The talk going around the Kentucky Horse Park as B.B. King was about to take the stage on a balmy August evening tended to settle on the same topic.
You couldn't find an audience member who wasn't ecstatic over the prospect of hearing the guitarist, vocalist and band leader who for over half a century has served as the living embodiment of the blues. You were also just as likely to hear the same fans remark that they felt this might be their last chance to hear the long-touted King of the Blues.
After all, when an artist has been on the road continuously since the '40s, you have to wonder when he is going to hang up his traveling shoes — or have them hung up for him.
That was 20 years ago.
Next week, blues monarch King returns to Lexington for a sold-out concert. At age 88, he has outlived or at least outlasted nearly all of his contemporaries. He records infrequently these days, but King still tours with enough frequency to remind each successive generation raised on his music exactly who remains the undisputed King of the Blues.
"No one will come up again hearing all he heard and seeing all he saw," wrote Colin Escott in the liner notes to the 1992 boxed-set anthology King of the Blues. "You may see him on television or at a supper club and the presentation may be slick, but B.B.'s music is informed by the Delta, its roadhouse juke joints with chicken wire to protect the singers, its Whites Only hotels and 500 mile jumps between gigs on gravel roads. That is the stuff of history. That is what you hear when B.B. King comes to town, and it won't come again."
King's early 1950s recordings of Three O'Clock Blues and especially Please Love Me were much in line with such juke joint music as well as the Southern rhythm and blues popularized by artists like Ike Turner. But from 1955 on, the key elements of King's sound had fallen in place: a sharp, stinging guitar sound that regularly reflected jazz phrasing, a joyous vocal command with churchy roots that turned seriously stormy when the right blues tune came along, and a revue-style band versed in soul and R&B but flexible to serve as a blues orchestra.
By 1965, those elements coalesced on King's first great concert record, Live at the Regal. But in 1970 came a studio album called Completely Well. King had been a star among blues and soul audiences for over a decade by this point. But tucked away within Completely Well was a song called The Thrill Is Gone. Serenely arranged with strings, it balanced a guitar solo of lean, elegant precision with a confessional vocal that was as heartbreaking as it was emancipating. It became a monster hit on pop and soul charts to cement King's crossover stardom. The live version of The Thrill Is Gone featured on 1971's Live at Cook County Jail stripped away the studio gloss for a disposition that sounded even more urgent and restless
There would be other classics down the road, including collaborations with Stevie Wonder (1973's underrated album To Know You Is to Love You), jazz-soul mavericks The Crusaders (1978's Midnight Believer) and U2 (the 1988 Rattle and Hum single When Loves Comes to Town). But nothing to this day matches the sleek twilight soul and scholarly Memphis blues of The Thrill Is Gone, even though its title in no way speaks to the working philosophy that has fortified the near 70-year reign of the King of the Blues.
"I look at every show like a test," King remarked in his 1996 autobiography Blues All Around Me. "I want the audience to feel like they're at a homecoming. But can I make the people out there feel like family? Can I make 'em feel how much I love the blues? Can I make 'em feel that the blues loves them? If the answer is yes, I've done my job. But if not, I'm out there the next night, trying a little harder."
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.