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Really The Blues

An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

The warmth, the coziness, the golden glow of the red and amber stage lights suffusing every corner of the room of Lee's Unleaded Blues Cocktail Lounge that greets you as you step 'cross the threshold--is this what the blues is about? The red fringe framing two small South Side Chicago bars and pretty bartenders named Cookie and Lovie, smiling and serving it up good to you--is this not the blues?

Maybe it's that prettified, no, glamorized older bunch sitting in the middle, or is it the guy by the door in work clothes and the sweet sisters at the other bar dressed casually and looking blasé, while everybody grooves to the blues beat of Gaylord, "The Arkansas Belly Roller."

Actually, it's all that. It's blues, with that magnanimous "back in the day" conviviality that cements the music's first function. That is, to entertain, and not complain--even while we all agree there is plenty to complain about. The blues is the encyclopedia of human frailty, but that is not its raison d'etre.

The blues is about that mesmerizing moment when we know that we are one. That is its first function and the reason why the blues lives.

You see, behind any present manifestation of the time-honored art form--be it a street-corner musician singing for change, or Madison Avenue blues created for mass consumption--the basic truth is that there are only three kinds of people in the world: those that have, those that had and those that are going to get the blues.

While a technical definition can be succinct--familiar chord progression, repeated lyrics, flatted notes in the melody and harmony, insistent beat--the form as a whole is nowhere near that simplistic. The blues is rhythm and dance, fast or slow, voices plaintive, mournful, exuberant and funny. The blues is American poetry set to the music of human emotion. Sophistication and sentimentality, sensuality and blunt braggadocio, rebellion and resignation, desperation and hope are all inside its simple three-line stanza.

Maybe the best way to know the blues is to go out and meet it. Like jazz in New York City, the blues is especially alive today in Chicago, and Riley B. King (better known as B.B.) is one reason. You can hear it when B.B. breaks into "Sweet Little Angel" and the ladies scream on his quintessential Live At The Regal (MCA), recorded in that Chicago performance space in 1964.

In Wheelin' on Beale, the story of WDIA-Memphis, "The Nation's First All-Black Radio Station," (Pharos Books, 1992), Louis Caston, the radio engineer, noted B.B.'s 1948 arrival this way: "There is a general kernel of agreement by those closest to the scene that he actually did come in out of the rain one day with his guitar wrapped in an old newspaper to protect it." The blues brims with folklore.

At 73 and working more than 300 days a year, King attributes his longevity to an honest approach to his music: "I kinda stayed true to what I believed in all the times I couldn't get paid for it and had to do it for less than what it was worth." The blues endures.

B.B. counts jazz musicians--Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Harry James, the Big Band leaders--among his show-business role models. "I stayed with the code I believed in, like uniforms on the stage, using good musicianship on the stage, never using foul language on the stage, and no drinking and smoking on stage," he says. "Play the best you can, treat the people the best you can, and try to make a show--a show." The blues can be uncomplicated.

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