THE READING ROOM: Biography Charts Intensity and Influence of B.B. King
Even though the thrill of hearing the king of the blues live has been gone since B.B. King died in May 2015, author Daniel de Visé hopes to help us recall how King ascended to the throne of the blues world in his new biography, King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King (Atlantic Monthly Press). Along the way, he traces how King developed a style that influenced generations of guitarists.
In King of the Blues, the first full-length biography of King, journalist de Visé draws on interviews with surviving members of King’s inner circle, including family, friends, and band members, to offer an almost year-by-year account of the ups and downs of King’s rise from poverty in Mississippi to the heights of international stardom. As de Visé points out, even though King became a world-famous musician, he never shed the shadows of poverty, and he always made it a priority to reach out to Black audiences, even though white listeners embraced his music in a way they did not when it came to his peers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or T-Bone Walker. On Sept. 10, 1970, King played the Cook County Jail, and he “rejoiced at performing for Black people again,” de Visé writes. Writing about that afternoon, de Visé says: “B.B. flailed his left wrist up and down to create the shimmering vibrato that was his trademark. B.B. felt that he and Lucille spoke with the same voice, one picking up where the other left off … two minutes later, the song [“Every Day I Have the Blues”] was over, and the yard erupted to applause and cheers. This audience, surely, could relate to the blues.”
As a child, Riley King idolized the pastor of his Church of God in Christ, the Rev. Archie Fair, who “filled the room with the low thunder of his voice and the sweet twang of his guitar.” The young King said about the preacher: “His sermon is like music, and his music — both the song from his mouth and the sound of his guitar — thrills me until I wanna get up and dance.” Fair carried his guitar with him when he visited King’s Aunt Lucille’s house one Sunday after church; King picked it up and cradled it, and Fair invited the young boy to try it out. Fair taught King three chords — the I, IV, and V chords — and King couldn’t put the instrument down.
By the time he’s 16, King buys his second guitar, a fire-red Stella. “I was in love,” King recalls. “Never have been so excited. Couldn’t keep my hands off her. If I was feeling lonely, I’d pick up the guitar; if something’s bugging me, just grab the guitar and play out the anger; happy, horny, mad, or sad, the guitar was right there, a righteous pacifier and comforting companion. It was an incredible luxury to have this instrument to stroke whenever the passion overcame me, and, believe me, the passion overcame me night and day.”
In 1949, B.B. King emerges on the Memphis airwaves as a DJ at WDIA on a record titled “Miss Martha King,” an ode to his wife. As de Visé observes, the song opens with King playing a descending riff that sounds more like “an exercise than a hook.” On this initial recording it’s King’s “slightly clenched, back-of-the-throat tenor” and not his guitar that’s featured.
King’s transformation into the blues guitarist we revere today occurs in the early 1950s when King “anthropomorphizes his Gibson L-30 guitar into Lucille,” writes de Visé. “Where other guitarists had heard scales and chords and arpeggios, B.B. King heard a voice. ‘I wanted to sustain a note like a singer,’ he recalled. ‘I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions.’ King soon developed his signature style of playing that delivered the warm sound and the crying voice for which he is best known. ‘I swivel my wrist from the elbow,’ he recalled, ‘back and forth, and this stretches the string, raising and lowering the pitch of the note rhythmically. With my other fingers stretched out, my whole hand makes a fluttering gesture, a bit like a butterfly flapping its wings.’”
De Visé chronicles King’s ascent to the top of the blues world through the last few decades of the 20th century and his steady decline in the in the early 2000s. When he performed in the East Room of the White House in 2012, he “appeared to be lost beneath two layers of fog. He missed his cues and darted off jags of confused banter.”
The best moments of King of the Blues portray the B.B. King whose cutting lead guitar sends chills up our spines every time we hear it. De Visé gives us glimpses of King’s genius and the reasons so many guitarists look up to him.