another bonus track, “We Had It All” is a gentle ballad drenched with regret and sorrow.  Not quite country, not quite blues, the song wasn’t right for SOME GIRLS but it’s still really good.

10. “This Place Is Empty” off A BIGGER BANG.  The most recent track on my list, this song also has the roughest sounding Keith Richards vocals.  It’s a little creepy to hear old-man Richards ask his lady to “bare your breasts” I’ll admit, but this is a good song.  The song’s I-miss-you sentiment pairs well with Richards voice and somewhat halting delivery.

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RIP Levon Helm

Levon Helm 1940-2012

Yesterday the world of rock ‘n roll lost one it’s greatest voices–Levon Helm.  Helm was the drummer and singer in a band called The Band.  Despite a rather innocuous name, The Band were anything but ordinary fusing rock, country, and the sounds of Motown  into something truly great (and very American).  Most people became aware of The Band when the legendary Bob Dylan started using them as his back-up band (when they were still called The Hawks).  They contributed a lot to Dylan’s late 60’s sound, and the group were featured on Dylan’s (in)famous “basement tapes.”

In 1968, The Band released a “solo” record called MUSIC FROM THE BIG PINK.  That album, named after the pink country house in which it was recorded, became an instant classic.  It featured, among others, the song that would most be identified with The Band–“The Weight.”

When he wasn’t playing in The Band, Levon recorded solo albums and worked with other artists, almost too many to name.  In 1989 he joined Ring Starr’s First “All Starr Band.” I’ve also read that he was the ‘Levon’ in the classic Elton John song of the same name.  He was mostly known for playing the drums, but was also a guitarist and also played bass, mandolin, and harmonica.

Levon died yesterday after battling cancer.  His rich, soulful voice will be greatly missed.

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