Blues guitar legend B.B. King didn’t have Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan to listen to while he developed his playing style, but each of those greats had King.
“It’s B.B. King and his contemporaries that are responsible for the shift in the guitar’s role and function,” said guitarist Wallace Mullinax, who will perform with Elise Testone in the opening set at King’s show Tuesday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. “There’s a lot of sonic space between Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix, but it was all bridged by B.B. King.”
Born Riley B. King in 1925 in Itta Bena, Miss., B.B. King’s influences were the acoustic-playing Delta bluesmen of his region. Along with fellow guitarists like Albert King and T-Bone Walker, B.B. King embodied the transition from acoustic to electric blues music.
Taking up the guitar at 12, music provided the young King his ticket off the cotton plantation where he was raised. Working in Memphis, Tenn., as a DJ and singer, he established himself as a bandleader by his mid-20s.
That was 1950.
In the six decades since, King’s career and stature have exceeded that of any other blues guitarist and singer. He is a Grammy winner, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a consummate performer, taking the stage 300 nights a year well into his 70s.
Today, King is 87 and still out on the road playing his hollow-body Gibson ES-355 “Lucille,” perhaps the most famous named guitar in history. It’s the style in which he plays Lucille, however, that’s left an indelible mark on so many musicians who derive inspiration from him.
Testone first recalls seeing King perform when she was a student at Coastal Carolina University in 2004.
“As soon as he stepped foot on stage, my eyes were just glued to him,” recalls the local singer and “American Idol” veteran, who will open for King at Tuesday’s show. “It was his whole presentation; his storytelling, his personality and the character in his voice. B.B. King can hit one note and within it there are 20 different feelings trapped inside. You can just tell that when he sings, it’s a release of all the pain and emotion he’s felt through his entire life.”
Testone and her band are putting the final touches on her debut album, “In This Life,” due for release this summer. She’s self-producing the collection’s 12 original songs, some of which she’ll perform in stripped-down acoustic versions at the show with Mullinax, bassist Ben Wells and drummer Daniel Crider.
For Mullinax, opening for King is a career milestone, but even more of an honor. “It’s one of those things that I know I’m going to treasure forever,” said the guitarist, who credits King for aspects of his own playing style. “When you start to learn how to solo, the very first progressions you work with are vamps and blues, so stuff like ‘The Thrill is Gone’ is right there. I’ve been playing B.B. King songs since I first learned to play single-note stuff on guitar.”
Specifically, Mullinax refers to King’s introduction of a technique known as the “butterfly vibrato” to the guitar-playing lexicon, lending a heavy flutter to a single string that nearly simulates the sound of a slide. It’s the move that leads people to identify King as a player whom listeners can identify by hearing just one note.
“He opens his hand and usually uses his index finger on the string, and it almost looks like a butterfly flapping its wings,” said Mullinax. “That move is so fundamental to guitar playing that it’s almost as important as the first guy to play with a pick or the first guy to play single-note solos as opposed to just comping chords. It’s so important that when you do it, you’re not ripping off B.B. King; you’re just being absolutely respectful to the fundamentals of guitar. It is to single-note electric guitar what butter is to cooking.”
Whether directly or through the osmosis of techniques into other players, most electric guitarists have been influenced in some way by King’s playing.
Lee Barbour, a local musician with the groups Post-Cobra and Barbour + Kaler + Jenkins, who has taught jazz guitar at the College of Charleston, recalls King’s records playing in his home as a child. When he picked up his dad’s guitar in the ninth grade, it was King’s licks that he tried to emulate.
“I came back to him three or four years ago after I’d been through this whole maze of jazz and rock and funk guitar,” said Barbour. “As a jazz guitarist, so much importance is put on harmonic complexity, as opposed to tone. B.B. King uses his hands to get the most out of the simplest phrases.”
Another Charleston guitarist, J.R. Getches, recalls King’s hands being “as big as catcher’s mitts.” Getches, who now performs with the Louie D. Project, once opened for King in New York in the mid-’90s. Backstage after the show, King let the young guitarist play Lucille.
“He uses the heaviest gauge strings I’ve ever encountered, like cables on a guitar,” recalls Getches. “His hands are so big and strong. It’s amazing how much strength he has to get that level of vibrato in his playing.”
A military brat, Getches first discovered King’s music while living in Bangkok, Thailand, as a teenager. One day, the soldiers at the base’s pool were listening to music that caught his ear. It was King’s 1970 album, “Indianola Mississippi Seeds,” which features Leon Russell on piano.
“I heard a song and said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I had not been touched by music like that before,” Getches remembers. “I had my father take me over to the PX and bought a copy and wore that sucker out.”
Getches found a book about King’s playing technique and began studying what it meant to play the blues. In the end, what he learned the most from King’s style was “what not to play.”
“It’s not the notes he plays, but the spaces between them,” Getches explains. “King has these amazingly spare but emotive riffs.”
King’s influence dates even farther back into the life of George McDaniel, the guitarist with Charleston group The Shutter Dogs. Born in Memphis, Tenn., McDaniel’s father was assistant director at the Center for Southern Folklore. He’d book performances for King in town and brought his young son to the show’s sound check.
“I have pictures of me on stage with B.B. when I was 2 years old,” said McDaniel, who plans to attend the concert with his father. “B.B. King cuts it right down to the core. He doesn’t overplay. He does so much with one note, and that’s harder to do than to run 100 miles an hour through a scale.”
Blues guitarist Sarah Cole also had the chance to meet King as a child, when her family traveled to Seattle to hear King play a two-night run when she was 13.
“You could really tell in B.B. King’s voice that what he was singing was pretty real, and I just felt it,” explains Cole, who soon thereafter began performing King’s song “How Blue Can You Get” with her group, ColeTrain. “Our singer in the band was 14, and there’s a line where he sings, ‘I gave you seven children, and now you want to give them back.’ That was funny to hear him sing, but it’s cool to see younger people still listening to B.B. King all these years later.”
Keyboardist Gary Erwin (aka Shrimp City Slim) recalls King and Bobby Blue Bland performing in Charleston at the King Street Palace in 1993. Erwin’s group at the time, Blue Light Special, opened the show and hung out with King in the dressing room after the show.
“I remember he had a nice, firm handshake, the kind of handshake you partake of carefully. ... You don’t want to damage those digits!” recalls Erwin. “I think what has distinguished B.B. King from other blues artists is his consummate professionalism, showmanship and the easy-going, generous demeanor of the master entertainer. He is one classy man and has been from the start.”
Each local musician cites the 1965 album “Live at the Regal” among the recordings that has influenced them most. In it, the audience sounds much like one expected at a Beatles concert, with hundreds of women’s shrieks cutting through the noise.
It’s a testament to King’s stature and role in the history of American music, and it’s a modern-day miracle that half a century later it’s still possible to hear him perform in Charleston.
“Knowing that I can be that age and still want to go out and do this is as impressive and inspiring as anything,” said Mullinax. “I still come back to King’s technique when I practice. You could spend a lifetime trying to achieve his singing quality on the electric guitar. What King first did, everybody else has done since. He’s that important to the vocabulary of a blues guitarist.”