John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Thrill Is Gone

The late B.B. King got disparaged by some as an entertainer, but he was a true blues musician who will be missed.

By - May 20th, 2015 12:20 pm
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B.B. King. Photo from Facebook.

B.B. King. Photo from Facebook.

I know… it’s the most obvious of all his songs and certainly nothing new to anybody who was alive back then thrilling to it on the radio. But there’s a whole lot to talk about when discussing an iconic figure like B.B. King and I think this song encapsulates the enigma he was better than some lesser- known songs that might be just as good.

The whole story of the blues could have been written by studying King’s eventful life. He was a sharecropper’s son from a little place called Itta Bena, Mississippi. (I seem to recall a Paul Cebar title that mentions that magic locale.) Born Riley B. King, with the “B” not standing for anything in particular, he was in the fields picking, planting and whatever else you do all day in the hot sun with cotton. In a system that came pretty close to slavery, the families would work all year and when the accounting was done at the end of the year, often ended up owing the owners. This was because they bought much of what they needed at the “company store,” paying premium prices on pauper’s wages.

B.B. was an orphan by age 14 and headed to Memphis with his guitar and a lot of determination. He quickly landed a job at WDAI, one of the first stations to feature all-black programing. His talent was in place and the gig at the station allowed him to soak up every influence like a sponge. He had heard little other than live music growing up, so he was in hog heaven. He was a voracious listener and respected no boundaries, low or high. To him, Howlin’ Wolf was every bit as wondrous as the more polished Louis Jordan. The barefoot country boy made his home in the big city of Memphis, often referred to as the capital of Arkansas and Mississippi. The line between down home and uptown soon got permanently and fortuitously smudged.

The Thrill Is Gone was an older song, written by west coast blues musicians Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell. B.B must have come across it when he was at the radio station. It sounds like it came straight from his soul. I chose this version, less fiery than some others, from late in his career. He’s sitting, most likely because of the health issues he faced late in his life. I wouldn’t interpret this as low energy, rather it’s more focused. He seems to inhabit the lyric more deeply and his playing is relaxed and exquisite. Is it possible to get better as the years go on? This video answers yes.

If you listen to his voice and guitar, the urgency and pain are out in the open. No smoothness to distance us from the hurt, but instead a rawness… country rawness. The strings may or may not be real, it’s hard to tell. Either way, they are nicely arranged, well played and seem like they might belong in another song. An oddly elegant setting, but the whole package works.

“The Thrill is Gone” was a huge hit and deservedly put King on the map; soon he was playing for a larger and whiter audience. It was good timing, he was losing his original fans to soul and funk, with disco and hip-hop just around the corner.

King reportedly was terrified when he was booked into the mostly white Fillmore. He was stepping way outside his comfort zone. If you can imagine a white act playing the Apollo, you probably can sympathize. He needn’t have worried, though. After a sterling intro from Bill Graham, the crowd ate it up and he was on the road for the rest of his life, working anywhere and everywhere, with adoring fans at every stop.

The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away from me
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away from me
Although, I’ll still live on
But so lonely I’ll be

The thrill is gone
It’s gone away for good
The thrill is gone baby
It’s gone away for good
Someday I know I’ll be open armed baby
Just like I know a good man should

You know I’m free, free now baby
I’m free from your spell
Oh I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well

© Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell

I must confess I spent a few years not fully appreciating this master. I had seen him and loved him, then over time, I may have forgotten what a joyous show it was. Instead I concentrated on his slickness and love of show business. He preferred big bands and wasn’t living up to my concerns about “authenticity,” which I equated with the sharecroppers experience. I must have been thinking too hard. I know… my problem, certainly not his.

I had my eyes reopened at an outdoor show he shared with Dr. John, who wore a live boa constrictor as he danced to his piano. Hard to top… unless you’re B.B. King. He put on a magnificent show, with energy, soul and a band that didn’t miss any opportunity. His trumpet player and bandleader were in the air at least have the time, bopping up and down with joyous abandon. King played and sang with integrity, grace and deep, deep feeling. He loved what he was doing and wound up leading this stray listener back to his always expanding pack of believers. How could I have been so wrong?

The dichotomy of the blues, low-down versus uptown, is a false one. In an expansive and generous soul like the one B.B. King had, there’s room for everything. He simply delivered all of the blues, distilled to it’s honest core and offered up to anyone with working ears and a ticking heart. Rest in peace, Riley.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Thrill Is Gone”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been noticing that many people have been posting B. B. King songs on Facebook and mourning him being gone and noting the songs that they remember him playing when they were younger!

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