Friday, September 16, 2005

Happy birthday to the King
BB King, that is, who turned 80 today. (He shares a birthday with Katie Snell, 7-year-old daughter of our good friends Mike and Lisa). Riley King may be a beloved cultural icon, but he's also a wonderful musician; Clapton and Stevie Ray both considered him on of the greatest guitarists. By all accounts, he's also a lovely man with a big heart who can still play. Many happy returns.
We keep losing BB's contemporaries and colleagues -- pioneers who can never be replaced. Over the past few months, Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry's longtime piano collaborator and the first sideman selected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) passed on at 80. Last week, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown left us at 81.
It was fascinating how both these legends transcended categories. Johnson, a jazzman by training, recorded two pretty solid albums with country outlaws The Kentucky Headhunters, and even toured with them. Gatemouth appeared on "Hee Haw" so that he could jam with Roy Clark.
I was fortunate enough to see Gate play an outdoor festival in D.C. about a decade ago with what looked like a biker band backing him. (Their opening number was "Hot Rod Lincoln.") The performance was vintage Gatemouth, crossing genres as the quiet legend picked his guitar and puffed on his pipe during instrumental breaks by the other musicians. He had his fiddle on stage that day, but decided not to take it from the stand.
I regret not seeing Johnnie Johnson perform in person. But if you catch Taylor Hackford's 1987 rockumentary Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, you can't miss Johnnie, tickling the ivories. (BTW, that film celebrated Chuck's 60th birthday. He'll be 80 soon, too. Yikes.)

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