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B.B. King: Through the Years


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Sixty-six years passed from the time in 1948 when Riley King auditioned for a spot on Sonny Boy Williamson's radio program, until his final performance at the House of Blues on October 3, 2014 in Chicago. His life was a remarkable odyssey from a sharecropper's cabin to the pinnacle of success. We'll never know how many millions of miles he logged on his tour bus in the 50s and 60s —he and his band essentially lived on the road in the early years doing over 300 shows per year. To the average person that seems utterly exhausting, but Riley King was no ordinary person.

He was born on September 16, 1925 to Albert and Nora King, who were sharecroppers on the Berclair cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta. When he was four years old his parents split, and Riley and his mother left the Delta for Karmichael in the hill country where his mother's kin lived. Riley admitted his memory was sketchy about this period, but he remembered being about eight when his mother left him to be with a new man. After she left he was raised by his maternal grandmother. During this time his mother's health also began to fade.

One morning Riley and his grandmother climbed onto a horse-drawn wagon to visit his 25 year-old mother, who at this point was blind and near death. In his autobiography he recounts that, with her few remaining breaths she gave him this advice, which he carried with him for the rest of his life: "People will love you if you show love to them...just remember that son."

He remembered his grandmother dying a little more than a year after his mother, but noted that researchers have pointed out to him that according to records it was five years later. In any case, it was a tight-knit community on the Flake Cartledge farm. He had friends and relatives to look out for him, but he became a loner, living alone in the sharecropper cabin that had been his home since leaving the Delta. Riley worked for Flake Cartledge, who was white, and considered him a fair man—it was Cartledge who bought him his first guitar and allowed him to pay if off over time.

Riley calculated that he walked the equivalent of the distance to the Moon during his time in the fields behind a pair of mules. Thus, the miles sitting comfortably on the tour bus probably didn't phase him. It's hard to believe, given the fact that he was a radio DJ for five years, and given his polished stage presence, but as a child Riley was a stutterer. Fortunately, there was a caring teacher at his one-room country school who helped him to overcome his stuttering, and also taught him many important life lessons.

On the farms, tractor drivers earned nearly three times more than field laborers, so Riley set his sights on becoming a tractor driver. Flake Cartledge, contrary to local customs, made the wise decision to hire a black man to be the farm's foreman. Riley said that everyone on the farm was so thankful to have a black foreman, that they worked extra hard to make sure he kept his job. He was also the farm's tractor driver and taught Riley how to handle a tractor. At age eighteen Riley returned to the Delta and worked as a tractor driver, and during his off time he also played and sang with a gospel group. The tractor turned out to be a very fortuitous decision, because the selective service board in his county considered tractor drivers to be essential workers. After Army basic training he returned home and was spared being sent overseas— this was in 1943.

To learn about what happens after Riley King leaves Mississippi and becomes B.B. King, I highly recommend his autobiography written with David Ritz. This is a treasure for B.B. King fans and blues lovers, it's full of details about his interactions, insights into his playing and influences, and a great read. Although it's not nearly as detailed, the 2012 film B.B. King: The Life of Riley, is also excellent.

The decision to present a brief glimpse into his early life was to give you a better appreciation of what an exceptional human being he was. He witnessed firsthand, injustice, cruelty, and oppression—even the sight of a young man black hanging in front of a courthouse. He had every reason to be angry, bitter, and resentful. Instead he took his mother's final words to heart. He spread love, and as she promised him, he was one of the most beloved entertainers in modern times. He learned as a child the wisdom of treating people as individuals, regardless of race. People sensed his love, kindness, and goodwill towards all, and were drawn to him. At a time when blues was on the decline, he transformed himself and helped to make the blues into a cultural phenomenon, and profoundly touched peoples lives.

In the film mentioned above, King recounts arriving at the Fillmore West and seeing throngs of young white people lined up around the building waiting to get in, and thinking he was at the wrong venue. During his performance their enthusiastic standing ovations between songs brought him to tears. Carlos Santana, who at the time was working as a dishwasher, was in the audience and remembers seeing King's diamond ring and tears glistening under the stage lights.

In the clips below you'll notice between 1967 and 1969 a transformation, not only in appearance, but also in his stage presence. With his unforgettable hit, "The Thrill is Gone"—written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell in 1951—King took his career and the blues to a new level. King had truly crossed over into mainstream culture, he appeared on network TV shows: the Flip Wilson Show, Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show, a couple of soap operas, and various late night programs. Ringo Starr has talked about John Lennon bringing a copy of the just-released "The Thrill is Gone" to the studio for the other Beatles to hear, and how blown away they were.

That album, Completely Well, and it's predecessor Live and Well, both released on Bluesway in 1969, mark the beginning of B.B. King recording with studio musicians. One side of the Live and Well album was recorded live with his band, and side two was with studio musicians. B.B. King was so pleased with the result that the next album, Completely Well was done entirely with studio musicians. For me it was a thrill to interview one of them for AllAboutJazz, the bassist Jerry Jemmott aka the Groovemaster. You can find that interview here.

In his final years, B.B. King's performances were more like love-fests in a huge living room than musical events. He soaked up the love from the audience, and the fans reacted to him as a beloved grandfather figure. I vividly recall when I learned of his death, the next day I had an interview with Oteil Burbridge and naturally my interview plans flew out the window and we immediately spoke instead about B.B. King and the blues. Oteil's spontaneous insight into B.B. King, the man, was absolutely spot on:

Oteil Burbridge: "We played some shows together when I was with TTB (Tedeschi Trucks Band) but I actually went with my wife Jess to see him at the Fox, and we just paid, went and bought a ticket and sat in the audience. It was special because that was the first time I got to see him live. He was already much older at that point, but it was like when I saw Bobby Blue Bland— just the opportunity to see them live at all was such a great gift. They are living history. But I did get to meet him at either the Montreux or the North Sea Music festival. My wife and I got to meet him and have our pictures taken with him."

"When you consider the place and time he was born in, to have overcome all of that, I mean if you put aside his career and how many people all over the world who loved him, and whom he made so happy—just the fact he ended up throughout the ages as not bitter, it's so huge. He and Willie Nelson are two people I've met whose humility is as big as their iconic status—that is a freakin' rare thing right there. I think it was his humility that kept him from being bitter."

"He was such a gracious person. He fostered his gift, and how far it took him, all that he did and accomplished. To me it's a day to celebrate the human being and all that he accomplished, and the example that he set of what musicians are capable of doing. And good for him that he played right up until the end, you know, that was his whole life. When I went to see him, he mostly told stories the whole night—I wasn't there in '64, I was just being born. So I was glad just to lay eyes on him, people could lay eyes on a lot of their heroes and it wouldn't matter if they weren't the same as they were in their '20s. I mean who cares, I'm so glad that he went for as long as he could."

Despite having only a cursory education, King had a natural dignity, poise, and grace that was worthy of royalty. He was also a polished showman and the embodiment of humility. As for influences, King admired T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. It may be a surprise to some but he was also a huge Frank Sinatra fan. In his autobiography King writes: "I'm a Sinatra nut. No one sings a ballad with more tenderness... when Sinatra wants to swing, no-one swings any harder. No-one phrases any hipper." But like all truly great artists, B.B. King was unmistakably B.B. King, both as a guitarist and a singer. In truth, he defined blues guitar for an entire generation of blues guitarists, and was arguably one of the greatest blues singers the world has known.

B.B. King also loved jazz, and respected jazz musicians. He was especially fond of Dizzy Gillespie and thankfully he left us his thoughts about Gillespie and Charlie Parker in his autobiography. Despite being friendly, King had what he described as a "keep-to-myself" nature. On the road, he had met most of the prominent musicians of the day, but generally it was small talk and pleasantries. That wasn't the case with Gillespie. Although they were on different tours, one time he and Gillespie were booked in the same hotel and became close. King described Gillespie as the "least pretentious" man he had ever met. Gillespie was a country kid from South Carolina, so he and King spent hours reminiscing about farm life. King was in awe of Gillespie's talent, knowledge of music, and reputation, so when he told King that he liked 'Three O'Clock Blues,' that made King feel like a "million bucks." He described Gillespie as a guy who was a "frantic and funny dude" and fun to be around.

Gillespie had to be somewhere before his gig, and was concerned about Parker getting to the auditorium. King. had a car, so he said he'd be glad to give Parker a ride. He described Parker as a handsome man who "spoke like a professor and smiled like a saint." He'd heard of Parker's drug problem, but on that day he was a "clear-eyed" courteous gentleman. On the ride to the gig, King confessed to Parker that as a youngster in Indianola, he had peeped through the slats on the wall of the Jones Night Spot to see him play with Jay McShann. Parker shared stories about Walter Brown, that group's blues singer, and told King., "We're all blues players. It's just that we hear the blues in different ways."

As a college student in 1976 I saw B.B. King play in a cozy casino lounge in Nevada, and what a gift that was. One truly memorable thing happened during the song "Why I Sing the Blues." During the song King had the Hammond B3 player take a solo and then the bassist. Apparently, King had told the drummer not to react to the cue from the bassist to come back in so he could end his solo. The bassist was an excellent player, perhaps Joe Turner. In any case, after a fine solo that lasted about a minute he gave the drummer a nod, but he didn't react. Briefly the bassist looked a little panicked, but once he realized what was going on, he really let loose. His solo might have lasted close to three minutes, King and the band were cracking up, and the audience was loving it. I wondered at the time if he was new and this was an initiation, because it sure felt like a baptism by fire kind of thing. What a treat to see that playful side of King. Of course there is no video of that, but here is a video from that time period that will allow you to easily imagine what it was like.

As with all top ten lists, a disclaimer, it is impossible to select "the" top ten, especially with so many possibilities. For example, you could do a top ten just of B.B. King on stage with other great artists: James Brown, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, Jerry Reed, Etta James, Luciano Pavarotti, T Bone Walker, a.m.m. Instead I decided to put extra emphasis on what I consider his golden period, the decade from 1969 to 1979. At that time his career was taking off, he was king of the hill, and he rose to the challenge. If you don't see your favorite, you may find it in the YouTube playlist at the base of the article.

1. Three O'Clock Blues

When this song was released at the end of the year in 1951, it had already been a hit in 1948 by Lowell Fulson. If you aren't familiar with Lowell Fulson, his sound is somewhat similar to Lightnin' Hopkins, so the versions are quite different. Although King had previously been recorded by Sam Phillips of Sun Records, this recording for the RPM label, done in a makeshift studio in a room at the Memphis C-YMCA, was his first hit.

It was one of the biggest selling R&B records of 1952, spending five weeks at #1 in the charts. It launched B.B. King's career, allowing him to play the premier R&B venues in New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago. Financially, his income increased by a factor of nearly thirty to one.

It became one of his signature songs, which he rerecorded for other albums over the years. Of particular interest for jazz fans, is a 2001 guest appearance on Jimmy Smith's Dot Com Blues performing his first hit backed by Jimmy Smith.

2. B.B. King & T-Bone Walker at the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival

This is the earliest video of B.B. King I've come across. You'll notice the clip begins 13 minutes in, that's because it also includes a short set by the great T-Bone Walker. On the opening song, King seems to channel Elmore James and really lets loose, I don't recall ever hearing his guitar sound any rawer than that. For the next song he's joined by T-Bone Walker. What a treasure to have the meeting of these two blues legends captured on film.

King idolized T-Bone Walker. In his own words from his autobiography ..."when I heard Aaron T-Bone Walker I flat lost my mind, thought Jesus Himself had returned to earth playing electric guitar." He wrote that he was a disciple of T-Bone Walker, and remained one. He recognized that T-Bone Walker knew jazz and had it in his blood. Through his playing T-Bone Walker revealed who he was, which King described as, "edgy, cool, and a little dangerous." Knowing that, it's easy to understand why King got a little tongue-tied on stage with T- Bone Walker.

3. B.B. King on Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual in 1968

A bit subdued in comparison to the previous clip, but considerably better audio and visual quality. Jazz Casual (1961 to 1968) was a National Educational Television (NET) program filmed in San Francisco. The guests represented a who's who of jazz musicians. By this time King was already being championed by numerous rock guitarist in the press, and landing this slot on a premier jazz program was another boost to his career.

4. Medicine Ball Caravan 1970

After the success of the film Woodstock Hollywood was interested in another high grossing hippie box office bonanza. They hired a French director and planned to take the hippie counter culture concert tour on the road and film it. They recruited Delaney & Bonnie, Alice Cooper, and others—in total over 150 people traveling around in trucks and buses. Woodstock it wasn't, but one good thing to come out of it was this great performance by B.B. King. In the back country of New Mexico he is on fire and totally on top of his game—do yourself a favor and watch this one in full.

5. B.B. King in London—1972

This is actually a short film depicting B.B. King working through a couple of new songs with some young English musicians. High quality video and audio and some great examples of King's playing. An interview with King is interspersed with the music; it's biographical and he also shares some of his influences and uses his guitar to do so. It gives you a good impression of King's off-stage personality. It's another clip worth watching in it's entirety.

Sadly this video has been removed from YouTube

6. B.B. King in the Joint—1972

This is a clip from the music documentary filmed on Thanksgiving Day 1972 inside the Sing Sing maximum security prison in New York. It is a powerful performance, and another display of B.B. King's humanity and compassion.

7. B.B. King Live in Africa—1974

In 1974 the government of Zaire sponsored a boxing match for the Heavy Weight Championship of the World between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali—Ali dubbed it the "Rumble in the Jungle." In conjunction with that, organizers also planned a music festival with B.B. King was one of the headliners. George Foreman got cut in training and the fight had to be postponed for six weeks, but the festival had to stick with the original schedule. That gave Muhammad Ali a chance to be in the audience when this clip was filmed.

The project was fraught with legal difficulties, as a result the documentary film Soul Power wasn't released until 2009! There was a separate B.B. King concert DVD that, to the best of my knowledge, was released in 1998. Interesting side note, B.B. King was backed by the Crusaders.

8. B.B. King & Stevie Ray Vaughan—1988

B.B. King wrote in his autobiography that when he first met Stevie Ray Vaughan, Vaughan told him he felt like he had known King his whole life. Vaughan showed him the respect a son shows his father. "And I came to love him as I had loved Mike Bloomfield, these were my sons, these were the children who'd not only learned my craft, but improved upon it... When Stevie died in a helicopter crash in 1990, I was devastated. I'd lost a piece of myself. The world lost the man destined to become the greatest guitarist in the history of the blues."

This clip is an absolute joy to watch, B.B. King is on fire and Stevie Ray Vaughan is clearly loving every second of it. He was hearing what King was putting down, smiling and looking over his shoulder as happy as a kid opening presents under the Christmas tree.

9. B.B. King & Luciano Pavarotti—1999

There are many great clips of King. performing "The Thrill is Gone" with other people. He performed it with the great country guitarist and singer Jerry Reed, with Eric Clapton, Tracy Chapman, Gary Moore, Bobby Blue Bland, and no doubt others. Thinking back about the young seven-year old boy working the fields in Mississippi, it simply felt like this concert captured the incredible arch of his career and accomplishments.

B.B. King heard Luciano Pavorotti once in Buenos Aires and claimed he was then hooked for life. Then he ends up on stage with the world renowned tenor singing his signature song with strings in front of an enormous crowd in Italy. King was nearly 74 at this point—ten years older than Pavorotti. The final moments are quite touching.

10. B.B. King & Friends at the Hollywood Bowl—2012

This concert was indicative of what Oteil Burbridge spoke about, the audience is simply happy to be in the presence of musical history and pay homage to a beloved figure who was part of the musical backdrop of their lives. During his final years prominent musicians were also likely to stop by and pay their respects. On this particular night, King was joined on stage by Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and John Mayer.

Tedeschi began touring with B.B. King back in 1998 and the two became close friends. She and Trucks appeared with B.B. King during a 2011 performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which is available on DVD. In the clip below, King says Truck's slide playing is the best he's ever heard. King of course was well acquainted with the slide, his cousin was the legendary bluesman Bukka White, who sang and played slide guitar. It was in fact the vocal quality of Bukka White's slide that caused B.B. King to perfect his vibrato to achieve a similar result with his guitar.

In February of this year, a large group of prominent and up-and-coming musicians joined forces for an event organized in partnership with the B.B. King estate, The Thrill Is Gone: A Tribute To B.B. King. It included Warren Haynes, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, John Scofield, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Shemekia Copeland, and a score of others. It's well worth checking out on YouTube, jazz fans will especially enjoy John Scofield's guitar on "Stormy Monday." It was a fitting tribute indeed, yet despite the assemblage of all that stellar talent performing B.B. King's signature songs, it also drove home how incredibly special he truly was.

Photo crexdit: a collage "King between Presidents" by A. Bryson including a cutout of B.B. King from a YouTube photo superimposed on a Wikipedia photo of Mt. Rushmore.

Sources: B.B. King Autobiography: Blues All Around Me by B.B. King with David Ritz; DVD B.B. King: The Life of Riley (2012)

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