Luke R Davies
Blacktown, New South Wales, 1986
I was introduced to this great BB King recording shortly after I joined a band called Steppin’ Out. An ad pinned to a notice board in a local music shop led me to a strange answering machine message; I eventually made contact and auditioned twice. The second time I was offered the job of singer and harp player. The band took its name from the instrumental on a John Myall and The Blues Breakers album where Eric Clapton played himself into legend status. Our first guitar player and senior member, Graham, was a dedicated Clapton fan so the name was a good fit. We also covered that track at most gigs – and we did gig a bit too in those days, mostly pubs with our brand of blues and boogie.
Once a week without fail we got together, the rehearsals set a social meter to my life. The guys were all older and more experienced players than me (23 back then.) The others were hitting or passing 30, with Graham the veteran at 38. The band exposed me to a whole new world in life and music.
Our bass player Gary had a record collection to be envied and his house was like a music shop with lots of instruments, posters, clutter – but cool looking clutter. He lived on his own at that time and it was the band’s rehearsal place. In most ways Gary and I were opposites, our common bond was music and a love of drinking lots of coffee. He was a biker looking guy who had decided music was more important than being a patched member of a club. Gary was a very funny guy and had a way with the girls.
I was already a fan of BB King, had a couple of tracks on a compilation album, early stuff like Three O’clock In The Morning and Rock Me Baby. One day Gary asked whether I’d come across BB’s 1964 Live at the Regal album. So it came to pass, Gary introduced me to the best live blues album I have ever heard. The whole thing is a tour de force of the power of music to move you, an astonishing record.
Soon after the needle finds its groove the MC declares “And now ladies and gentlemen the world’s greatest blues singer, the King of the Blues, BB King”. The band strikes up, the crowd goes wild, BB and the band get into an upbeat driving version of Memphis Slim’s Every Day I Have The Blues. BB brings the dynamics down and the band plays soft and slowly, he lets us know he is going way down in the alley to play some real old blues, versions of Sweet Sixteen and It’s My Own Fault follow. In a seamless way the band keeps playing throughout, subtle tempo and key changes usher in each song in its turn.
At most there’s one or two seconds without music. It’s magical how the music threads along, BB talks as the band vamps away in the background. It’s one organic whole and three tracks in I’m captivated completely. Another little semi-tone key change and BB starts to play some lead guitar and we move into How Blue Can You Get. It was hairs standing up and goose bumps time.
I feel like the theatre audience is in the room with me. I am an atheist and this was as close to a religious experience I was ever going to get.
Gary said that How Blue Can You Get was his ‘permission to turn off the life support machine’ song. After several listens I couldn’t forget Gary’s comment, and started to share that conclusion too.
When BB passed away recently I played How Blue Can You Get. Yet again it got to me as I listened to BB let it rip with emotional vocals and stirring guitar lines.
Somehow blues music works for you or it doesn’t, I can’t explain it. I don’t know how it couldn’t affect you, so I won’t try to describe it.
But if I am in a coma, in a bad way, and doctors are not sure if I will wake up, or they seem forlorn about my prognosis, play the song! If I don’t stir then it‘s ok to turn off the power, pull the plug, you’re done, I’m dead.
© Luke R Davies. Luke R Davies and the Recycled String Band won the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia Folk Recording Award 2013 for their album Not A Note Wasted. Luke’s debut Stereo Story was about Born In Chicago by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which he performed with The Stereo Stories Band at the 2015 Newport Folk Festival in Melbourne.