B.B. KING: 16 Sep, 1925 – 14 May, 2015.
How to begin. I first met B.B. King over fifty years ago backstage at The Apollo Theatre, quite a feat for a shy White guy from New Jersey! It was early in the autumn of 1964 that I braved the rear alley of the place and approached Spain – a rather large and imposing fella on the stage door. Dry-mouthed as I approached and asked if I could see Mr. King, mainly because this was a famous first: I had never interviewed any musician beforehand. Fully expecting a refusal, I tried to explain why I was there and all… Spain said, “Wait there”. I waited… . Fully expecting a refusal, I was surprised when he came back after a while and said “Follow me.” So I entered the hallowed and dark backstage of The Apollo and followed him up stairs and along creaky floors to get to the star’s dressing room. For B. was a star in ’64, at least to African Americans and I was the odd-man-out.
It didn’t take too much time for him to notice me there, being the only Caucasian in the proverbial woodpile, as it were. He asked me what I was there for and what I wanted – I told him nervously about BLUES UNLIMITED (UK) and my intentions and interests. B.B. waved his hand at the folks in his dressing room, saying that he had all these people to deal with and a show to do afterwards. Expecting a gentle brush off, he then said, “Go out front, watch the show – then come back here… I’ll be yours for as long as you want.” Thus began a half-century relationship with the person I always styled as the NICEST man in show business, one that ended inevitably the middle of May this year (2015).
Y’all can read all sorts of informational stuff about his career these days in all sorts of media; about his style of playing, his influences and those he influenced, and his amazing world wide commercial success, so I’m not going to duplicate that. Bruce Elder wrote an intelligent piece for the SMH concerning King’s “place” in the story of popular musics of all sorts, both in the US and across the world. He was a person musically himself who knew, like Miles Davis, when NOT to play and to never play it the same way twice*! Miles and Louis Armstrong may be the only persons from other Black musical fields who had such influence on others on so many levels. King never really altered his musical approach drastically, but adapted it to the styles of the times, yet still sounding like nobody else but B.B. King. That person stimulated many after him, but nobody has had his sort of musical impact in so many realms of popular music as a player and a singer. Or has quite “gotten” how to do it properly!
Cutting his first recordings in 1949 and having his first hit in 1950, King had one of the longest recording careers of any blues artist; more than Hooker or Hopkins, in fact. Often he’d “cover” a song done by another artist [“Three O’Clock In The Morning” (Lowell Fulson), “Sweet Little Angel” (Tampa Red), “The Thrill Is Gone” (Roy Hawkins) being good examples], but he would always make them his own. When I met him in 1964, he had gone about as far as he could go as a Black performer with a Black audience – The Apollo Theatre [NYC], The Royal Theatre [Baltimore], The Regal Theatre [Chicago] (site of one of the best “live” recordings of all time – by King!), The Howard Theatre [DC], plus top Black clubs in cities large and small (sometimes referred to as “The ‘Chitlin’ Circuit). He wanted to go further with his music and hitching up with Sid Seidenberg as manager/accountant ca. 1968 did the trick. Sid got King on national television and later signed with a near-major label (ABC-Paramount), moving on to jazz concerts and large “hippie” venues like the Fillmore auditoria. It was the likes of Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton trumpeting B’s talents to the younger White folks of the day that gave him an additional push. Basically they all said “If you like what I do, then go hear B.B. King… that’s who I got it from.”
The rest is history. B.B. King became the name that was conjured up world-wide when “blues” was mentioned, a figure head – he took his new opportunities and ran with them. It was a long way from Mississippi cotton fields to Montreux, though! King was always open to people and remembered them, quietly showing the world that blues wasn’t the province of some broken-down back porch type, but valid at all levels. “Duke Ellington never wore overalls, or Glenn Miller!” While it was “Black music”, it wasn’t just for African Americans any more, it was for all the people and this was his purpose up to his death.
B.B. was responsible for how most upcoming young guitarists approached that instrument in popular music – for better or worse! While many glommed on to his basic approach, none had his taste or sense of dynamics… no turning up to “11” for this little brown duck! In his latter years he was a living icon for many and respected across the board. A true gentle man and a gentleman of whom there have been no discouraging words. I was lucky in picking him as my first ever interview subject – there were some who would have sent me off, tail between my legs, never to try that again! Over time we became friends and I’d appear unannounced at gigs and be greeted warmly and familiarly by him (and many of his band and entourage!). At 89, he had an amazingly long and productive life, making few enemies and pleasing millions. Thank you B.
I close with some appropriate comments from Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, the next best thing:
When I worked with him, it was the highlight of all my shows, We all will miss him. but his truth will live on.
‘Nuf said – vale, “The Memphis Blues Boy” Riley B. King. The cliché that the world was a better place for his presence is proven by his life, and ours will be greatly diminished by his passing.
PETER B. LOWRY
* Miles actually never played it the same way once!
pub: THE BLUES TIMES (Sydney) – #268/June 2015: p. 3 [4/5].