In the summer of 1971, I was 17 years old. My friend, Bruce, and I went to see B.B. King at the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, Connecticut. We may have been the only two white dudes in the place. We most certainly were the youngest. And we were in no way prepared to comprehend what we witnessed and became a part of that day.
I was a fledgling guitar player. I owned the quintessential, cream-finished Fender Telecaster. When I heard the raw, lyrical emotion and the singing, stinging melody B.B. wrung from Lucille, I wanted to go home and reduce my Telly to kindling. If the expressive capabilities of the electric guitar had already been taken to the exultant extreme we were hearing, what was the point of anything I might do with the instrument?
I was also a straight-laced, uptight, struggling-to-find-myself Irish Catholic boy. Being in the Oakdale on that transformational night was like being in church — a church of which I’d neither dreamed nor imagined — part charismatic revival, part spiritual ecstasy, part transcendental communion.
The Oakdale Theater was round. In keeping with the feel of a revival, it was a huge tent. The stage rotated slowly the entire time. At one point during the observance, the band brought the volume and tempo way down. B.B. put Lucille in her stand. As he did so, every woman in the tent moved to the aisles and began a slow procession toward the stage.
B.B. came to the front edge of the stage and took a clean, white handkerchief from his back pocket. He unfolded it. As the stage circled on its slow path, B.B. tenderly wiped the face of the woman at the head of every aisle. And the ceremony continued until every woman’s face had been wiped in her turn.
Bruce and I were struck dumb. And we were never the same.
After that, I saw B.B. at least 30 times. Each time was a renewal, a baptism, a return to my youth, and a reminder that there are, indeed, constants and universal truths. B.B. King sang the truth. Lucille sang the truth. Bruce and I witnessed and experienced the truth that never left us.
On Thursday, May 14, 2015, B.B. King left us. His truth did not. It will not.
If you happen to be one who chooses not to believe in a God, please explain B.B. King to me.
There will never be another like him.
Photo by Roland Godefroy, via Wikimedia Commons,