“All the King’s Men”
It is all too common that W.E. consider “the end of an era” with the passing of so-and-so; there are so many cases of folks being regarded as the “last of the” whatever blues artists. This is a perception by us outsiders looking into another’s musical culture and not necessarily “reality” for them. Even so, there has been a bump in the matrix with the passing of B.B. King, a rending of the universe that is irreparable, if not irredeemable. I find small memories cropping up of various people that I crossed paths with by knowing B.
Going backstage at The Apollo resulted in meeting a great spread of people, not all singers. Certainly there were the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Junior Parker, O.V. Wright, Jimmy Reed, Big Maebelle, Wynonie Harris, Rufus Thomas… the list goes on. Some I got to speak with, others I did not – many I took Polaroid snapshots of (this was before I had a “real” camera); with others, I was not so lucky. I was basically shy and insecure – what can I say! Of the non-musicians, one who sticks in my mind was Dave Clark.
He was a very dapper dressed slim guy with a harelip and a concomitant speech impediment. Little did I know at the time of his importance in the grand scheme of things in the world of Black music. A one-time advance man for the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra in the forties, he worked behind the scenes for decades at many positions, finishing up with promotions for Malaco Records. He was also co-writer with B of “Why I Sing the Blues” and other of his social protest content songs as well – “Ghetto Woman”, “Chains & Things” among them. A true renaissance man of the “chitlin’ circuit”, if you will, and a true gentleman to boot! Would that I had attempted to spend time with him as well, but there are so many who would fall into that category.
One well-known personage that I met in B’s dressing room was comedian/actor Redd Foxx. He just appeared there one day unannounced (he wasn’t on the show!) to see his friend. You hear about the connection of laughter and pain, well, Foxx was there for about half an hour “on song”! He just kept ripping them off right and left as all laughed continuously, and then he left. I can vouch for the fact that it is possible to laugh so hard that one’s sides hurt as a result of that appearance. Humor can be deadly… in a good way! All hail Mr. Fred Sanford (his birth name!).
There was also Hampton Reese. He was a trumpet player who took to arranging for B and the band. A nice, skinny little guy who lived in a high-rise apartment in Ft. Lee, NJ when I met him (probably the one my aunt and Leon Janney lived in) overlooking the Hudson River, he arranged many sides for B in the 70s. Something stirs in my mind that “The Trill Is Gone” was one of them… maybe “Hummingbird”. I had in mind hiring him to do arrangements for my unreleased Eddie Kirkland band album. He arranged such tunes for B as “Recession Blues” that was recorded for Chess Records in 1958 with three other songs (“Tickle Britches”, “Don’t Break Your Promise, “Don’t Keep Me Waiting” but unreleased. As a sidebar, when B’s contracts ran out with the Biharis, he’d go elsewhere and do an out-of-contract session – they’d then be in a position of loosing one of their best artists, they’d pony up more money and re-sign him! He did that with Peacock Records in 1953 (“Remember Me”, “What A Difference”, “I Don’t Believe It”, “I Can’t Put You Down”, “I Did Everything I Could”, “I’ve Learned My Lesson”, “Come On Baby, Take A Swing With Me” [possibly a remake of one of the tunes recorded for Bullet in ‘49]) – it was leverage that he had and he wasn’t too shy to use it. It worked!!
Recently, I viewed a film carried by the secondary public television network here in Australia, SBS [the Supplemental Broadcasting System] a few years ago. “The Life of Riley” is a documentary on the life of B.B. King, done with his blessing and assistance. It is, of course, timely and it is also exceedingly well done. I particularly like the cross edits over time of him performing a particular song from his vast repertoire. The cinematography and editing in general is first class throughout and it shows knowledge and respect, as well a love. I highly recommend viewing a copy – I was able to find it on line*, but the link didn’t work for those I passed it on to here in Oz! My expert son has no explanation! The only warning regarding the film is that it begins with introductory comments by Bill Cosby – obviously done before the excreta hit the ventilating system re: Cosby – that may offend.
Back in the day, B was able to play week-long residencies in clubs in NYC – like jazz musicians used to do! There was one in Greenwich Village called “Generation”* that had him for a week. This was a major coup for B and Sid, not that there was anything wrong with The Apollo, but this was a different and new audience for the man. I went down almost every night from Ulster County – he and the band were magnificent and he attracted many musicians in the crowd. I had a long conversation with Janis Joplin about Clifton Chenier and hipped her to L.C. Donatto, who she had never heard of! At the end of B’s sets, often the visiting firemen would take over the stage and play for the King. One doesn’t expect to see Janis Ian and Jimi Hendrix jamming (she on piano), but there you are. EVERYbody paid their respects!!
I was still teaching biology at SUNY-New Paltz at that time, so some nights I had to quit before it was all over with due to having to teach an afternoon class. I had to have a clear head for that – I have always been a responsible sort! One night I deeply regret having to leave early was when Blood, Sweat, & Tears (the original version with Al Kooper) was playing in The Village and came up en masse after their gig was over, set up and played for him! Even better, he joined in with the band during the wee, small hours as well!! Missed that. Such is the responsible life! Hangin’with B was always a good time!
* That club had a later life as it became the site of Hendrix’s recording studio, Electric Lady Studios, still functioning today.
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney – Oct 2015