By Bill Stork, DVM
Inspired by the global success of Live Aid, conceived to bring awareness to the ongoing famine in Ethiopia, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young organized a movement to bring aid and awareness to the struggling American Family Farmer.
Farm Aid I took place on September 22, 1985, in Champaign, Illinois. The iconic lineup ranged from Texas songwriter Joe Elly to the Mount Rushmore of Country Music: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. Performing at 10:00AM may have been wholly out of character for Bon Jovi and Tom Petty, but they held nothing back. Few will forget Billy Joel's maniacal 22 minutes, on piano, vocals and at least 3 pots of coffee.
There were 44 acts, each one a giant in their genre, and that day they brought it all. However, ask any of the 80,000 of us who were there soaked and frozen for 14 hours and every note to name the single most enduring moment, and half, without hesitation, will say BB King.
Six days past his 60th birthday, navy blue 3-piece suit and tie, center stage. With Lucille strapped high around his neck and a football stadium in the palm of his hand, he eased into, "The Thrill is Gone." Let the record show that day, and two and a half decades to follow, nothing could be further from the truth.
With a Hammond B-3 organ underpinning the urgency, he pined "I'll still live on baby... but how lonely I'll be." With 80,000 people feelin' the pain, he dropped his head, pulled his elbows tight and Lucille close. He launched one of his trademark guitar sermons. As he paused to bend his bottom three strings and tug at your soul, his B-string snapped.
Oblivious to the driving rain, without pause or opening his eyes, he slipped out a replacement string. With a few whole notes and three soft choruses of "the thrill is gone" from the congregation swaying in synchrony, clapping the down-beats, the '58 Gibson was restrung, tuned. Before the thunderous applause would quiet, the undisputed King of the Blues and master showman launched.
As if to demonstrate that "the blues is all about feeling good, about feeling bad," he romped through "Let the Good Times Roll" and took every last one of us with him.
Ten years later I was blessed to be able to ring in 1996 with a dozen of my best friends, and BB King. By then he sat through most of his shows but what he lost as a performer was gained as a statesman. He was the headliner, and in charge to be certain. The venue was the magnificent Grand Central Station in Chicago but we had arrived early and were close enough that we could touch the monitors on stage. My vision of midnight was a beaming BB, sitting and strumming rhythm as two of his disciples, Sonny Landreth and John Hiatt worked the crowd and their instruments.
It is without an ounce of overstatement that BB King has deeply influenced everyone who has strapped on and plugged in an electric guitar since 1950. Through the middle of his career, he averaged over 250 appearances per year, and in 1956 played an exhausting 342 shows. He has performed for presidents, won 15 Grammies in 4 categories, medals of freedom and art heritage, been awarded honorary doctorates and decorated from Portland, Maine, to Stockholm, Sweden. He was unanimously voted into the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
Not to be overlooked is that his career spanned decades when James Hood was denied entrance to the University of Alabama, and Rosa Parks was expected to sit in the back of a bus. As our country struggled to integrate, artists like BB, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and the great Earl Scruggs were famously and demonstrably color blind. He appeared and recorded with countless artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton and U2.
After a show on the campus of the University of Illinois, a good friend wanted to meet the man, hoping his son would absorb the history he had just witnessed, while still in utero. His wife Kim was less thrilled. Familiar with the auditorium, we knocked on the stage door, which promptly opened. A handler nodded with a smile and promised that he would ask.
In minutes the door opened again, and there stood "The King of the Blues." Kevin was composed, if not original. He shook hands and clasped the elbow of BB King, unfazed that he had sweat through his sport coat in the course of the 90-minute show. Kevin thanked him for all that his music had meant to him, and how cool it was when he changed a string in the middle of a solo during Farm Aid.
As if he had no place to be, Mr. King smiled graciously and asked where we were from, and what we did for a living. As we answered, Kim tried to make herself small; not easy for a woman within weeks of delivering a baby, as she drifted a half step back at the end of the line. Politely and without breaking conversation, BB wiped his hands on a white cloth flung over his shoulder, and dropped to one knee before Kim. He covered her left hand with both his hands, looked up at the expectant and particularly self-conscious mother and spoke softly, "little lady, they ain't nothin' in the world more beautiful than a woman great with child."
BB King has been recognized and voted among the best and most influential artists and guitarists of our time. By my way of thinking, this renders it even more relevant that he is gracious, humble and a credit to his race... the Human race.
He is appearing on Saturday, May 18th, in Madison at the Overture Center for the Performing Arts. At the time of this writing, there are still tickets available.