Life, I am finding, is a blissful journey not dependent on mortgages or careers or social expectations.
B.B. White had a way about her, an air of elegance and style, an unselfish spirit full of love and kindness and caring that attracted people from all walks of life. Like seeing an old friend from a happier time, in B.B’s company, one felt respect, pride, and that allusive, dreamlike affirmation of human goodness. Put another way, with B.B. one felt alive.
The instant she smiled her huge smile, threw her head back, thrust her arms forward and laughed from her belly to her fingertips, she challenged you, if you had any soul at all, to join in the fun and laugh with her. That was B.B. She made light of everything, be it her incredibly lovely gowns (“What, this old thing?”), her lanky, six-foot-plus frame (“You’d never catch me in heels.”) or the pitfalls of a sour blind date (“He seemed nice at first, but as the evening wore on I swear this guy’s ex-wife was buried in the basement”).
Then there was her singing. It grabbed you and held you. B.B. could muscle up a blues chorus with a liberating growl, and then walk a ballad’s invisible tightrope, leaving her audience hanging on every note. One never wished for a net. That woman sure could deliver a song!
I first met B.B. in the spring of 2000. She was singing at the Pampas Room, backed by Billy Wallace and Floyd Standifer. I remember, as I descended the red carpet stairs it felt like I was going back in time to an authentic 1940s jazz club. I took to B.B. and the band immediately, and made the Pampas my weekend hangout. Every Friday night after work I treated myself to a few drinks and the sound of B.B.’s voice. We became friends, and I got used to seeing her big smile. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so often and so deeply with anyone else.
A few months later I met my fiancé, Ioana, at the club and soon introduced her to B.B. They became friends, and that summer the three of us spent many wonderful evenings at the Pampas Room.
Then, in the summer of 2002 I got an email from B.B. announcing she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. Her message was surprisingly positive. In it she said that many wonderful things had occurred as a result of her diagnosis, especially knowing that her family and friends cared as much as they did.
“Life, I am finding, is a blissful journey not dependent on mortgages or careers or social expectations,” she wrote. “Life is about allowing all forms of LOVE just to BE. Allow each human being his right to find his own way in his own time without JUDGEMENT.”
In hindsight I shouldn’t have been so surprised; B.B.’s message, for the brief time I knew her, was always joyful.
Her funeral, too, was an upbeat affair. Billy and Floyd were there with the rest of the band, performing B.B.’s favorite tunes like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Write Myself a Letter.” It felt strange not applauding after each number, but no one did (out of respect? or timidity?). That afternoon B.B.’s family from the East Coast met scores of her Seattle-area friends and musicians who came to pay their respects to her in public and in private.
Mr. Floyd Standifer, that elegant, eloquent man of the world, spoke. He told a story of feeling less than thrilled about work some nights (crowd noise at the Pampas could be deafening at times, rendering the band all but inaudible). On those occasions B.B. would invariably console him during the set break, shouldering his burdens along with her own.
He noted how, in this age of me and mine, B.B. gave of herself. In fact, he doubted that she had changed much since she was a little girl.
He explained how musicians like those in attendance play music not for the money; rather they are compelled to play. “B.B. brought something special to everything she sang,” he said. She had a gift, and she nurtured it.”
At one point a relative of B.B.’s – who admitted to not sharing her passion for music – stated that, for him, it wasn’t about the music with B.B. He felt her music and her singing were secondary to her spirit. Silently, I disagreed.
In my heart, I believe that B.B.’s spirit was strongest when she sang, and I like to think that she was never happier than when she was on stage at the Pampas, front and center, singing under the lights, coaxing a love song or jumpin’ and jivin’.
I can hear the song end with a cascade of chords. B.B. sustains the last note, until it’s extinguished by a gust of applause. I can see her great big smile light up the bandstand as she exits stage-right, followed by the fatherly voice of Mr. Billy Wallace announcing, “The fabulous Miss B.B. White—she’ll be back.”
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