There is a generic career arc for many twentieth-century Blues performers: a poverty-stricken background in the Jim Crow South, especially the Mississippi Delta; “escape” to the “land of opportunity” somewhere in the North or Midwest; early career success, followed by a reversal of fortune as rock ‘n’ roll attracted the attention–and the money–of American teenagers in the 1950s; salvation, rediscovery, and resurrection in the 1960s, thanks either to switching from the Blues to the “real folk blues” to attract a younger, whiter audience, or to the arrival of the “British invasion” rock bands in the ’60s, who declared various older Blues men their “idols” and lauded their impact on the development of rock ‘n’ roll. B.B. King’s career fits snugly within this stereotypical career pattern in some ways, but, as always, the devil is in the details.
Riley B. King was born on a plantation between Itta Bena and Berclair, Mississippi, near the Delta town of Indianola, on September 16, 1925. His mother, Nora Ella, had moved to the Delta from the hill country village of Kilmichael four years earlier, looking for work, and had married a local farmhand, Albert King. When Riley was about four years old, Nora Ella left Albert and took her young son back to Kilmichael to live with her mother, Elnora Farr. After Nora Ella’s death in 1935, Riley worked in the fields for which his grandmother was responsible to a white landowner, received a spotty education at a local Baptist church school, and learned about the Blues from his great aunt Jemimah, who owned a phonograph and a collection of Blues records.
Yet, according to biographer Sebastian Danchin, Riley King’s early musical education focused on Gospel music rather than the Blues. He attended a Pentecostal church where instrumental music, especially the guitar, played a key role in worship. Young King watched the pastor play the guitar, was smitten, and promptly organized a Gospel group. Following his grandmother’s death in 1940, Riley was taken back to the Delta by his father, but that arrangement lasted only a brief time before the teenager made his way once more to Kilmichael, where he settled on a farm owned by a white man, Flake Cartledge, who, according to King’s biographer, “symbolized justice and generosity, and perhaps also fatherhood.” (Danchin, p.8) Cartledge bought King his first guitar and allowed him to repay the cost in installments.
Ironically, King’s mastery of that first guitar led him to leave Cartledge’s farm and return to the Delta, where he drove a tractor, a relatively good-paying job, for planter Johnson Barrett, and in his off hours accompanied a vocal Blues group organized by a cousin. World War II turned out to be only a blip on King’s career radar, because, the Delta being the Delta, Riley was allowed by local officials to perform his “military service” by continuing to drive a tractor for Johnson Barrett.
In 1946, King left the Barrett place (and his wife, Martha) and headed for Memphis, where he hoped to find a career in music. He located a cousin, noted Blues man Bukka White, who found him a day job and bought him a Gibson guitar and an amp. King placed his hopes for success on winning the amateur night competition at the Palace Theater, and, when that didn’t pan out, he pulled up stakes and returned to the Delta, where he got his old job back, as well as his wife, at least for a while.
Still, the desire for a musical career proved to be an itch King had to scratch, especially after he began listening to Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio broadcasts from West Memphis, Arkansas. Abandoning the Delta (and his wife) again in 1948, Riley King returned to Memphis, where he wangled a job at radio station WDIA, selling a heavily alcoholic “tonic” called Pepticon over the airwaves, while singing a few songs. This proved to be the break he had been waiting for. King parlayed his fame as the “Pepticon Boy,” and then as the “Beale Street Blues Boy” (eventually shortened to “B.B.”), into regular Blues gigs in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
King convinced his employers to let him put out a couple of records in 1949, sides on which he was a crooner and his guitar was in the background, but they went nowhere. It wasn’t until he signed with the Bihari brothers in Los Angeles that King found success, with “Three O’ Clock Blues” in December 1951. The Biharis began to push B.B. away from ballads and back towards the Blues. King featured his guitar, which he named “Lucille,” more prominently as he modernized the Delta Blues, incorporating “big band jazz” sounds that took his music in the direction of Rhythm & Blues. (Danchin, pp. 36-37) And, in a sense, Lucille became almost as famous as B.B.; listen, for example, to his long, loving, and informative homage to “Lucille” (recorded live in 1967, released on Bluesway in 1968, and included on disc 2 of B.B. King: King of the Blues).
B.B. King became a mainstay on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the 1950s. This kept him, his band, and their bus on the road constantly (in 1956, for example, he made 342 appearances in 366 days [Danchin, p.43]). In other words, his musical success came at a cost. He gave up his disk jockey gig at WDIA in mid-1953, only a few months after his wife Martha sued him for divorce. For the next two decades, he did some three hundred one-night stands a year, as well as occasional week-long engagements in larger urban theaters. Along the way, King had a second failed marriage, and he fathered fifteen children by a number of women, according to his biographer.
By the mid-1950s, the Biharis began to push King toward recording ballads, only to see his sales drop steadily. By the end of the decade, they changed course again, urging him once more to record Blues songs. One result of this shift was “Sweet Sixteen,” which climbed to number 2 on the charts and became one of B.B. King’s signature tunes.
In the early 1960s, King signed with ABC Records, a “major” label hoping to expand into the Rhythm & Blues market. As had been the case with the Biharis, however, ABC’s effort to push King into the pop field backfired when his usual audience refused to follow him there. Moreover, while some of King’s Blues contemporaries were exchanging electric guitars for acoustic ones and dressing down as a way to appeal to white “folkies,” King clung tenaciously to his electric guitar “Lucille,” his traditional stage costumes, and the “urban blues” that had brought him this far. As a result, by the mid-1960s B.B. King was, according to his biographer, “the only straight blues singer in America with a large, adult, nation-wide, and almost entirely Negro audience.” (Danchin, p.66; see also Escott, pp. 17, 21) Yet, that was not necessarily a bad thing, as one can hear on King’s Live at the Regal album, released in 1967–listen, for example, to “Sweet Little Angel,” which illustrates, in the words of his biographer, the singer’s “unmatched mastery of three instruments: his voice, his guitar, and his audience.” (Danchin, p.69)
While one commentator smugly asserted that King usually avoided “the temptation to be socially significant”(Escott, p.29), there were exceptions, though mildly phrased ones: listen, for instance, to “Why I Sing the Blues” (1969) and “Ghetto Woman” (1971). [But, in the “what were they thinking?” category, there also were “Help the Poor” (1964), in which “poor” B.B. asks his “girl” to “help him” by giving him her love; and 1963’s “I’m Gonna Sit In ‘Til You Give In (and “give me all of your love”).] According to his biographer, however, King’s “fundamentally activist nature” was evident in his work with organizations trying to rehabilitate prisoners (Danchin, p.87). A fine example of this is his powerful performance on Live in Cook County Jail (1971), especially, given the concert’s overwhelmingly male inmate audience, “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
A turning point in King’s career was his decision in 1968 to hire accountant Sidney Seidenberg as his manager. Seidenberg apparently had an instinctive feel for King’s strengths and for what he could do to capitalize on them. With his new manager’s guidance, King reached out to college students; “crossed over” into pop music with “The Thrill is Gone” (1969), earning his first Grammy; and launched a career abroad that eventually made him the icon of American culture in general, not just of the Blues.
B.B. King’s place in the pantheon of American music was solidified further over the next two decades, especially after he began to produce albums featuring duets with other noted performers. For example, Blues Summit (1993) paired King with, among others, John Lee Hooker, in a dynamite version of “You Shook Me”; four years later, Deuces Wild united King with stars from the Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Rap–listen, for example, to B.B.’s duet with Rap’s Heavy D., “Keep It Coming,” which features the rapper’s very interesting take on King’s guitar, Lucille; in 2000, King and British “guitar god” Eric Clapton joined for Riding With the King, the title track on which is simply a lot of fun to listen to. By the turn of the twenty-first century, according to his biographer, B.B. King had “come to mean ‘blues guitarist’ in the same way that ‘Hoover’ means vacuum cleaner.” (Danchin, p. 103)
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“I scuffle just as hard now as back when I started. Because when you get there, you know, you want to stay there, and that means you still got to scuffle.” (B.B. King, interview, late 1970s, cited in McKee and Chisenhall, Beale Black & Blue, pp.246-247.)
This quotation comes from a performer who, as of 2013, had been elected to both the Blues and Rock & Roll halls of fame (1980, 1987, respectively); earned perhaps fifteen Grammys; received two honorary doctorates in music; had his name attached to a string of Blues clubs; become the subject of a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art museum in Indianola, Mississippi; been awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1987), National Medal of Arts (1990), Kennedy Center Honors (1995), Polar Music Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music for “significant contributions to the blues” (2004), and Presidential Medal of Freedom (2006).
Granted, the quote is from almost four decades ago, and B.B. King could not have known then what he-and we–know now: That, to many folks around the world, B.B. King means “the Blues.” Yet, what he said then in some ways encapsulated his personality–warm, modest, self-effacing; aware both of his own skill and of the needs of his audience; and willing to try new things to keep his fans–and his record labels–satisfied. B.B. has never taken either himself or his fans for granted. Even today, in his late 80s, he continues to tour, to record, and to promote the Blues in any way he can. We should all still be “scuffling” like B.B. King if we reach his age!
[NOTE: B.B. King died at his Las Vegas home on May 14, 2015, at the age of 89. “Another Blues stringer called home.”]
Bill Dahl, “B.B. King (Riley B. King),” in Michael Erlewine, et al., eds., All Music Guide to the Blues (San Francisco, 1996), pp. 149-151.
Sebastian Danchin, “Blues Boy”: The Life and Music of B.B. King (Jackson, Mississippi,1998).
Colin Escott, booklet accompanying boxed set, B.B. King: King of the Blues. MCA, 1992 (MCAD4-10677).
William Ferriss, “King, B.B.,” in Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferriss, co-eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989), pp. 1067-1068.
Ted Gioia, Delta Blues (New York, 2008).
Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall, Beale Street Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street (Baton Rouge, La., 1981).
Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner, The Road to Memphis. Part of Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. Vulcan Productions, Inc., and Road Movies Filmproduction, GMBH (2003); Columbia DVD (CVD 55935). Excellent production, framed as an homage to King but also considers the “Memphis Blues” in a broader context, including juxtaposing King’s career with that of “Chitlin’ Circuit” veteran Bobby Rush.
B.B. King: King of the Blues. MCA, 1992 (MCAD4-10677)–this four-compact disc set includes B.B. King’s most important songs issued between 1949 and 1991, showing clearly how King–and his bosses–struggled, with mixed success, to keep him “relevant” over four decades.
B.B. King Live. A Dollarhide Film Production. Geffen Records DVD, 2008 (B0010362-09)–like King’s Live at the Regal album, but featuring an older B.B. doing a few of his “greatest hits” and quite a few songs apparently reserved for live performances.
“Sweet Little Angel.” B.B. King: Live at the Regal. MCA, 1997, 1964 (MCAD-11646).
“Every Day I Have the Blues.” B.B King: Live in Cook County Jail. MCA, 1971 (MCAD-11769).
“You Shook Me.” B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. Blues Summit. MCA, 1993 (MCAD-10710).
“Keep It Coming.” B.B. King and Heavy D. Deuces Wild. MCA, 1997 (MCAD-11711).
“Riding with the King.” B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Riding With the King. Reprise Records, 2000 (9 47612-2).
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: