On May 15, 2015, at 11:45 AM, my older brother, Bob Probst, wrote and forwarded to my younger brother and me the following in regard to the passing of B.B. King:
An iconic musical giant, and a powerfully personal hero of mine, has passed into immortality. Riley B. King, better known as B.B. King, has died in Las Vegas at age 89.
I was fortunate enough to see this man perform on five separate occasions during my lifetime. The most memorable was the first, when I attended one of his shows at the legendary Club Paradise in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee in the spring of 1973. I was accompanied by my longtime friend Rick Hurd, and a small group of our Memphis pals.
This concert was unforgettable for so many reasons. The venue was in a section of the city that still exhibited the widespread devastation resulting from the riots that occurred five years earlier, following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The price of admission was three dollars and fifty cents (!).
As we went inside, I immediately noticed a large sign above the entranceway that stated “Please Leave Your Weapons At The Door”. To the right of the ticket booth, there was a literal stockpile of guns, knives, brass knuckles, blackjacks, etc. I was terrified, more so as I realized quickly that we were part of a very small minority of white patrons.
Miraculously to me at the time, we were welcomed with friendly, open arms, and in fact, were given a front row table, center-stage. That warm reception in and of itself was a revelation that I took with me for always.
When B.B took the stage, I was seated less than ten feet in front of the man. He immediately launched into his classic ‘The Thrill is Gone’ (a big radio hit around that time) followed by a seemingly endless performance that was nothing less than breathtaking. He sang and played his beloved Gibson ES-355 guitar with raw emotion and startling power; every note he exuded soared with truth and beauty. It was something ethereal that crept into my bones and remains to this day.
B.B. himself had said in interviews that he played his guitar ‘Lucille’ the ‘economy way’. Rather than the extended leads and lightning-fast, shredding style so prevalent in today’s rock and blues music, B.B played sparse solos and short fills where he could speak volumes with one single note. He utilized the guitar in a way that both complimented and accentuated his stirring and soul-drenched vocal phrasings, but never distracted from them. This was never more evident than that night in 1973. I can say with all honesty, that I was nearly moved to tears.
There were no intermissions, no breaks that night. B.B. was on fire, and I don’t think he would have stopped playing if the roof of the place had fallen in. By the time we left, it was close to 3:00 AM, and he was still going strong. In fact, some members of his band were so exhausted that they had to stop, and B.B. wound up recruiting musicians from the audience to fill in so he could continue. As we left the club, the sounds of his explosive voice and exquisite guitar soloing followed us out into the early Memphis morning.
It should be noted too that with B.B’s departure, a critical chapter of American musical history has come to a close. He was the very last of the legendary bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta.
This great performer gave me moments in my life that will never go away, and I couldn’t be more thankful. R.I.P, Riley. You truly were the King of the Blues.
Thank you, Bob, for this moving tribute. I read it with a combination of tears and goose bumps. ~ Robin