The King of the Blues
Riley B. King was born just outside Indianola Mississippi in 1925. The blues credentials of his Itta Bene neighbourhood were impeccable. It was a cotton plantation in the heart of the Delta and there was at least one exceptional country blues musician in the family. Inspired by church and radio, Riley took to playing guitar and singing and soon his ambition went well beyond that of driving the tractor around the plantation. He decided early that he wanted to be a musician and began to feel his way into a career that has lasted for over fifty years. His influence has been incalculable and now, at almost seventy-three, nobody disputes his title as The King of the Blues.
Certainly there are many great musicians of B.B. King’s age still working, but few of them tour as relentlessly and at such a level, performing over 250 concerts per year. It has always been King’s way and he is still revered as something of a superman for playing 342 one night stands in 1956 alone. His shows are glitzy and glamorous, full of cabaret, comedy and showmanship and yet his unique expression of the blues has always been the real deal. Even from the very beginning, it has been constant hard work and effort. He may have been the Delta, the Cradle of the Blues, but with peoples’ strongly held beliefs in notions such as “the Devil’ Music,” the decision to forgo the sacred for the secular was not necessarily encouraged. As he puts it himself, being black and being a blues musician in Indianola Mississippi was like being black twice.
“People from outside of the neighbourhood don’t like you because you’re black and people in it don’t like you because you sing the blues - you were looked down on as a person who was doing something you shouldn’t be. But I had one person in the family who was very popular and his name was Bukka White. He and my mother was first cousins. But my mother was very religious and she thought that if you wasn’t singing a religious song, then you shouldn’t be singing. But people were just singing because they liked it and it was a way of making a living. Believe that (about the Devil’s music) if you may but most of us didn’t. But yes, I grew up in the church listening mostly to gospel and in fact that’s what I wanted to be. I never dreamed of being a blues singer. That was beyond my wildest dreams. But sitting on the corner singing and playing with my hat out front, the people generally that would request a gospel song didn’t put anything in the hat ! People that would request blues always put something in the hat and that motivated my blues singing!”
It has been a long career and he has seen many styles and genres come and go. He has heard new music become old music, and old music re-emerge as new music. His own progress can be charted in his almost countless recordings which show, almost decade by decade, his continuing search for his own sound. In the 40’s his music was fairly typical of Chicago or Memphis. With his first hit Three O Clock Blues in 1951 he was sounding much more like T-Bone Walker with a touch of Charlie Christian. Through the fifties he began to develop his own particular tone although it was still clearly influenced by T-Bone Walker and by the jump blues bands of the period. In the sixties he really began to sound like the B.B. King of today and his Live At The Regal album is considered by many to be his greatest recording. In 1970 he enjoyed his biggest hit to date with The Thrill is Gone and his economic, clear vibrato had been firmly established as trademark B.B. King. Meanwhile, he all the time embellished this apparently simple approach with touches of funk and jazz and his sound – guitar and voice – became instantly recognisable around the world.
“And I still haven’t got what I’m looking for ! If I knew what it was I could tell you but I don’t know. If I knew what it was I could probably tell somebody who could help me. I just know that I still hear something that I’m not doing and so that keeps me studying and trying to be better. You don’t have to play fast to be a great guitarist, nor do you have to play slow. I mean I don’t play chords well. There’s a guy that’s been with me over ten years, Leon Warren, and he plays the nicest chords. He does it nightly and I’ll never make it. But the first that I heard was Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. I heard them on record. I had an aunt that was like most teenagers today – she bought records and she would let me play them if I was a good boy and usually, around her, I was always a good boy. We didn’t have radio then and when we did get one we could only get WSM, I can’t think of the other one, but both stations came out of Nashville and at that time neither played black music, they played country music. My first music books to learn to play the guitar were country music books and I learned to read music playing Oh My Darling, Oh My Darling – things like that. Those books taught me how to put my fingers on the frets and what fret would be a certain note and so on. That’s how I started.”
In 1947 Riley B. King hitch-hiked to Memphis and a year later performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM. This led to a steady gig at the 16th Avenue Grill and a radio spot of his own on WDIA – a very important radio station known as “The Mother Station of the Negroes.” And so Riley B. King became The Beale Street Blues Boy, Blues Boy King and eventually B.B. King. He became an established part of the Memphis music scene along with fellow DJ and performer Rufus Thomas, Bobby Bland and Johnny Ace. Nobody could have predicted however that the music scene in Memphis was about to be changed so dramatically when one of King’s biggest fans arrived outside Sun Records in a truck. His name was Elvis Presley and the rest, as they say, is history – or at least one version of it.
In 1956 WDIA staged its annual charity revue in aid of needy black children. B.B. King was there along with Ray Charles, Phineas Newborn, The Moonglows, The Magnificents, The Spirit of Memphis Quartet, the Happyland Blind Boys and Chief Rockin’ Horse (Rufus Thomas’ alias for the evening) and his wife Princess Premium Stuff. The surprise guest was Elvis who gratefully acknowledged his debt to black music in general and to B.B. King in particular. Much is made of Elvis Presley and the fact that he based his act on so many of these great black performers, but BB King, for one, has no hard feelings about it. He remembers Presley, Memphis and that whole period with great fondness.
“When I first came to Memphis, walking in Beale Street was like another world. It was like a community college of learning. You could go to one place called the One Minute Café and you could get a bowl of chilli for fifteen cents and a nickel’s worth of crackers and you could get a soda for a nickel and it could last all day. The music was maybe even better than people say. Some of the things they exaggerate a bit but everybody’s gonna have their say. I can’t see why one would want to be bitter about any of it when it was an open door. Elvis was a young man compared to any of us. I’m seventy-two and I’ll be seventy-three in September so I was at least ten or twelve years older than him. And there was many guys even older than I, some of them I’m just hearing of myself ! A lot of the kids have done research and found people that I didn’t even know about. Everybody learns and everybody, believe it or not, learns from somebody. Music is not new. There are different styles and different phases of it that may be new, but music has been here. Some wise man once said that all music is good, some of it is just performed badly. And I go along with that. Why would anyone want to be bitter ?”
The race issue was a very real one however. White performers were singing black music to white teenagers and doing extremely well out of it. In fairness to the white musicians however, many of them tried to do whatever they could to give credit where credit was due and they idolised people like B.B. King. In 1968 Michael Bloomfield arranged for Bill Graham to promote King at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. King had played there before many times when it had been a black venue but now, under Graham’s management, it had become a focus for young white whites. King remembers this performance as perhaps his greatest and as a definite and very significant turning point.
“I cried. I’ll never forget it. I get there and I don’t believe it. Bill Graham came out and brought me up to the same old dressing room and said that when it was time to go on, he would come and get me. So I said, Bill, I need drink. He sent out and got me a bottle because I was nervous and I had a few drinks, not enough to get high, just enough to settle my nerves. You see the kids knew me but they only knew me by sound - I could have been anybody. But when I got to the stage Bill Graham introduced me by saying “Ladies and gentlemen I bring you the Chairman of the Board, B.B. King ! When he said that, everybody stood up, everybody ! I’d never had that happen to me before so I cried. I wondered what the heck I could do to repay these people for what they just did. And it started there. I’ll never forget it.”
There were definite sociological reasons why many black people turned their backs on the blues – even on the urban blues which had once satisfied those who had previously turned their backs on the rural blues. It took The Rolling Stones, Clapton and others to reintroduce great blues performers to America itself and also helped to create a hugely receptive audience in Europe for the real thing. These days, despite the new generation of young black blues musicians such as Keb Mo and Eric Bibb, the commercial audience is still largely white. This is a reality which concerns King greatly.
“It seems to me that a lot of the white kids know more about it than a lot of the black adults. That’s fine with me because I want the white kids to know about it and I’m glad somebody knows about it ! But I wish young blacks would take more interest. I don’t necessarily want black kids to like the blues, I wish they would, but I just want them to know about it. I want them to know about this music. To know what a lot of the people went through to start it – the people that wrote it. And I’m one of the disciples of the people that started it. I want them to know that the people they like and love came from the very same people that they don’t seem to care about. It worries me quite a bit.”
King takes seriously his role as something of an ambassador. He is a warm, civil, generous man. He is a big tipper, he pays his band well, he is courteous to interviewers and he carries his iconic status with a certain affable majesty. He travels with laptop computers, books, video recorders and CDs and devotes much of his time to what he very consciously treats as self education – musical and otherwise. His stamina is undiminished and his performances as highly charged as ever. With his seventy third birthday this September, the long decades of relentless touring, performing and entertaining, seem to have had very little effect on The King of the Blues. He is a big and very decent man – and better than ever.
“Before I left Mississippi we used to go from house to house during the week because there was nothing else much to amuse yourself doing. A lot of people, friends, would go say to your house maybe on Monday night and would sing and maybe your family would fix food for us. Wednesday night we’d go to somebody else’s house, Friday night somebody else’s house. So three times a week we’d go to different peoples’ houses and play and sing – that was our amusement. I think music helps because we feel good when we play and sing. I recorded from 1949 until today. I’ve made seventy six albums. I don’t know how many singles and yes it takes a lot - but you’re doing something you enjoy doing. Its not work its fun. And all down the years, you never saw or heard of me stopping. You never saw me quit.”
© John Kelly