Friday, June 30, 2006

Two Giants

Two titans in their respective fields, who were paying the cost to be the boss.

Here is a rare circumstance in which two of my abiding interests happen to intersect – The Blues and The Church. This is a photo of Blues legend B. B. King handing over his guitar “Lucille” to Pope John Paul II in 1997.

B.B. King might not be the most technically proficient blues player in the world, but as far as I’m concerned he’s earned his props just for being such an influential and seminal figure in the development of the electric guitar. Besides, he’s a beautiful player in his own right, with an unmistakeable, signature sound all of his own. He can play with great economy and taste. He can make his guitar sing and say more in a brief solo of a handful of notes than a guy like Johnny Winter can say in a blizzard of one hundred. Sadly, he has diabetes and is getting on late in years. He may not have much time left.

The Blues can’t be dismissed casually as “The Devil’s Music”. The purpose of the blues is to assuage pain. Like religious faith, it is a means to speak to the suffering inherent in the human condition and to ameriolate it. Country Music, with its tales of weal and woe and cheap trouble, has never appealed to me for some reason. I can’t relate to it at all. Maybe because it has no swing.. no lilt. I probably shouldn’t be able to relate to the blues for any logical reason either, but for some reason it grabbed me as soon as I heard it. It has always spoken to me as one of the most authentic types of music. “If you don’t like the blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul.”

Actually, the guitar that King handed over as a gift to JPII wasn’t the only, or original “Lucille”. Apparently, there have been as many guitars as women in his life. Here is B.B. telling the story of how he happened to name his guitar Lucille in the first place:
In 1949 I was playing a club just outside of Memphis. Actually, . . . it wasn't so much a club as a shack with a big room in it. For heat the manager lit a garbage can full of kerosene.

Well, don't you know these two men got to fighting over a woman and one of them knocked over that can. The whole floor instantly lit up like a river of fire and everyone, including B.B. King, went running for the door.

It was after I got outside that I realized that I left my guitar behind. I ran back in to get it, but the fire was so hot that the building started to collapse around me. I almost lost my life. I was pretty badly burned, but at least I saved my guitar.

The next morning I learned that the woman that those two men were fighting over was a waitress named Lucille. I named my guitar after her to remind me never to do something so stupid again.

And since you asked, here's a funny story. I got 16 different Lucilles. Every time I needed my guitar repaired, I'd send it to the factory. And while they were working on it, they'd loan me another one.

Only thing is, when I got my regular guitar back, I never did send back the loaner! So over the years I built up a pretty good collection. And when I travel, I only have two Lucilles on the road with me at a time.

Does this sound like a near-fatal barfight around closing time over a woman barely known to either man? Now, that is an old, familiar story. I’ve seen it happen many times myself.

As for JPII, he was an actor, poet, and singer in his youth. I guess he was known to play a bit of guitar too. When I look at photos of the young Karol in those shades with a vaguely beatnik type of look, I wonder if he ever tore off a few blues riffs on the guitar himself back in the day.


crystal said...

BB King has guitars with names, like Antonio Stradivari and his instruments :-) .... I like the blues of Clapton, but I haven't ventured far into that area.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Eric Clapton is a great blues player and one of my very favorites. He has a chameleon-like quality with which he's tried to make himself over into various guises over the years (including his disastrous Phil Collins-produced era), but in his heart and soul, he'll always be a bluesman and he knows it. Every once in a while he recharges by re-immersing himself in his blues roots. At some point, you should check out the CD and the DVD "Me and Mr. Johnson", in which he retraces the steps of Mississipi Delta Blues legend Robert Johnson.

crystal said...

Thanks, Jeff, I'll look for that.