B.B. King's death was expected, the papers were ready, but the outpouring of both respect for his artistry and importance in music and admiration for the man as well as the artist was spontaneous and well nigh universal. It reminded me that sometime shortly after I left university, I went back to Wesleyan to catch a King concert. Because I was for some reason well-regarded by one of my ex-professors, I was invited to sit in the next morning as B.B. gave a lecture to advanced music students. Bluesmen, like athletes, have far too often been described as 'natural talents', King was showing how much hard work and study went into his success. I was already a fan, of course, now King had elevated himself further in my personal pantheon. Many years later I wrote the following review of King's autobiography for the Financial Times; it appeared in the 28/29 December 1996 Weekend section pretty much as written, but with the line about King's resentment of his treatment while in the Army excised, for reasons I have never understood. The title was their subs' creation; the reference to Babe the pig dates it somewhat.
HAPPY SINGING THE BLUES
B.B. King's signature tune is "Every Day I Have The Blues", but reading this good-natured biography it's sometimes hard to believe that's true. Despite taking more than twenty years to reach a mass audience, King has always been the most accessible of bluesmen, visibly trying to please his audience. As a ghost-writer's subject that attitude hasn't changed. His story's told as a form of seduction, of love-making, and love appears to be the key to King's life.
According to his recollections, B. was six years old when he began making love with his seven-year old sweetheart. He has spread himself wide, if not thin, ever since, fathering 15 children. Although he would appear to have remained true to only one partner, his famous guitar, Lucille, he also reveals that there have been 17 Lucilles: this is like discovering that Babe the pig was really a group of pigs!
Riley B King began life as a sharecropper: his father left his mother, only to reclaim young BB after his mother's early death. This double-abandonment produced a premature self-sufficiency in King. Apart from an eye-opening stint in the segregated US Army, where he still resents the reality that his country treated German prisoners of war better, and with more respect, than black soldiers, King found his own work ethic, talent, and attitude rewarded by sympathetic authority figures, both black and white. This gave him the foundation which resulted in his eventual move to Memphis to make it in the music business.
King's early blues influences were his cousin Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lonnie Johnson. But radio brought all kinds of music his way, and from the first his tastes were eclectic, embracing jazz and white country music and as well as the blues. His easy approach owes much to Louis Jordan, just as today's leading popular bluesman, Robert Cray, owes much to King.
He began playing that music on the radio, disc jockeying and performing before he took off for the hard life of performing on the road. Although his music was popular from the start with black audiences, he missed the first chance to "crossover" to whites in the 60s because his mix of blues, pop, and jazz was not considered "authentic" enough. He finally was discovered by the mass white audience through the adulation of white musicians, many of whom were British. King's generosity of spirit toward white imitators of the blues like Mike Bloomfield, Bonnie Raitt, or Eric Clapton was seen by many "purists" as a sellout. Yet his gratitude is real, and his generosity of spirit is the keynote of this book.
King was influenced by many people, and helped by many more, along the way: he acknowledges all of it. Yet it is his remarkable talent for seducing with the blues that made him a worldwide star. This leaves little time for negatives, whether they be the pain of his upbringing in a racist society, or the perils of the music business. Lots of thanks and no regrets. It's not the usual formula for a show-biz biography, and the formula should make it bland. But this is BB King. It works.
I once sat in on a talk to a small group of music students which Dr. King (he has four honorary degrees, including one from Yale) gave, describing each of his guitar influences, while imitating their styles perfectly. He demonstrated everyone from Charlie Christian to Django Reinhardt to Wes Montgomery, and of course all the blues greats. Then King began to play his own style. A group of highly trained musicians was mesmerized. "The Thrill is Gone" was King's biggest hit. The thrill of B.B. King is never gone.
BLUES ALL AROUND ME: B.B. KING
B.B. King with David Ritz
Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 324pp, £18.99