Outside the loading dock of Portland, Ore.’s Roseland Theater, Jackie Greene needed to wind down from one of the most crucial sets of his young career. The year was 2003, before Greene had amassed a nationwide following and been tapped to play guitar for The Black Crowes and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. Greene was just another singer-songwriter based in Sacramento back then, and paying his dues by playing a gig with blues royalty: opening for B.B. King, the legendary guitarist and singer who died Thursday.
Greene played well that night in Portland, a baby-faced bluesman and songwriter in a slim black suit, but there were some rough spots, too. Greene won over the crowd enough during the 45-minute set that he was called out for an encore. But then, during the hushed ballad of “Don’t Mind Me, I’m Only Dying Slow,” a heckler let loose with a loud yell.
“Bring B.B. King on!”
The crowd gasped a little, but Greene, showing signs of a seasoned pro at barely 23 years of age, was unfazed. He wound down the final chords, and leaned into the mike with a parting shot.
“You know what?” Greene said while picking a few notes on his guitar. “A long time ago, B.B. King was an opening act.”
The crowd of 1,100 erupted in big cheers. Such gumption, that kid Greene.
But the truth was the audience was primarily there for King, not a hometown hero from Sacramento. King wasn’t just blues royalty, but among the greatest American artists of the past century. B.B. King had done for blues what Miles Davis did for jazz, not only serving as a key ambassador for the music but influencing generations of musicians.
Jimi Hendrix was known for a killer cover of “Rock Me Baby,” a Top 40 hit for King in 1964. A young Carlos Santana interpreted some King tunes with a Latin-rock groove. U2 recruited King for a duet on “When Love Comes to Town,” a key track from its “Rattle and Hum” rockumentary and album.
And that’s not to mention the legions of guitarists who ever played a 12-bar blues, hoping to emulate the impeccable phrasing of the master, or everyone who’s taken a spin on “The Thrill Is Gone” during karaoke night.
That would include Greene, too. King’s influence meant a lot to this young musician, the way he could captivate a crowd, the emotional honesty that struck your soul simply by the pick of a guitar string.
That night in Portland, Greene watched King’s set from the side of the stage. To be that close to the power and tone coming from King’s fingers would be a jaw-dropper for any musician. King was 78 then, a little slow in his walk, but the force of his playing was undeniable. Few guitarists could stick a note like King. He wasn’t a flashy, speed-for-the-sake-of-speed kind of showoff. But behind every note was singular purpose: to convey in sound what words couldn’t express. And those were fat guitar tones that could fill any sized room, and string bends that mimicked lovelorn cries or howls of joy.
Being in the presence of such musical greatness was humbling, even for a normally ultra-confident guy like Greene. As King’s set rolled along, Greene played a bit of air guitar and pantomimed keyboard licks – and then the kid was called to the stage.
“He’s young, he’s talented, he’s good-looking,” King said to the crowd. “A big hand for Jackie Greene!”
Approaching the blues legend, Greene clasped King’s right hand, the one that picked those timeless notes, and bowed.
The night had certainly been heady for a young musician with big dreams. So, Greene took a spot outside in the chilly Northwestern air, savoring a smoke next to the loading dock and decompressing with a few minutes of quiet.
Then, some commotion. A door opened, and King and his entourage started walking down the loading dock steps. King eyed Greene and stopped for a moment.
“Where’s your coat, son?” King said to Greene.
Greene turned a bit mush-mouthed, caught off guard by the question, and mumbled something about his coat being backstage.
“You need a coat,” King said. “You can’t just go from hot to cold like that. But you’ve done good. You’re very talented. You’ve just got to take care of yourself now.”
Now, the King is gone. But his booming vocals and guitar greatness will always resonate, whether it’s through the influence on Greene or any others who pick up a guitar and feel the blues coming through their fingers.
(Sept. 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015)
Born Riley B. King, this son of sharecroppers and former tractor driver emerged as one of the greatest names in blues and American music. Here are some notes about King’s lengthy career:
- His recording debut arrived in 1949 with “Miss Martha King.”
- B.B. King’s beloved “Lucille” is actually a name given to all his guitars. One of those was given to Pope John Paul II as a gift.
- King’s career was catapulted through a string of R&B hits in the 1950s, including “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “3 O’Clock Blues” and “Sweet Little Angel.”
- King was championed by a variety of rock artists in the 1960s, including Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendrix, who played a version of the King hit “Rock Me Baby” during a breakthrough performance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival.
- 1965’s “Live at the Regal” is considered not just among King’s must-have albums, but one of the greatest documents of blues music.
- King was a familiar face in pop culture, given his appearances on such TV shows as “Sesame Street,” “General Hospital” and “Married With Children.” King also served as a pitchman in commercials for Burger King, Northwest Airlines and Toyota.
- King embarked on a farewell tour in 2006, but continued performing through 2014.
- Following King’s death, a video of Eric Clapton paying tribute to King has been viewed more than 9 million times on Facebook.