For all that has been written about Memphis as a popular-music foundry, as the major originating point of blues and rockabilly and soul and so much else that the world now takes for granted, there is one aspect of the city's endemic sound that is often overlooked, even in otherwise reasonable and authoritative accounts.
That has to do with the elements of precision and control that underlie all the city's characteristic musical products. From the tightly energized backing given to Elvis Presley's earliest Sun recordings by Scotty Moore's electric guitar and Bill Black's bass to the massed harmonics of the Memphis Horns over at Stax/Volt, our city's musical exemplars would pioneer in all the ways in which the raw and elemental stuff of life can be captured live and contained. That, if you will, is "the Memphis sound."
No one represents this defining characteristic better than B.B. King, the maestro of the blues guitar, who died last week at age 89 and rightly received plaudits and eulogies from all over the globe. What distinguished B.B.'s playing was his unique single-string style, in which notes were played one at a time, rather than in ensemble or chord form, and each note sang its own song of sadness or joy or playfulness or indefinable longing. Each note — held or clipped, bent or played straight, isolated or in sequence — was an infinite universe of meaning.
Though B.B. King was no academic scholar, his knowledge of musical properties was profound and arose both from the gigs he did and from his path-finding service in the late '40s and early '50s as a disc jockey on Memphis' WDIA-AM, the nation's first all-black radio station.
It was as a performer, though, that he was best known and will remain so, through recordings that will be played as long as there are means to hear them and places on earth where people are free to do so. B.B. King was not just a musical maestro, he was an emissary of civilization itself. God willing, he is one thrill that will never be gone.