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B.B. King Wowed Soviet Audiences

  • Mark Baker
  • Tom Balmforth

American blues legend B.B. King performs on stage at the Live at Sunset Festival in Zurich, Switzerland, in July 2012.

American blues legend B.B. King performs on stage at the Live at Sunset Festival in Zurich, Switzerland, in July 2012.

The music world has lost one of its all-time greats with the passing of U.S. bluesman B.B. King.

Fans around the world are mourning King's death, but for music lovers in Moscow and the countries of the former Soviet Union, King's loss strikes particularly close to home.

King -- the "King of the Blues" -- died peacefully at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 14. He was 89 years old and had been suffering from declining health the past year.

In early 1979, King toured the former Soviet Union for four grinding weeks, playing 22 sold-out gigs in five cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Baku, Yerevan, and Tbilisi. He was the first big R&B artist to ever play a concert in the Soviet Union and he turned the Soviet music world on its head.

He was best known for the 1969 hit The Thrill Is Gone, but his career as singer and guitar player spanned seven decades. He inspired generations of leading international musicians, including Eric Clapton, Otis Rush, Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Richards.

Russian Influence

Andrei Makarevich, the front man and founder of the legendary Russian rock group "Mashina Vremeni" (Time Machine), says B.B. King had a major influence on all Russian and Soviet blues musicians. He named leading blues musicians Sergei Voronov, Aleksei Belov, and Gia Dzagnidze.

Makarevich tells RFE/RL he was fortunate to have caught one of King's performances on the Soviet tour, flying to St. Petersburg specially from Moscow. He says he secretly recorded the concert at a time when much Western music was screened by Soviet censors or simply unavailable.

"Yes, I flew to [St. Petersburg] to listen to him. It was easier there," he says. "I recorded it with a tape recorder that was hidden in my bag so that I could study his strokes of the guitar and capture them."

Makarevich says he and other Russian musicians were wowed, above all, by King's electric presence on stage. "When you see a live performer, you feel their energy: it's completely different," he says. "B.B. King wasn't impressive because of the speed he played at or because he was better technically -- it was his remarkable energy. You could feel that...at a live concert with live interaction."

Bluesman As Statesman

The landmark 1979 tour was arranged as part of the U.S. State Department's Cultural Exchange program. The idea was to present a side of American culture Soviet audiences might never know about.

The Soviet side handled the tour's logistics and promotion, even earning King a modest ruble salary. King later said the pay was fair, though he said that earning money was the last thing on his mind when he agreed to go on the tour.

In a July 1979 interview, shortly after the tour was over, King waxed enthusiastic about the concerts and especially the reaction from the audiences.

"The thing...that really impressed me was [the audiences'] feeling for the blues. It's just the way it is in Britain and in Europe generally." The tour, King said, proved that music was "the international denominator for bringing people of all races, creeds, and color together."

Not much survives from that early Soviet tour, though the Tbilisi concert was recorded at the time for possible future release. Segments of that March 1979 show survive on YouTube, including a grainy shot of King playfully warming up his Georgian audience with a signature long jam.

'Arresting And Unfathomable'

In his book, Russia Gets The Blues, author Michael E. Urban writes that King's '79 Soviet tour was "a seminal event for a number of Russia's budding blues players -- their first encounter with pure blues performances live by one of the genre's living legends."

Russian audiences, according to Urban, reacted with "shock...filled with delight." King's music was both "immediately arresting" and "unfathomable."

The timing of the tour, however, was unusual, Urban writes, in that it coincided "with a period of political and cultural repression that pushed domestic rock 'n' roll and blues to the margins of public existence." The cultural clean-up at the time was possibly tied to Moscow's preparations to host the Summer Olympic Games the following year, in 1980.

Younger Russians aren't likely to remember the 1979 tour, but they may recognize King and his music from a popular concert video, called B.B. King and Friends, that made the Moscow club rounds in the '90s. That video starred Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Paul Butterfield, and several others. It was widely screened at pop and blues concerts between sets.

As news spread of King's passing, Russian blues fans -- young and old -- left heartfelt tributes on their Twitter feeds:

"A legendary musician has gone ... Rest in peace B.B. King."

"The king has died ... A blues genius, a pure genius."

"Kings of blues don't die."

King was born as Riley B. King on a tenant farm in Mississippi, and began picking cotton as a young boy. He got his start in radio with a gospel quartet in Mississippi but later moved to Tennessee, where he worked as a disc jockey, a job that gave him access to a wide range of recordings.

Having earned the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy" -- later shortened to "Blues Boy," and then finally to "B.B." -- he studied great blues and jazz guitarists like Django Reinhardt and T-Bone Walker before hitting it big in the 1960s with music fans of all genres.

With reporting by the Associated Press
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