I was thirteen when I first heard the blues. It was in a rehearsal room – one autumn evening – and we ‘d just finished a run through of the play. I was getting my things together when another cast member started playing “ Basin Street Blues” on the old piano. I was hooked straight away – that slow, bitter-sweet tune coming out of the shadows went straight to my heart.
It stayed there over the years . I got to know them all – Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters – but two of them became my special heroes – John Lee Hooker and BB King. John Lee was very courtly, polite, controlled. He played a blues which was minimalist, oriental and intriguing.
BB, on the other hand, was expansive ( in every sense of the word). He came up the hard way, starting life as a farm hand and tractor driver, got his first guitar when he was 15 and learned to play by playing, and listening to his mentor Bukka White. He worked for local, then national radio, got a band together and played non-stop for the rest of his career. In one year he took only five days off.
His music is rich and smooth- think velvet smoking jacket, log fires, tumbler of whisky – and yet there’s a lot more to him than that. He’s got depth. Just look at tracks like “ The Thrill is Gone”, where he sounds like a soul in torment.
But one track stands above all the others – “ The Blues Come Over Me “ – it tells the whole story. Just look at the lyric :
“My baby gives me love
I just leave her crying”
He’s talking about an overwhelming sadness which comes unsought. There may be no reason for it – it just appears. He is inconsolable. We know this. We’ve been there.
“Some go to sleep and wake up
Tangled in the blues “
Isn’t that a brilliant choice of words ?
You get the blues and it’s as though a cloud is covering the sun, and while it’s there
“All the clocks say midnight
when the blues come over me.”
That’s what it feels like, and the only thing you can do is remember that it has happened before, that it will go away in time, like a cloud across the sun.
Don’t think that BB was a blues Mr Misery. He played some solid, upbeat rockers like “ Ridin‘ with the King “ and “ Hold On” He loved,eye popping waistcoats, and tuna sandwiches. He was fun.
But he was best at giving a sound to sadness, reminding us that every song, however sad,
comes to silence in the end.