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B.B. King ...Keeps The Blues Alive * 8/13/99 Conord, CA.

BB KingNo, the thrill is not gone, bluesman B.B. King's hit "The Thrill Is Gone" turned the near-capacity crowd wild on their feet. At Friday's all-star lineup included B.B King /Kenny Wayne Shepherd / Tower of Power and Indigenous at the Concord Pavilion. The wildest cheers were reserved for the beloved 73-year-old King; he provided the musical highlight. King can still play and sing with the emotion and purity that have sustained him for more than 40 years at an average of 275 concerts a year. The undisputed King of the Blues, he's the creator of the most widely recognized and influential blues guitar style: His vocal-like string bends and left-hand vibrato have become part of rock guitar vocabulary. During the first half of his hour-plus set, King and his eight-piece band played with conviction and beauty, especially on the instrumental ballad "Darlin' I Love You" and the vocal tune "I'll Survive." But he has nothing left to prove, and in recent years he has come to rely more on a showman's shtick: The last half-hour of his set included more talk than music and even a dispirited sing-along. King gestured ("I can't hear you, Concord!") and to his gracious thank-yous when they responded.

........B.B. King is considered to be one of the greatest blues guitarists of the late 20th century. His unique style of playing -- integrating single string runs, "bent" chords and left hand vibrato -- has influenced countless musicians after him, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Buddy Guy. B.B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925 to a poor family of sharecroppers living on the Mississippi Delta, near the town of Itta Bene, Miss. King's home life was very unstable and as a child he picked cotton to help with the family income. But King's mother brought him to church regularly, where King was first exposed to gospel music; he even learned some basic guitar skills from his preacher. In the 1940s King performed on street corners around nearby Indianola, Miss., worked as a truck driver and played guitar with a five-man chorus called "The Famous St. John's Gospel Singers." In 1947, with $2.50 in his pocket, King left Mississippi for Memphis to seek his fortune as a blues musician. Arriving in Memphis penniless, King moved in with his cousin, bluesman Bukka White, who spent nearly a year teaching him all the fine points of blues guitar. King's first big break came in 1948 when he performed live on KWEM, a radio station out of West Memphis. The successful radio debut led to a long-term agreement with competitor WDIA (one of the country's first all-black radio stations), where King performed weekly in return for plugging a health tonic called Pepticon. He was soon promoted to DJ, and became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, later changed to "Blues Boy King" and shortened to B.B. King. King made his first recordings in 1949 for Bullet Records, but switched to Modern Records (who owned the Kent, Crown and RPM imprints) that summer, signing a 10-year contract. RPM released six B.B. King singles in late 1949, earning him a strong local reputation. Late that year, a small Arkansas club where King was performing caught fire, and he valiantly rushed inside to save his Gibson guitar. Later King found out the fire started when a lantern was knocked over by two men fighting about a woman called Lucille, and so King named his guitar (and all subsequent guitars) Lucille to commemorate the event. King returned to the studio in 1951 to record his seventh single "Three O'Clock Blues," which became a 1952 radio hit, staying at No. 1 for 15 weeks. King gained a national reputation as an innovative blues guitarist and signed with Universal Artists, who sent him on his first national tour. In 1955 King began touring full time, buying a bus called "Big Red." In 1958 the bus got into a major accident while King was not on board; though no one was injured, the very weekend that the accident occurred, King was between insurance policies, leaving him with a huge debt. While he continued to play to large black audiences and was widely respected in blues circles, King did not enjoy the mainstream success of such contemporary black artists as Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. King changed to ABC Records in the early '60s, seeking wider recognition, only to find that ABC did not support his music. Despite being at the peak of his career, King languished in relative obscurity. Around 1965 things began to change for the blues, as the all-white Butterfield Blues Band brought the music into the mainstream, and B.B. King got some publicity when white musicians began crediting him as an influence. That same year he recorded his definitive live album, Live at the Regal. In 1966 King wrote what was to become his signature song, "The Thrill is Gone," inspired by his second divorce. The single became a huge crossover hit and changed his career, as King went from playing smaller blues clubs to larger jazz and rock venues, including the Fillmore East. King appeared on the "Tonight Show" in 1969 and "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1971, signaling mainstream acceptance, which was re-enforced with an opening slot on the 1969 U.S. Rolling Stones tour. King became increasingly popular during the '70s and '80s, playing clubs and festivals worldwide at a rate of nearly 300 dates per year. His music has taken him to the former Soviet Union, South America, Australia, Africa and Japan, as well as countless European cities. Irish rockers U2 asked King to record a track, "When Love Comes to Town," for their 1988 album Rattle and Hum. The song became a hit and introduced King to a whole new generation of music lovers. In a career spanning six decades, King has earned countless honors, including 18 Grammy Awards, enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), the Presidential Medal of the Arts (1990) and the Kennedy Center Honors (1995). In the early '90s, King opened his own blues club on Beale Street in Memphis. Now in his 70s, King has barely slowed down, continuing to tour relentlessly as America's "blues ambassador" to the world.

By Randy Cohen

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