King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, Daniel de Visé, Grove Press.
I remember reading and appreciating King’s 1996 memoire, Blues All Around Me, written by David Ritz. This, as you might expect, is a much more substantial work, much more detailed, clocking in at over 400 pages.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist de Visé’s biography of American music icon, B.B. King is a masterful piece of work. It’s hugely detailed, yet always engaging – in fact, it’s something of a page turner. He has painstakingly reconstructed King’s life from his memoir, hundreds of B.B. King interviews, discussions with dozens of surviving friends and relatives, bandmates and producers, and input from Sue King Evans, King’s ex-wife, and life-long friend, Walter Riley King. The list of acknowledgements, actually, is quite breath-taking. You can be sure that de Visé has written the definitive account of B.B. King’s life.
de Visé tracks King’s life from the birth of his father, Albert King, in 1907 and his mother, Ella Pully, in 1908 with fascinating early chapters on King growing up in rural Mississippi, through his breakthrough as a musician, the years on the chittlin’ circuit, his discovery by white musicians and fans in the 60s, and then eventually his move into revered status as King of the Blues and recognition by rock stars, presidents, the press and households around the world.
de Visé weaves a number of important threads throughout his narrative, and, as the best of writers do, he never seeks to make any of these a major emphasis or crudely highlight them. He simply tells his story and lets the reader pick up on aspects of King’s life that were important in the make-up of the man.
First, what comes across quite forcibly is King’s utter determination to make it as a musician. After playing the diddly bow – length of wire stretched tight between two nails hammered into a board – as a boy, listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rodgers and Lonnie Johnson on 78-rpm shellac discs in his great-aunt Mima’s cabin, and then singing in a gospel group as a teenager, B.B.’s single-minded focus on learning the guitar, singing and performing is remarkable.
His was the most unpromising of backgrounds – a sharecropper’s son, born into deep poverty, whose family broke up when he was a small boy, whose beloved mother died when he was ten, and who was shunted around between various relatives until he left for Memphis in 1946. Yet somehow he doggedly got himself on to the radio and began getting some gigs, even though, at this stage his guitar playing was not particularly good.
Perhaps it was because of this very unpromising early life that that utter determination to succeed drove him throughout his life. We hear of the huge number of gigs King played year on year, throughout his life, never retiring even when dementia and ill-health set in, and of his remarkable ability to keep going in the midst of marital trouble, financial disasters, the ills of the Jim Crow South, and the changing waves and trends of the music business. His commitment to his art and the blues, and his skill as a guitarist and singer remained constant throughout his life.
Second, what becomes clear is the contribution King made to the blues and to American music in general. As well as leaving a huge back catalogue of music in his scores of albums dating from 1957 to 2011 (all carefully listed at the end of the book), B.B. King’s single note guitar technique was the influence for all subsequent guitar soloing, in the same way that Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos broke new ground for jazz. Eric Clapton hailed him as an “inspiration,” and said that Live at the Regal was “where is really started for me as a young player.” King mentored a young Jimi Hendrix and took both Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughn under his wing. Carlos Santana claimed simply he was a “fan.”
It’s worth quoting de Visé directly here:
“B.B. had indeed transformed the blues. Before him, the genre had embraced acoustic slide guitarists and harmonica virtuosi, saxophonists and big-band singers. After B.B., those silos collapsed. By the late 1970s, the blues were played mostly by men with electric guitars, and all of them inevitably invited comparison to B.B. King.”
King’s influence on the blues, guitar playing and American music in general is not to be doubted, and de Visé brings this out admirably, suggesting he was the rightful heir of Armstrong and Ellington, and a cultural ambassador to the world.
The third strand that stood out for me was that of racism. King grew up in rural Mississippi in poverty with all the injustice of the sharecropping system, the spectre of lynching, sundown towns and all the rest of the iniquitous Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination. His art was confined to Black audiences for decades, as he played the chitlin’ circuit before anyone who was white took notice of his art. Over the years he suffered demeaning traffic stops by racist police; had to sleep on his tour bus because of segregation in hotels; was in a hotel room that was shaken by a bomb blast set off by white supremacists in Birmingham in 1963, and with his band suffered a violent racist attack in Louisiana as late as 1968.
Things did change, though, and King became accepted and adored by white audiences, starting with a triumphant performance and acceptance by the hippies in Bill Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco in 1967. He travelled the world, was honoured by America’s presidents, won numerous Grammy awards and returned year after year to a “Homecoming” festival held in his honour in his native Indianola.
Finally, de Visé’s King comes across as a genuinely nice man in many ways, and humble. He was fair in his treatment of his band members – provided they could stick the relentless pace of his incessant touring – and made sure they got paid properly. There was scarcely a person who had a bad word to say about him. But de Visé does not shy away from describing the man’s obvious addictions to both gambling and sex. King wasted millions of dollars in a gambling habit that left him seriously in debt from time to time and in trouble with the taxman. He played poker with his band on their bus night after night, keno in Las Vegas and on tour might join his bandmates in betting on the movement of a hotel elevator.
King’s other major addition throughout his life was sex – pornography in later years, but for decades he used his touring as an opportunity to sleep with a large number of women. While de Visé does not go into a great deal of detail, this is a recurrent thread in the narrative and unsavoury snippets about multiple liaisons in a single night are included. Clearly that left King unable to maintain a successful marriage, and you are left wondering about the effect of all this on the women concerned, although de Visé does not deal with this.
In his favour, of course, King accepted at face value the various claims of parenthood of children from various encounters over the years and sought to provide for these children throughout his life. The reality, as de Visé, points out, is it is likely that King was impotent and actually fathered no children.
In addition, it is interesting to note that, although King was at one stage a heavy drinker, he had zero tolerance for his band using drugs.
de Visé’s portrait of B.B. King is generally sympathetic, but the picture emerges of a man, very much of his time, moulded by his early background and the struggles he had to make it into the big time, ambitious but not at all ruthless, and prone to seek comfort from the hardships of the road by indulging his weakness for gambling and sex.
The last section of the book, dealing with King’s demise in later life, is sad, but de Visé is quite sympathetic to the various people who vied for his estate after his death.
King of the Blues is a wholly engaging read and you are left with no doubt as to the impact and lasting legacy of B.B. King on the blues, on guitar playing, on music.