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  • One day B.B. King is going to die. I say this because everyone dies, eventually, and B.B. King is 86 years old. One day B.B. King is going to die and pages and pages of words will be written about him. College boys who insist they only love “real music” will write “RIP BB” on their Facebook walls and tell the girls in the quad how If You Love Me is the best love song they’ve never heard. Gangly white hipster baristas in LA will tweet about how much they loved Lucille and how BB was at his prime in 1970 before they added strings to The Thrill is Gone LP. Proper journalists will chronicle his illustrious career, his brutal touring schedule (200+ nights a year, even into his 70’s), and his rags-to-riches story as the son of a Mississippi Delta sharecropper. Rock critics will note his undeniable influence on early guitar gods (Clapton, Hendrix, Richards) and the staggering amount of soul in his left index finger. All of these tributes will sound like predictably reactionary “legendary old guy dies let’s all pretend he was the most important thing ever” media nonsense, but for me, all of it will be 100% true. No single musician has meant more to me than B.B. King.

    When I was 15, I wanted to play guitar so I could serve God. I’m not joking. I knew who Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix were, but I also knew they were druggies who were probably headed for hell or in Jimi’s case, already there. I wanted to play guitar and sing songs about how much I loved Jesus; Jimi and Eric never did that. It wasn’t an electric guitar I wanted to play anyway. In church, we only used big fat acoustic Yamahas or Takamines and “soloing” was unnecessary for praise music. Just learn D, A, G, chords and maybe a Bm and you’d be set. Learn the E scale and bar chords and you’re a bona fide christian rock star. I was a quick study, learning chords from a book and picking up strumming patterns from my older cousins. I was dedicated enough to finally warrant a visit to the music store with my dad a few months later and he ponied up $299 for a brand new Washburn D12. It was nothing but church songs and major scales for me.

    A few weeks later, I don’t remember how it happened or where, but someone saw me playing guitar and told me to listen to a song called The Thrill is Gone. I found it on Napster and it was the first secular (gasp!) song I ever illegally downloaded. As soon as I hit the Play button on WinAmp my memory goes blank. I only remember bliss. What the fuck was this? How can something sound so sad and sweet and pure and happy? That was it - whatever it was, that’s what I wanted in my ears all the time from then on.

    I downloaded everything. Internet was so slow back then and downloading entire albums was out of the question, so I double-clicked the most innocuous sounding song titles: Sweet Little Angel, Let the Good Times Roll, Why I Sing the Blues, Lucille, Paying the Cost to be the Boss, Blues Man. I listened and I listened and I had no idea how he was doing it. How can two notes sound like three and a half? How can one note sound so sad? Sometimes I swear I would KILL to have YouTube back in my room at 15 years old trying to figure out the notes BB was playing, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. The magic wasn’t in the notes, it was in the hands.

    B.B. King was born Riley B. King. He was born on a plantation in 1925. A fucking plantation. He was given his first guitar around age 12 and he hasn’t put it down since. He moved away to Memphis in the 1940s, playing churches and street corners. Riley B. King eventually became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy and then just Blues Boy, that’s where the B.B. comes from. Somewhere between being raised on a fucking plantation and playing on the corner of Beale Street, whatever was inside BB came out through his guitar, Lucille. Lucille is big, black, and beautiful. Make of that what you will. She plugs straight into the amp - no pedals, no compressors, no overdrive, no nothin. Whatever you hear coming out of that loudspeaker is Lucille singing straight into the mic. No lip syncing, no auto tune. Shit, not even delay. Like BB says in his song Lucille, “I like the way Sammy sings and I like the way Frank sings, but I can get a little Frank, Sammy, a little Ray Charles, in fact all the people with soul in this. A little Mahalia Jackson in there.” Look out.

    50 years later, the Beale Street Blues Boy is blaring from the stereo of an Electron Blue Pearl Honda Civic Si piloted by a 16 year old Korean boy living in rural Maryland. Sport Compact Car and B.B. King Live at the Regal defined my life from 1998-2000. The Washburn D12 was now collecting dust in the corner of the bedroom and a cheap Epiphone Les Paul was connected to a mini Crate practice amp beneath my desk. I bought a Les Paul because it looked close to what BB played, I bought a white one because I didn’t want to copy him too much. This is what passes for creativity in the mind of a 16 year old. Every day I sat and copied. A phrase here, a note there. Most nights I’d quickly become frustrated and give up, and instead of working it out, I’d make some pathetic scale runs in an attempt improvise my own way through a song. It was an awful, undisciplined, way to practice and retarded my musical development by about ten years. I wish I had known that it was all in the hands - there was really nothing to figure out because the actual notes were secondary.

    B.B King taught me the beauty of soul. He taught me the power and sophistication of simplicity; how fucking hard it is to make it sound good. B.B. King is the first musician to make me feel something more than hearing it. He unlocked my awareness of feelings like melancholy and joy that I didn’t know were inside me. It all sounds trite now, but at sixteen, who else could teach me things like that? And to this day, in a world full of tools and gimmicks and gadgets, I’m reminded of the truth of B.B. King: you don’t need anything but a good pair of hands and a little soul to be whoever you want to be.

    What I needed to know at sixteen, living as the yellow alien among white folk, was that emotions are universal. Soul translates in any language at any time in any place. Soul is colorblind and ageless. Even I, Kyoung Whan Choe, born in Seoul, South Korea, living in Frederick, MD could have both Seoul and Soul (sorry, couldn’t resist). If I wanted to love the blues, I could love the blues - I didn’t have to look like B.B. King to love B.B. King. Again, it sounds obvious now, but this is earth-shattering to a sixteen year old who sees the world in terms of Age, Sex, and Location (A/S/L, remember that?). My previous love of church music was fueled in part because it united us under the banner of Christianity, regardless of race or gender or age. BB taught me that soulful music is the same way. Soul is truth and truth is universal. In hindsight, that’s the truth that really set me free.

    All of this truth flowing from the hands of a Beale Street Blues Boy who would become a King. The truth is in the King’s hands. Long live the King.

    (Photo credit: Mike McGregor)
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