Just since the start of a new year, the world has lost what feels like an inordinate number of high-profile music-world figures: rock provocateur David Bowie, singer Natalie Cole, Eagles founding member Glenn Frey, composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner, jazz musician Paul Bley, Motorhead front man Lemmy Kilmister and superstar manager-record company executive Robert Stigwood, among others.
The Grammy Awards telecast typically pays homage to those who have died during the previous year, often singling out one of the most prominent for a musical salute. Given the deluge of deaths, it wouldn’t be hard to fill the three-hour time slot with salutes to the recently departed, but it’s no surprise that blues great B.B. King turned out to be a slam dunk for one of the featured spots in the Feb. 15 telecast.
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“It’s been a tough year,” Grammys telecast executive producer Ken Ehrlich told The Times this week. “We knew we wanted to do something for B.B. He was really one of our special Grammy guys.”
King, in fact, collected 15 Grammys during his 89 years, plus a lifetime achievement award in 1987. He received his first Grammy in 1970 — for male R&B vocal performance — with the hit that made him known to the masses, “The Thrill Is Gone.”
That song that will be performed on the show by rising country star Chris Stapleton, blues singer-guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and another longtime Grammys show favorite, singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt, who was a friend and disciple of King’s distinctive approach to the blues.
“So many of us were introduced to the blues by the British Invasion bands,” Raitt told The Times in May when King died. “The Beatles and the [Rolling] Stones turned a lot of us onto the more obscure American R&B and blues acts. You’d hear all those guys talk about their influences, people like Paul Butterfield and John Mayall, and B.B. King was their hero.
“After I got lucky enough to meet him, he remained one of the most gracious, humble, friendly and loving people I ever met in my life.” Regardless of being such a giant and so significant, as a friend and open-hearted man, I don’t think I've ever met anybody so humble and generous and gracious and appreciative.
“I think he had an awareness of his own position and why everyone respects him so much but he’s never been one to boast or be arrogant in any way, and that’s a very endearing quality in royalty.”
Ehrlich said he’d been planning to ask Stapleton to be involved in the show in some capacity and came across a performance of him singing “The Thrill Is Gone” on YouTube. Ehrlich suggested pairing him with Clark, who has been a regular at Grammys telecasts in recent years, and Stapleton subsequently asked whether they might also invite Raitt.
“I also had thought about Bonnie for this,” Ehrlich said. “It’s hard to go wrong with her. But he brought it up and asked if that made sense. I knew he was going to suggest her before the words came out of his mouth. We asked her, she said she’d be happy to do it, and it was done. We had one phone call with everybody on, and it just felt right.”
King was an almost universally beloved musician and personality, who regularly collaborated with other musicians. His influence extended far beyond blues circles both because of his unique approach to playing guitar and his distinctive vocal style.
“I can’t think of any artist who has had as much as an influence on modern rock 'n’ roll or R&B as B.B. King, and the blues as well,” Raitt said. “His guitar playing has been a monumental influence on so many people who’ve gone on to be come cornerstones of our musical legacies.
“Their own legacies trace to B.B. and his style of vibrato, the single note leads, his phrasing, his tone. Couple that with oftentimes people overlook that he’s such an amazing singer. His eloquence and his soul as a singer, the way he interprets a lyric, the way he plays his voice like an instrument — his voice is as intrinsic to who he is as an artist as his playing.”