Thursday, September 15, 2005

“If I have to go down to New Orleans and stand in the water, or stand in the mud to play at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival [this spring], I will,” B.B. King vows. Celebrating his 80th birthday today, the legendary bluesman stands as one of the most influential guitarists of the last century. Wielding a Gibson guitar that he affectionately calls Lucille, Mr. King has recorded more than 70 albums, performed more than 14,000 concerts and won 13 Grammy Awards. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

A Kennedy Center honoree and an inductee of both the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame (1984) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), Mr. King has left his mark on generations of music lovers with standards including “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Payin’ the Cost to Be the Boss.”

Among his recent undertakings, Mr. King broke ground in June on a $10 million B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Miss., where he once lived. Tuesday, to commemorate his latest milestone, he released “80”, a star-studded CD of duets featuring Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Elton John and others. In addition, a new coffee-table book, “The B.B. King Treasures” (Bulfinch Press), hits the shelves today.

But in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. King appeared in no mood to rejoice. Using the blues as a metaphor, he alluded to the plight of the underprivileged black community in New Orleans who suffered so heavily after the flood.

“Playing the blues is like being black twice,” Mr. King said in an interview. “We’ve never had an even break.”

Appearing dapper in an elegant black pinstripe suit and understated tie, Mr. King preferred to discuss the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina instead of promoting his latest work. Moreover, the bluesman underscored his determination to help preserve the unique musical culture of the region and rebuild from the devastation.

Having lost his longtime friend and musical peer, blues guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown this week, Mr. King has felt Katrina’s wrath personally. Mr. Brown, who was battling lung cancer before the flooding of his hometown, Slidell, La., died in Orange, Texas, after being evacuated.

Mr. Brown’s management indicated that the devastation of Slidell and the complete loss of Mr. Brown’s home had weighed heavily upon the 81-year-old musician.

“He was a good friend; we’d been friends since the early 1950s,” Mr. King said. In addition to the loss of Mr. Brown and the many others who have suffered and perished, Mr. King also said he has not yet heard from many friends and family members who live in the region.

Still, he remains optimistic.

“I personally believe that New Orleans will be rebuilt and will be better,” Mr. King said. “I only went through the 10th grade in high school, but I am a student of history. And I noticed that in the 1900s, Galveston, Texas, was devastated like New Orleans. Today Galveston is much better than it was,” Mr. King said.

(More than 6,000 people perished Sept. 8, 1900, when a Category 4 hurricane barreled into the Gulf Coast port city.)

Mr. King believes the vibrant musical culture of New Orleans will continue to thrive. “The people will still be alive, many less are dead than we previously thought, and if you have the people you will have the music,” Mr. King said.

“Blues and jazz must survive,” Mr. King continued. “People talk about the music of Beethoven; that’s going way back, and it has survived. Why shouldn’t blues or jazz survive?”

H. Andrew Schwartz is a contributing editor to OffBeat: New Orleans’ Music Magazine and is a graduate of Tulane University.

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