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Return of the King

The Beale Street Blues Boy comes to Pompano Beach this Saturday by way of Melbourne, and a road behind it that spans an average of 250 concerts a year for the past 55 years, beginning with a 1956 road trip that included a staggering 342 one-night stands.

But it wasn't many black men who enjoyed number-one hits in the 1950s, and so B.B. King had to capitalize on 1956's "Three O'Clock Blues." After all, most black artists were too busy watching the folks at Sun Records steal all their ideas. Still, even given all of that, King has always been one for seemingly larger-than-life numbers. He is in four halls of fame (Blues Foundation, Rock and Roll, Performance Magazine, NAACP Image Awards), and his first pop hit, "The Thrill is Gone," was inducted into the Grammys Hall of Fame. Speaking of Grammys, he has 11 of them, having been nominated more than 20 times. And there's the near-dozen W.C. Handy Awards as well.

His longevity has helped him become synonymous with the blues. Most of his contemporaries -- Luther Allison, Muddy Waters, those other Kings (Freddie and Albert), Albert Collins -- are no longer with us. Of the old-school bluesmen who are still alive and whose playing remains consistent (notably Otis Rush and Buddy Guy), none can challenge B.B. King's status as the undisputed king of the blues. Quite a feat for a 76-year-old man born, like so many of his contemporaries, in a little town in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi.

But unlike many of his colleagues, who participated in the vast blues migration to Chicago in the 1950s, King went to Memphis. And it's a good thing he did. Without the electric Chicago blues to influence him the way it did Waters, Guy, and so many others, King developed a unique sound, one that has since been appropriated, to one degree or another, by nearly every other blues guitarist since his time. And even most rock guitarists, for that matter. Every time you hear a bent-note solo on a bluesy track, you can say a little thanks to B.B. King and his beloved Lucille.

For those of you uninitiated into the myth, Lucille is King's Gibson guitar. The legend, passed along by King as much as anyone else, has it that a fight over a woman by that name at an Arkansas bar during one of King's shows resulted in a fire. King and the patrons dashed outside to safety, but the bluesman ran back into the burning building to save his guitar. When King learned the name of the woman who inspired such pyrotechnic passions, his guitar was christened Lucille. And while his guitars have come and gone, the name has remained the same. As have the fiery solos King coaxes from his axe. B.B. King is the king of the blues because, while playing in a genre that tends to have an often limiting uniformity, he has shaped the blues instead of having the blues shape him.

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Dan Sweeney
Contact: Dan Sweeney

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