The NY Times’ “The Music they Made” series continues with profile of B.B. King:
- B.B. King is tired. The last of the great bluesmen, Mr. King sits slumped in a chair in a Manhattan hotel room. It is early afternoon, and Mr. King, sipping water, is resting before a sold-out appearance at the club named for him on 42nd Street.
A big man encased in a silk Hawaiian-style shirt, Mr. King, at 77, travels relentlessly around the country, as consumed with performing and recording as he was 30 years ago. “If I don’t keep doing it, keep going, they’ll forget me,” he says.
Mr. King — one of the most important electric guitarists of the last half century, with an impact that long ago transcended the blues and infiltrated rock ‘n’ roll — has about 200 club dates a year. His manager says he would do 300, if allowed.
He suffers from diabetes and hypertension. He is overweight. His knees give him trouble. But he spends most of his time bouncing around the country in his sleek personal bus with its lounge, private office, black leather seats and polished hardwood-veneer walls. (His eight-man band travels on a separate bus emblazoned with his name.) Mr. King says the only exercise he gets is when he travels by plane and has to walk from one airport gate to another.
His career, even with fewer club dates, is flourishing, in sharp contrast to those of most of his contemporaries. He won two Grammys last month, bringing his total to 13. His 2000 album with Eric Clapton, “Riding With the King,” was the most successful of Mr. King’s nearly 50-year career, selling 4.5 million copies around the world. His latest album, “Reflections on Life,” on MCA Records is due out in June. His total worldwide record sales are estimated at more than 40 million.
….Since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when rock and pop audiences discovered him, Mr. King has not only been recognized, but his riffs have been adapted by virtually every significant blues and rock guitarist. “B. B. King had a profound effect on the inner workings of rock ‘n’ roll,” said Robert Santelli, author of “The Big Book of Blues” and director of the Experience Music Project, the Seattle rock museum. This, he said, can be linked to one overriding accomplishment: “What King has done more than anything else is to elevate the blues guitar solo to a high art.”
….”By bending the strings, by trilling my hand — and I have big, fat hands — I could achieve something that approximated a vocal vibrato,” Mr. King said in his 1996 autobiography, “Blues All Around Me,” written with David Ritz. He added: “I could sustain a note. I wanted to connect my guitar to human emotions.”
Peter Guralnick, author of the acclaimed two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love,” offered a particularly rounded assessment of Mr. King’s enormous contribution to blues and rock:
“It was King’s style of rapidly picked single notes, embellishing and extending the vocal and rarely supporting it with full-bodied chords, which prevailed to create a whole blues-tinged vocabulary for modern rock.
….He was born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925, in a sharecropper’s cabin near Indianola, Miss. His father, Albert, often worked two consecutive double shifts, 48 hours, at 50 cents a shift. Mr. King’s parents separated when he was 4, and his mother took him to her family in Kilmichael, in the hills east of the Delta. Mr. King walked six miles round trip to a segregated one-room schoolhouse. He earned 35 cents a day picking cotton.
At 7 he became fascinated with the gospel singing and guitar playing of a sanctified preacher, Archie Fair, a distant relative, at the Church of God in Christ. That preacher let the young Riley play his guitar and urged him to become a minister. But against the wishes of his deeply religious mother, who called the blues “devil music,” the boy listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on the radio.
At 9 Mr. King was left alone. His mother died at 25, perhaps of diabetes, and then his grandmother died. He said that a plantation owner named Floyd Cartledge and his family allowed him to live by himself on their property and earn his keep by performing house chores and milking cows. They kept a paternal eye on him. In his autobiography Mr. King said that while other plantation owners were “coldblooded racists,” Cartledge – whom he still calls “Mr. Flake” – was decent enough to advance him $15 to buy a cherry-red Stella guitar when he was 12.
A brief, unhappy reunion with his father – who had remarried – led Mr. King to strike out on his own at 13.
A very long, hard struggle has paid off handsomely – it’s a great story.