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A King in need of new subjects

B.B. King (performing in Las Vegas last year) hasn't achieved the cultural cachet of contemporaries like Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. B.B. King (performing in Las Vegas last year) hasn't achieved the cultural cachet of contemporaries like Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
By Franklin Soults
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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By 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday in Cambridge, a largely young crowd has packed ZuZu for the bar’s weekly “Soul-le-lu-jah’’ night, a ’60s dance party. It seemed a good place to ask people under 35 about B.B. King, the legendary blues musician who plays the North Shore Music Theatre on Thursday with little fanfare, a few weeks shy of his 86th birthday.

Despite the patrons’ respectful words, not many sounded like they would be making the trek to Beverly later this week

“If he’s still playing, I’d go see him,’’ said 30-year-old Mary Carol Jennings from Boston, disappearing into the crowd without asking if he was.

“I’d definitely go see him - if tickets weren’t 50 dollars a pop,’’ said 27-year-old Sudbury resident Tracy Tyler.

“Isn’t he dead?’’ asked 23-year-old Brittany (who declined to give her last name) from Vermont.

It all suggested a diminished interest in B.B. King among younger music fans, and it isn’t just about the artist’s advanced age. Despite rattling stadiums with U2 around 1990 and hitting platinum sales with Eric Clapton with the 2000 album “Riding With the King,’’ the blues icon hasn’t won the cultural cachet accorded some of his 1950s contemporaries.

Ray Charles, for example, was honored with a major Hollywood biopic the year of his death. Tony Bennett gave it away with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on MTV. And Johnny Cash, as iconic a Memphis country boy as King, was not only the subject of a movie, but also still resonates with younger generations through his “American Recordings’’ series with Rick Rubin.

Indeed, when 13 random 20-somethings in Allston were asked last week whom they knew better, Cash or King, 11 of them picked Cash. The choice was hardly surprising.

“Johnny Cash was a rebel in a way that B.B. King is not,’’ says jazz critic Francis Davis, author of an acclaimed 2004 Atlantic magazine essay on Cash, as well as the 1995 book “The History of the Blues.’’ “Johnny Cash chafed against and was estranged from the cultural setting that produced him. . . . B.B. King is just solidly rooted in the blues.’’

Ironically, both Cash and King recorded in Memphis for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records who discovered 19-year-old Elvis Presley a few years after recording King and slightly before signing Cash. But while the rebellion that Cash and Presley unleashed honed its edge in the blues tradition, the rockabilly that emerged was different from the blues itself - and from King’s reinvention of the art form.

A Delta cotton plantation worker until his early 20s, King never forgot his roots, but he always filtered them through his remarkably catholic taste and never-ending thirst for self-improvement.

“B.B. King wore a suit, he was articulate, he played more in a style influenced by Count Basie than by Robert Johnson,’’ says Scott Barretta, former editor of Living Blues magazine and a consultant for the opening of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in 2008. “He didn’t really embody this stereotype - you know, sometimes kind of racist - about what a blues artist is supposed to be.’’

That stereotype was a major reason that white folklorists who celebrated long forgotten Delta blues musicians in the early 1960s ignored King. And as inheritors of punk’s neo-primitive aesthetic, blues-loving underground rockers like Jon Spencer and the Black Keys have also turned to rawer sources. Likewise, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Fat Possum record label had underground success by promoting rough-hewn old blues performers like T-Model Ford and R.L. Burnside, many of whom were featured in a late-’90s compilation series titled “Not the Same Old Blues Crap.’’

It celebrated a primitivism that King looked beyond, though never fully left behind, the day in 1948 he hitchhiked off a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation, headed for the lights of Memphis.

“Whatever I’ve done, it’s done, it’s dated, and I’ve tried to think of contemporary ways to do it again,’’ King said in a 1992 interview included in his exemplary four-disc box set, “King of the Blues.’’

That infinitely challenging principle - to honor one’s roots while constantly seeking renewal- holds together a career as long and productive as almost any in American popular music.

In early numbers like the irresistibly swinging 1953 single “You Upset Me Baby,’’ King borrowed from the jump and jive of R&B and the diminished chords and one-string leads of jazz guitarists, all without abandoning the blues’ straightforward beat and its 12-bar repetitions.

By the cultural explosion of the late ’60s, King’s style opened up, as had music across the spectrum. Eventually, it broke through to everyone from hippies at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, to high rollers in Las Vegas entertainment palaces. Indeed, through the ’70s and ’80s King enjoyed steadier exposure than almost any of his peers.

And there’s the rub.

“One of the problems with B.B. King is that he’s never really gone away,’’ Barretta says. In a sense, Bennett, Charles, and even Cash are so old they’re new; their distance from contemporary music appeals to a generation whose parents were raised on classic rock. King, on the other hand, is tainted by his success in that era of sleek production values and long guitar solos. No question, his later recordings sometimes suffer from that stigma, as the box set demonstrates on disc four, covering 1976 to 1991.

But if “King of the Blues’’ occasionally falters, it never fumbles. In 2008, at age 82, King released the Grammy-winning “One Kind Favor,’’ a set of traditional blues that crackles and glows like a low fire. In a live setting, all sides of his remarkable career come together in a sweeping display that aims simply to “Let the Good Times Roll,’’ as his longtime opening number puts it.

Many with only a passing interest in King still come away dumbstruck by the gargantuan combination of dignity, joy, and warmth that engulfs the audience from the first bent high note of his guitar playing.

“He’s the real thing,’’ Davis concludes, “and he’s kind of the best there is.’’

Franklin Soults can be reached at fsoults@gmail.com.

B.B. KING

At North Shore Music Theatre (62 Dunham Road, Beverly) on Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $64-$74. 978-232-7200. www.nsmt.org