Corrections or additions?
Author: Richard Skelly. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January
19, 2000. All rights reserved.
B.B., that’s Blues Boy, King
If there is any single theme throughout the long
and performing career of B.B. King, it is surely that the blues master
keeps reinventing himself.
Look at King’s latest album, "Let The Good Times Roll."
to coincide with his performances last October at the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, where that organization was
celebrating "Louis Jordan Week," the album is a collection
of songs by Jordan, a highly influential bandleader and songwriter
whose popularity soared in the late 1940s and early ’50s. On "Let
the Good Times Roll," the guitarist, singer, and songwriter offers
his own arrangements of such classic Jordan songs as "Saturday
Night Fish Fry," "Jack, You’re Dead," "Ain’t Nobody
Here But Us Chickens," "Caldonia," and "Nobody Knows
You When You’re Down and Out."
In short, King does Jordan’s swing-blues-thing, his way.
Or have a listen to King’s next-to-latest release, "Blues On The
Bayou" of 1998. Here we find King and his orchestra recording
at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, the site of many legendary
zydeco and Louisiana swamp blues recording sessions. There are some
tasty guitar solos, a couple of well-crafted instrumental tunes, and
a song he first wrote in the 1950s, "I’ll Survive." King has
recycled "I’ll Survive" and added a lot more instruments to
his band since the song was new.
In King’s liner notes to "Blues On The Bayou" he explains:
"P.S. In case you’re interested, my favorite is `I’ll Survive,’
a song I wrote back in the ’50s. I sang it then, but I’m not sure
I understood it. Now I know the meaning of survival."
So King, who appears at the War Memorial in Trenton Thursday, January
20, keeps reinventing himself. And while both he and his fans know
he can’t live forever — he has a lyric in a song that goes "I
want to roll, roll, roll, forever" — the effects of diabetes
and what’s normally considered old age haven’t slowed his worldwide
touring and travel schedule all that much. He still performs about
225 nights a year, and most veteran road musicians would agree that’s
ambitious for a musician of any age. When he’s not on the road, King
makes his home in Las Vegas. But he’s on the road so much, that he
carries literally thousands of CDs, tapes, and several computers with
him on his tour buses.
In his fascinating 1996 autobiography, "Blues All Around Me"
(Avon Books), written with David Ritz, King explains much of his modus
operandi. And in his liner notes for "Blues On The Bayou,"
his description is not unlike what he does on stage with his band:
"We went down South. We settled into a secluded state-of-the-art
studio in the country outside Lafayette, Louisiana. The setting was
kicked back; the feeling was down-home. Me and the fellas had a ball.
No one was telling us what to do. No one needed to tell us what to
do. After all, this is the band I travel with — play with, live
and die with — night after night, 225 nights a year."
Riley B. King was born September 16, 1925, near
Mississippi, on a cotton plantation, smack dab in the middle of the
Delta. He began his singing and guitar playing career in church, and
perhaps that’s part of the reason he doesn’t leave a concert until
all the people who want his autograph have had a few minutes with
King’s parents split up when he was four, and the young boy went to
live with his mother in the northern part of the state. When he was
nine, she died, and by his early teens his father had brought him
back to Indianola, where he went to work on the family farm. He
basic guitar chords from an uncle and purchased his first guitar for
$8. Shortly afterward, he started his first group, a gospel quartet.
It wasn’t until he was in his teens that he became fascinated with
On Saturday evenings, he would play on Main Street in Indianola. He
quickly discovered he could make more in tip money playing blues
In 1947, after a stint in the army, King moved to Memphis. He moved
in with his cousin, Delta bluesman Bukka White. He got a job as a
part-time singer of radio commercials at radio station WDIA, a station
that played a significant role in the development of the blues genre
and sub-genres we enjoy today. Within a year, King was offered the
chance to host his own program at the station. At the same time he
began to perform in local juke joints. From his years as a part-time
singer, he referred to himself on the air and on stage as "The
Blues Boy from Beale Street." He later shortened the name to Blues
Boy King, which became B.B. Working as a disc jockey gave King access
to executives at fledgling record companies, and through them, he
got his first contract in 1949.
In the early 1950s, he enjoyed his first hit with
O’ Clock Blues." King continued recording singles for the Crown
and Kent labels through the ’50s. Many classic sides he still performs
today were recorded then, including "You Didn’t Want Me,"
"Be Careful With A Fool," "Sweet Sixteen," and "I
Need You So Bad."
In 1962, King began a long relationship with ABC Records and stayed
with them until they were absorbed by MCA Records in 1979. It was
in the mid-’50s that he got his first bus and began to tour
Since 1979, King has recorded exclusively for MCA.
He recorded at a prolific pace through the ’60s and ’70s at ABC, and
many of his LPs spawned hit singles, including "How Blue Can You
Get," "Rock Me Baby," and "Help the Poor" in 1964;
"Don’t Answer the Door" in 1966; and "Payin’ the Cost
to be the Boss" in 1968.
It wasn’t until some of the British blues-rock groups became hooked
on King’s genius as a guitar player that he began to enjoy bigger
audiences in the U.S. and Europe. In the mid-1960s, rock promoter
Bill Graham saw King’s potential to introduce a whole new white
to the blues and booked him for a series of successful theater shows
in San Francisco, along with fellow blues guitarists Freddie King
and Albert King (neither musician any relation to B.B). In 1968 King
made his first tour of the U.K. and Europe, and when he returned,
his box office numbers were way up.
A year later, he made several appearances on network television and
toured with the British rock sensation, the Rolling Stones. All the
exposure resulted in greater record sales, and from this point on,
most B.B. King shows took place in theaters rather than clubs.
In 1970, his single "The Thrill Is Gone," from his album
Well," was well received on commercial radio and Guitar Player
magazine recognized him as "Top Blues Guitarist of the Year."
Since 1970, King’s albums for ABC and MCA include "Live at Cook
County Jail," the critically acclaimed "Live at the Regal"
(also recorded in Chicago at the theater of the same name), "B.B.
King in London," "Guess Who," "Lucille Talks
"Midnight Believer," and more recently "Six Silver
and a collaborative effort with the late, legendary New York-based
songwriter, Jerome "Doc" Pomus, "There Is Always One More
Time." Pomus, who wrote "Save The Last Dance For Me,"
"Viva Las Vegas," and other classics, died in 1991.
King’s autobiography, "Blues All Around Me," is an engaging,
gripping read. Several months before its release, MCA Records released
"On The Road With B.B. King," an interactive CD-ROM
Anyone with a CD-ROM capable computer can learn about King, Memphis,
the South, and the blues in general through this well-produced
tour. Among many other things, fans will learn that King studied for
and received his pilot’s license back in the 1950s. But "On The
Road With B.B. King" is chockful of other information about the
South and the development of blues and early rock ‘n’ roll.
In concert, King and his 16-piece orchestra shuffle through a
rotating set list that always includes some of the best-known hits,
such as "Don’t Answer the Door," "The Thrill Is Gone,"
and other classics, but King always carefully integrates material
from his current album into his shows. That means audience members
can expect plenty of Louis Jordan tunes on Thursday night at the newly
renovated War Memorial.
— Richard J. Skelly
Street, Trenton, 609-984-8400. $35 & $55. To charge tickets call
tickets online at http://www.ticketmaster.com. Thursday,
January 20, 8 p.m.
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