On Hearing B.B. King and Knowing It

Sometimes I play a mind game called “it is late or early for different people”—It’s hard to describe. Essentially it’s an exercise in appreciation. I try to imagine how much of life’s sweetness remains inside people. It’s a game of admiration. When I meet old acquaintances after years I see some have managed to keep their joy. They still have the “early” within them. You can play the game with anyone—eyeing strangers on a bus, sitting at a concert.

I heard blues legend B.B. King in live performance just once. He was playing a small club in Iowa City and I was lucky and got a ticket. I was smart enough to get there early and I grabbed a seat down front. This was in the 1970’s. I don’t think there was a single person of color in the audience. I felt badly about that. I sensed the qualified risibility of playing blues for favored people. But if Mr. King felt it, it didn’t show. He played and sang as if he knew everyone. And on that evening I figured it out—he had the “early” inside. The power of blues resides in what a singer won’t give away. “It’s bad out there, but you can’t have this!”  It’s why Leadbelly’s “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie” is so darned sweet. Bogart always had Paris but King always had “early”.

The thrill is gone, but I’ve still got first love, right here, under my ribs.