Part IV: The Legacy* A Postscript After 15 Years Keep The Hammer Down [Translated to German as "With Both Feet On The Gas Pedal"] You better not look down If you want to keep on flying. You can keep it movin' If you don't look down. You better not look back Or you might just end up crying. Put the hammer down And keep it full speed ahead. [From "Better Not Look Down" by Joe Sample and Will Jennings, Irving Music, Inc., Four Nights Music Company, BMI]
When I wrote "The Once and Future King," the chapter speculating on what the future held for B.B. King, the most tantalizing question was whether or not he would ascend to the level of stardom that transcends time, place, and generation, where the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Enrico Caruso, Charlie Parker, Elvis Presley, Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong dwell for all time. There was the prospect that he might assume the mantle of Louis Armstrong as America's Musical Goodwill Ambassador to the world. Would fate call on him to take up this role as America's cultural representative? Would he carry this part of our heritage to the world responsibly and with the dignity of a diplomat? There was a specter, too, the specter of self-doubt which had been the cornerstone of his art. Even if fate so called him, there was this ever-present gulch into which he could slip or even throw himself.
The answers are much clearer now, fifteen years later. As we watch him press on with no concession to his age, we are witnessing the concluding act of this drama. His every performance shows that he is ready and eager to accept Armstrong's mantle, his every new honor validates him as Armstrong's heir. Since 1980, B.B. King has received many and diverse honors as his star has continued to rise -- honors from academia, the recording industry, television, his home state of Mississippi, and the White House, with a tip of the hat from Hollywood. Some have descended on him predictably, while others have required strange turns of events, like the one that took him to the White House. Now that he is a pop star, and not only a blues legend, the most popular television programs write him into their scripts. Fast food chains and international airlines compete for his endorsements. The first of the chain of blues clubs that bear his name, opened in Memphis, in 1991. This helped spark the revival of the very Beale Street that nurtured his raw talent 50 years ago, launched him toward stardom, and now claims him as its icon. Memphis is now known as the hometown of both Elvis and B.B. King. All this has been accomplished in spite of a conspicuous absence of hit records and sustained airplay -- the chicken and egg riddle of the record business. A popular musician who becomes a transcendent star without a string of hit records is almost as improbable as a movie star with no hit movies. Imagine Humphrey Bogart without a box office bonanza, Eugene O'Neil without a Broadway hit, or Kurt Vonnegut without a single book that appeared near the top of the best seller list.
How has B.B. achieved the tremencous success and worldwide popularity he enjoys in 1995? What has he done with his celebrity? And, what, indeed, is the legacy of B.B. King? The answers to these questions all go back to his character, and his history.
The most important factor in B.B. King's success is that he has avoided giving in to self doubt and falling victim to the consequent ruin that claims so many; and he has done so by remaining true to his character as it was formed by the time he left the Mississippi Delta. He has secured his self esteem day after day through hard work and fidelity to the same values he has practiced all his life. Like planter Johnson Barrett he never lost sight of his responsibilities to his dependents and employees. Taking on the responsibilities of stardom, he has handled the extraordinary pressure of celebrity with grace and nerves of steel. But he has also grown into his success. He has grown as an artist, collaborating with respected jazz, rock and country artists as well as other blues greats. He has become an entrepreneur, licensing franchises for B.B. King Blues Clubs. He has tried to return to society some of the good it has given him by continuing his program of prison concerts and embarking on visits to schools and colleges to talk about the blues and history. Most important he has steadily broadened and deepened his following, winning them one-by-one, in person. He has relied on his most basic skill as an entertainer, the one he learned from the Sanctified Preacher Fair, leading his listeners through a personal catharsis that binds them to him for life. By playing an average of 300 engagements per year for 47 years, he has conducted roughly 14,000 such group purges. Such a sustained devotion to the music and the audience is without equal. Few celebrity performers manage this many appearances a year at their peak, and all, except B.B. King, take vacations. He has proved that you don't need hit records when you visit your constituents in person and touch them in their heart of hearts.
As to be expected, there is a dark side to B.B. King's success. He is now subject to griping, smallminded critcism from purists who fault him for becoming a pop star, instead of staying put as a "pure" blues artist. Also, he has realized with sadness that he will never get back the years of his children's youth, and recognises the irony that as a father-figure to musicians around the world, he has not been a "good enough" father to his own children, because of his long and constant touring schedule. Though he won his audience with that schedule, he lost the chance to be there, physically, for his children when they were growing up.
How far has B.B. King come in the fifteen years since this book first appeared? Let's start with a sample of his activities in 1994-95. A profile of his schedule, and his recording activities will help to assess where his career stands today. The schedule in the summer of this, the 50th year of his career as an entertainer and the 70th year of his life, is only slightly less demanding than what he braved on the chit'lin' circuit just after "Three O'Clock Blues," reached #1 on the rhythm and blues charts, commonly referred to as the race record charts, in 1952.
July 4 Fraudenau Vienna, Austria July 5 Villa Celiomontana Rome, Italy July 7 Piazza Duomo Pistoia, Italy July 8 Giardini Reale Torino, Italy July 9 Palais des Congres Vittel, France July 11 Centre de Congres et D'Expos Montreau, Switzerland July 14 Contress Centre The Hague, Holland July 15 Royal Festival Hall London, England July 16 Falkoner Center Copenhagen, Denmark July 18 Marco Le Naiadi Pescara, Italy July 19 Palazzo Bellini Court Comacchio, Italy July 20 Philharmonic Hall Munich, Germany July 21 Kirjurinluoto Pori, Finland July 22 Stadtpark Hamburg, Germany July 23 La Finede Gould Antibes, France July 25 Plaza de la Trinidad San Sebastian, Spain July 27 Fem de Fond Robert Chateau Arnoux,France July 29 Mareepolice La Seyne Sur Mer, France July 30 Theatre de la Nature Cognac, France Aug 4 Mt. Hood Jazz Festival Gresham, Oregon Aug 5 The Gorge Amphitheater George, Washington Aug 6 The Greek Theatre Los Angeles, California Aug 7 Star of the Desert Area Stateline, Nevada Aug 9 New Mexico State University Cruces, New Mexico Practice Field Aug 11 Shoreline Amphitheater Mountainview, California Aug 12 Reno Hilton Amphitheater Reno, Nevada Aug 13 Concord Pavilion Concord, California Aug 15 Fiddler's Green Amphitheater Denver, Colorado Aug 17 Starlight Amphitheater Kansas City, Missouri Aug 18 Mark of the Quad Cities Moline, Illinois Aug 20 Great Woods Boston, Massachusetts Aug 21 Tanglewood Performing Arts Tanglewood, Massachusetts Aug 22 Wolftrap Vienna, Virginia Aug 23 Fox Detroit, Michigan Aug 24 Kingswood Music Theater Toronto, Canada Aug 25 Connecticut Center for Hartford, Connecticut Performing Arts Aug 27 Blockbuster Sony Music Camden, New Jersey Entertainment Center Aug 30 Paramount Theater New York City Sept 1 Fox St. Louis, Missouri Sept 2 Hawthorne Racetrack Chicago, Illinois Sept 3 Minnesota State Fair St. Paul, Minnesota Sept 7 Riverbend Music Center Cincinnati, Ohio Sept 8 Mud Island Amphitheater Memphis, Tennessee Sept 9 Riverfront Park Nashville, Tennessee Sept 10 Horse Park Lexington, Kentucky Sept 15 TBA Raleigh, North Carolina Sept 16 Chastine Park Atlanta, Georgia
This slice of B.B. King's schedule, beginning in Vienna on July 4th and ending on September 16th in Atlanta, Georgia, on his 70th birthday --46 concerts over a 73-day period, covering 20 states and 11 countries -- underscores two defining characteristics of his life as a professional musician: his extraordinary stamina, coupled with his sense of mission. Ever since he left Memphis B.B. King has lived by a motto in the words of a song Joe Sample and Will Jennings wrote for his 1979 album, "Take It Home." The song is "Better Not Look Down" and the motto is "Put the Hammer Down and Keep It Full Speed Ahead." [In slang the "hammer" is the throttle of an airplane or truck.]
Between Europe in July and America in August and September B.B. had a scant four days to recharge his batteries. The American tour, with three other major blues acts on the bill was known as "Blues Music Festival 95." Attendees began watching and listening in the hot sun and finished late in the evening under the stars. The lineup was formidable: Jimmy Vaughn, brother of the late Steve Ray Vaughn and guitarist of the Fabulous Thunderbirds; Etta James; and Blues Time, featuring J. Geils, Magic Dick and Elvin Bishop, guitarist in the original Paul Butterfield Band. This annual touring festival is the contemporary counterpart of the Rhythm and Blues tours of the 1950's that might have featured Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Little Milton and Nappy Brown, just to mention a few. In those days the black neighborhoods would be festooned with yellow posters studded with photos of the artists for weeks in advance. The difference between the tours of those days and this modern version is the venues. Gone from the itinerary are the temples of black culture, the Howard, the Royal, and the Regal Theaters; gone are the large capacity nightclubs of the ghetto, places like the Burning Spear in Chicago, or the Flame Showbar of Detroit. In their places are Great Woods near Boston, Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, the Paramount Theater in Midtown Manhattan, and the Reno Hilton Amphitheater.
The change in his audience has left B.B. King feeling ambivalent. He has achieved his mission to bring blues into the mainstream, but young black listeners barely seem to notice this piece of their culture. When the black press asked him if he considered that blacks have deserted the blues, he replied that whatever you may call it, neglecting the blues and leaving it entirely to others to practice and appreciate amounts to just that.
When this book first appeared B.B. King's discography listed X albums. That number has grown [to Y. The exact numbers here must wait until the discography is completed.] And today record producers for other artists know that the name "B.B. King" on their albums will boost sales. For instance, the 1995 Manhattan Transfer album, "Tonin'," (Atlantic) had B.B. playing guitar on "The Thrill Is Gone," with Ruth Brown and Janis Siegel singing lead vocals. On "Lifetimes," (Warner Brothers) by Peter, Paul and Mary, B.B. plays guitar and sings with Mary Travis on "House Of The Rising Sun." An all-star anthology devoted to the memory of songwriter Doc Pomus, "Till The Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus" (Forward/Rhino), includes B.B. King singing and playing guitar on "Blinded By Love."
The latest B.B. King recording, "Lucille and Friends," released in Europe in June, 1995, is a compilation of his collaboration with major artists from blues, jazz, and pop over the past 25 years. The list of artists and songs reads like a Who's Who of the best known from each genre.
John Lee Hooker "You Shook Me" Bobby Bland "Let The Good Times Roll" Robert Cray "Playin' With My Friends" Albert Collins "Frosty" The Crusaders "Better Not Look Down" Dr. John, Gary Wright, "Ghetto Woman" Ringo Starr Leon Russell, Joe Walsh "Hummingbird" Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks "Can't Get Enough" U2 "When Love Comes To Town" Grover Washington Jr. "Caught A Touch Of Your Love" Gary Moore "Since I Left You Baby" Branford Marsalis "B.B.'s Blues" Vernon Reid "All You Ever Gave Me Was The Blues" Stevie Wonder "To Know You Is To Love You"
1995 has been a good television year for B.B. King as well. He joined Jimmy Vaughn, Robert Cray, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Buddy Guy and Art Neville in a special production of Austin City Limits, a showcase for country and blues-rock artists, in tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn. At the 25th Essence Awards devoted to stars of color, broadcast on the Fox Network, he sang a duet of "Rock Me Baby" with Michael Bolton and led the finale of "Let The Good Times Roll" with the entire cast. On September 1, 1995, the Arts and Entertainment Network showed a one-hour concert shot during the recording of the B.B. King album "Blues Summit."
In other television action during 1995 B.B. King continued to be a reliable cameo character in the most popular sitcoms and action drama shows. Network producers have found over the years that B.B. King is a kind of uncle to all of America and that a television show can boost its ratings by writing B.B. King into their scripts. "Baywatch," America's most popular action-drama series, worked him into the scenario of an episode, as did "The Bill Cosby Show," "Blossom," and "General Hospital." These appearances, perhaps more than any other facet of B.B.'s career during the last decade, attest to the fact that B.B. King is more than a pop star. He has achieved a status that few entertainers can claim -- to be part of the American family. He has become an icon that stands for something all Americans can relate to and claim for their own. This could be said not just for Americans but for the rest of the world as well.
B.B. King is, in the truest sense, a citizen of the world. In 1994 he ran the string of countries he has visited and played up to 58. A spring tour in Europe included a swing through the newly independent Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia. Earlier in the year Brazilians flocked to see and hear him. He sold out the 3,000 capacity theater in Buenos Aires seven times for a total gate of 21,000. In Sao Paolo, he sold out the Bourbon Street Nightclub three times, and in Montevideo, Uruguay, he sold out the Plaza Theater and sent representatives of his record label scrambling when the stores ran out of stock of all his recordings. The Spring 1994 Far Eastern Tour brought B.B. King to a place where the press customarily awaits photo opportunities with world leaders and statesmen. This time it was not a pho to of an American President standing on the Great Wall of China that flashed around the world on Reuters wire service, it was a picture of B.B. King atop the ancient wall, cradling Lucille in his arms, waving triumphantly. The engagement that brought him to China was the official opening of the Beijing Hard Rock Cafe -- an oxymoron if there ever was one. Ten or twenty years ago the idea of such a venue would have seemed as implausible as a date at the Whisky A Go Go in Vatican City, or the Baghdad B'nai Brith. To add to the sense of the surreal, two nights before the Beijing gig B.B. played the Hard Rock Cafe in the capital of the "other China," Taiwan. But as Somerset Maugham put it so succinctly, "nothing is too rum [strange] to be true." Still, it is not surprising that one of the earliest commercial products to appear in the new markets of China would be American pop music. And the choice of B.B. King to open in Bejing confirms his stature as elder statesman for the blues, America's unofficial, but immensely important Musical Ambassador of Good Will, a post once held by Louis Armstrong but vacant since his death in 1971. The dates in the two China's were part of a Far East tour that took him to four Australian cities, plus Hong Kong, Singapore, and seven cities in Japan -- 18 concerts in 26 days.
Most artists and performers have a special place in their trophy cases and in their hearts for awards given them by their peers. For musicians this is a Grammy. B.B. has seven of them, total, but one stands out above the rest, his Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences established the award in 1962 to recognize performers "who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording." It requires a two-thirds vote of the Board of Trustees. In 1987 when B.B. King received his gold and ebony plaque from the Academy, his fellow honorees were jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, Enrico Caruso, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Woody Herman, Billie Holiday, Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Toscanini and Hank Williams, Sr.
Among this impressive list of ten, two honorees, Fats Domino and Ray Charles, are musical peers of B.B. King. One thing sets him apart from these two, and that is the scarcity of his hit records. According to the best research volume on the subject of hit records, Top 40 Hits (1955-1992), by Joel Whitburn (Billboard Books, New York, 1992) Fats Domino had 37 hit records, during his career, 21 of which reached the top 20, and Ray Charles had 33, 17 of which went to #20 or higher. Compare this with B.B. King's entry which lists six records, only one of which, "The Thrill Is Gone", reached the top-20 at #15 on the Pop Chart (#1 on the R&B; Chart) in 1970. In the record industry hit records are the coin of the realm, and yet here is B.B. King, elevated alongside Fats, and Brother Ray, with only one Pop Chart hit among all the songs he has recorded, many, many of which were hits on the R&B; Chart and some of which registered in the middle and lower tiers of the Pop Chart. This calls for an explanation.
Why hit records have eluded him so consistently is simple -- blues records do not get the kind of steady airplay on large-market, commercial radio stations that is needed to make such hits. Of course you can hear blues music on the radio, but throughout most of B.B.'s career the blues listening audience has been neatly circumscribed on the airwaves. Blues radio programs play blues records, and those programs are not generally heard on the big commercial stations.
Although popular entertainers may regard the record charts as the show business equivalent of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, B.B. found other ways to reach the truly vast audiences that comprise the pop music market besides record sales and airplay. In the 70's he broadened his audience dramatically when he joined the Rolling Stones on their U.S. tour. This put him in front of audiences whose demographics gave new meaning to the term "crossover." The late 1980's brought two new opportunities comparably powerful in granting him access to new listeners, one a tour to rival the Stones tour of the 70's, the other a gig with the Prez, the one who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. In both cases there was an element of luck, but the key ingredient was the reverence he inspired in the hearts of a few who could invite him to the party.
In 1987 the Irish rock group U2 was arguably the world's most popular rock and roll musical group. In the spring of that year they had two #1 hits. How they came to adopt B.B. as their musical spiritual father is the stuff of show biz legends. Just before B.B. King took the stage to play a concert in Dublin, Ireland, his manager, Sid Seidenberg, told him that U2 would be attending. "A group of the magnitude of U2! Oh God!" B.B. told Melody Maker (Jan. 29, 1990). "I was really, really nervous. I tried not to think about it on stage... When I go to the dressing room, I'm told U2 is here. 'Oh, God, they were here.' They seemed to be kind of in awe of me, and I was just as nervous, meeting them. We had a nice chat, and I said to Bono, 'Sometime when you're writing a song, will you think of me?'"
The result of that conversation was a song named "When Love Comes To Town," which B.B. King performed for the first time with U2 in Texas on the "Joshua Tree" tour. B.B. was then invited to join U2 for the closing concert of the tour in Arizona. This, in turn, lead to two big breaks for B.B. -- he was featured in the documentary film about U2 on tour, "Rattle And Hum," and the accompanying album and video by the same name; and he was invited to join U2 as the opening act on a four-month world tour in the fall of 1989, which took them to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, Ireland, and Holland. During these four months B.B. King spread the gospel of blues to vast rock audiences ordinarily well beyond his reach. U2 introduced B.B. King to their fans in terms that made it clear that they were privileged to be in the presence of musical royalty.
U2 treated B.B. like royalty, too. Near the beginning of the tour in September they gave B.B. a surprise 64th birthday party on a luxury yacht in Sydney Harbor, Australia. He described his emotional response to this special honor to Melody Maker (op. cit.) this way. "Sid [B.B.'s manager] said, 'U2 is going fishing with me, would you like to come?'... We get there and they got this beautiful yacht, and they've invited people that was working with us, about 40, 50 people, I guess. So I get on the yacht, and I'm still thinking that we're just going fishing.
"Once we started to leave the dock, then they started letting out balloons and singing happy birthday. They hired a band to play for me, and we jammed and sang and had a lot of fun. And Bono sang a song he wrote for me, 'Happy Birthday BB King,' and it was so good, I cried. I couldn't hold back the tears.
"We came back in at sunset, and I thought it was all over. We'd had such a wonderful time. Then I saw one of greatest fireworks displays I've ever seen, and it was in my honor, so I cried some more." [Melody Maker, op. cit.]
The U2/BB King "package" consisted of four elements: a tour; a film, "Rattle And Hum," and an album by the same name; a single record, "When Love Comes To Town;" and a video which got extended airplay on MTV. Suddenly, all those years in recording studios searching for a song that would get the airplay that would make him a hit record were behind him. Suddenly, he had airplay of a kind that dwarfs the exposure offered by radio -- he was a star on MTV. A single play of the video on MTV reached millions of viewers/listeners. In September, 1989, the video "When Love Comes To Town" won the MTV best-video-from-film award.
The packaging of U2 and BB King had an immediate impact on B.B.'s audience that could be seen at every concert. Now the crowds chanted "B B B B, B B B B,..." This chant was completely new. The ebb and flow of audience energy levels changed, too. B.B. King is the master of working the cycle of tension and release repeated to higher and higher peaks. As his audience grew to include more rock fans the troughs between the peaks became less dramatic. The new fans refused to let go so completely and willingly as the seasoned blues fans in the crowd.
How people in the far corners of the world learn about artists like B.B. King is a curious process. The avant garde, the aficionados of a genre, seem to learn about them despite the great odds. They find their sources through travelers, short wave broadcasts, friends in the diplomatic corps, airline employees, any way imaginable. But until a tidal wave of popularity lifts an artist up and carries him across borders and boundaries, the rest of the world waits. I had a chance to see, first hand, how this process worked in the case of B.B. King on two visits I made to Bulgaria -- the first a few years before U2 adopted him, and the second, not long afterward.
In 1986 I visited Bulgarian National Television on the invitation of a television producer who had seen the English edition of this book. Over dinner we had hatched the idea for a fifteen minute program introducing B.B. King through commentary, photos from the book, and music from tape cassettes I carried with me. The music presented a problem, as there was no obvious way to feed the tracks from my Walkman onto the audio track in the control room. We set out in the sprawling complex to find the right hardware. Wherever we inquired, no one knew who B.B. King was and no one was interested to help, until we came to the studio where foreign language films were dubbed, where a bearded technician wondered aloud what we were doing there. When he understood our problem, he snapped into a posture of keen mobilization and declared "B.B. King! I'm going to stick to you like a postage stamp until you accomplish your mission." The technician, it turned out, was a devoted fan of B.B. King. He brought us into an equipment storage room and produced a Nagra cine sound recorder, which he connected to the Walkman with wires and alligator clips. Then he cranked up the volume and took a spot right in front of the speakers. A look of sublime pleasure came onto his face as he closed his eyes and drank in the sound of B.B. King.
Alas, the program was produced but never aired, for political reasons. The videotape was erased on orders from the department chief, who had been on vacation when the segment was shot. When she returned and found that one of her subordinates had produced a piece featuring an unknown American journalist reporting about an unknown American entertainer, she couldn't take the risk of broadcasting it. At that time and place things American were still suspect. Perhaps if it had been Kurt Vonnegut, presenting a lesser known author, or if I had been commenting on Nat King Cole, the risk in running the piece would have been less because any challenge could have been answered by the world renown of one half of the combination. As it was she felt that just possibly she could lose her job, which would mean loosing her career. I had seen talented and dedicated professionals lose everything when less obvious risks had been challenged by the authorities.
On a return trip to Bulgaria in 1989, I was sipping coffee in a Sofia household when I heard the unmistakable sound of Lucille floating up from the radio on the kitchen table. I was astonished! What had happened in the meantime, I wondered, to make B.B. King a safe addition to the local play list? Had the political climate really changed so much? No, The Berlin Wall was still standing and Todor Zhivkov, President of Bulgaria, was right where he had been for 35 years. As I listened the answer became apparent: this was "When Love Comes To Town," the new song by U2 with B.B. King. It was U2's universal popularity that explained the sound I heard, not any political development, nor change in B.B.'s recognition in this far corner of the globe.
During the decade and a half since 1980 B.B. King has added five Grammy Awards, not counting his Lifetime Achievement, to the Grammy he won in 1970 for "Thrill Is Gone" in the Best R & B Vocal (Male) category:
1981 Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording , "There Must Be A Better World Somewhere" 1983 Best Traditional Blues Recording, "Blues 'n' Jazz" 1985 Best Traditional Blues Recording, "My Guitar Sings The Blues" from "Six Silver Strings" album 1990 Best Traditional Blues Recording, "Live at San Quentin" 1991 Best Traditional Blues Album, "Live at the Apollo"
The evolution of Grammy categories shows the struggle of the Academy to adjust to changes in the musical terrain. The categories for Rhythm & Blues, Folk Music, and Ethnic Music went through many changes and blues floated between them, before distinct categories for blues, per se, were created, starting in 1982 when the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues was created. In the 1950's the Academy seemed confused even as to what comprised R&B.; In 1958, for example, The Champs beat Harry Belafonte for Best R & B Performance with their recording of "Tequila." By 1960 R&B; was a suitable for Muddy Waters to be nominated for an award in that category. In 1961 they added Gospel as a distinct category. In the mid-1960's R&B; was a catch-all for artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, and Sam and Dave, and to accommodate the diverse talent the category was split into several categories, e.g. Best R & B Group, Best R & B Duo, Best R & B Vocal (Male and Female). In 1970, the year B.B. King won for Best Male R&B; with "Thrill Is Gone," the new Ethnic or Traditional Recording category became a shibboleth for Urban Blues. The award for this category went to T-Bone Walker the first year and Muddy Waters the next two years. It was in this category that B.B. got his 1981 Grammy. Then, in 1982, the Academy created the Traditional Blues category, followed in 1988 by a further division into Best Traditional Blues Recording and Best Contemporary Blues Recording. At last the Academy had recognized blues as a distinct form and style with its traditional artists and its innovators. Many artists besides B.B. King helped to win this status -- people like Robert Cray, Etta James, Stevie Ray Vaughn -- but nobody's contribution exceeds his. In part, the Academy awarded the Lifetime Grammy to B.B. King for legitimating those categories.
Politics brought about the other great turn of events that gave B.B. King a visibility way beyond that of King of the Blues. Politicians often seek to boost their appeal to the public by rubbing shoulders with rock stars, movie actors and actresses, even the giants of classical music. And vice versa. Less common is the politician who uses high office to bring great and deserving artists further into the mainstream by showcasing their work at political gatherings. Yet one politician used the bully pulpit of the White House to do precisely this for B.B. King. Before 1989 if one tried to write a script placing B.B. King on-stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate the end of a new President's first year in office, the role of President would surely have been cast as a liberal Democrat, probably from a Southern state. Perhaps he would have had a black vice president, as I postulated in 1980. The idea that the President might be from an aristocratic New England family and a conservative Republican would have been beyond belief.
Yet, real life drama often exceeds our wildest imagination. So it was that George Herbert Walker Bush, forty-first President of the United States, chose B.B. King to entertain the "Eagles," a group of 800 of his wealthiest supporters who gathered at the Kennedy Center to celebrate his first year in office. Seven months before, in June of 1989, B.B. had met and talked with President Bush in the Oval Office. A photo run by Jet magazine shows the two of them standing in front of a mantelpiece as B.B. presents President Bush with a Lucille model Gibson guitar.
Behind this improbable turn of events is the story of a southern white boy who loved rhythm and blues. This aggressive, ambitious boy, born in 1951 in Atlanta, Georgia, son of an insurance claims adjuster and a school teacher, grew up to be a man of widely recognized political skills, questionable campaign ethics, and unfettered admiration for his black musical heroes. His name was Lee Atwater.
As a teenager in Columbia, South Carolina, Atwater played guitar in his own rock band, The Upsetters Revue, and as an adult, kept on playing the music he loved. In 1974 he opened a business as a political consultant, advising candidates on how to win elections. In four years he helped 28 Republican candidates win election to local offices.
In 1978 Lee Atwater managed the successful re-election campaign of Strom Thurmond, U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Thurmond began political life as a Democrat, but bolted the party in 1948 when he led several southern delegations in a walk-out from the Democratic (presidential) nominating convention in protest over the party's position on civil rights. He founded his own party, The States' Rights Democratic Party, dedicated to preserving the political system of the segregationist South, then ran for President, and lost the election to Harry S Truman. Later he joined the Republicans. As director of Thurmond's senatorial campaign, Atwater gained a reputation as the master of negative campaigning -- expert at discrediting his opponents by innuendo based on half-truths. His association with Thurmond was his stepping-stone into national politics.
In 1984 Atwater directed the Reagan/Bush campaign, and in 1987 George Bush chose him to run his campaign for President. Bush won the election and appointed Atwater chairman of the Republican National Committee, making him head political strategist for the party in control of the world's most powerful government,
Atwater wasted no time using his newly won power to showcase his musical idols. The most conspicuous of his efforts was a gala party for young Republicans campaigners, billed as a "Special Tribute to Rhythm And Blues Artists." The affair was held at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center, the night after Bush's inauguration, and featured Bo Diddley, Percy Sledge, Sam Moore (of "Sam And Dave"), Albert Collins, Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Dr. John, Delbert McClinton, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, William Bell, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Cocker, Billy Preston, Carla Thomas, and Chuck Jackson. When Bush arrived at the party Atwater took the stage and ripped into a version of "Hi-Heel Sneakers," backed up by Carla Thomas, Sam Moore, Percy Sledge, Chuck Jackson, Joe Cocker and Billy Preston. Later President Bush was called on stage to accept a white Fender Stratocaster embossed with "The Prez," presented to him by Sam Moore. The following morning readers of American newspapers saw a photo of their patrician President, wearing a goofy grin and holding his new Fender.
As a guitar player and blues lover Atwater naturally had a special admiration for B.B. King, for whom he saved the best honors he had to bestow, starting with a gig at one of the grand inauguration balls held the night the new President was installed in office, followed a few months later by lunch at the White House, and capped the next January by the Eagles' party at the Kennedy Center.
To be so honored fulfilled a lifetime dream for B.B. King. In American society there are few forms of respectability that can compare to a Presidential command performance and none that can exceed it, and, thus for B.B. King, who had waged a lifelong campaign to make blues music popular with the general public, and, above all, respected as an important part of our heritage, lunch at the White House represented everything he had struggled to achieve for his special piece of American culture, the blues.
The connection between B.B. King and Lee Atwater went far beyond these ceremonial events. They were friends and collaborators. Atwater took the bandstand to play beside his idol at every opportunity and B.B. welcomed him with enthusiasm. Atwater was representative of the legions of musicians who sooner or later drop the idea going professional, and choose another line of work, a "day job." Usually it's a less withering way of making a living, but in Atwater's case, it was just another form of show business -- national politics.
This contingent of the music audience, the day job crowd, exerts an influence on popular tastes that should not be dismissed lightly. As the core of enthusiastic listeners, day-jobber musicians affect booking policy in clubs, and are very often to be found at the tables near the edge of the stage. They are a formidable presence at the bins in the record stores. Often they serve as freelance reviewers for newspapers and entertainment guides that cannot afford staff reviewers. Some continue to play on weekends and at jams. All such players continue living out their dreams in the imagination. Lee Atwater's day job happened to be in the White House, and his boss happened to be the chief executive. His power and notoriety gave him the chance to make those fantasies real. His brash style of politics was mirrored in his musical style. He struck outrageous poses, strutted like a bantam rooster, put every move he knew, and some he didn't know, into his playing.
If anyone doubted that Lee Atwater was serious about his music, those doubts vanished when he released an album called "Red, Hot And Blue" on Curb Records, featuring himself with Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore, Chuck Jackson, and, of course, B.B. King, who got co-billing with Atwater. The appearance of the President's political advisor on an R&B; album was enough, in itself, to bring much attention to its release. As Robert Hilburn wrote in his review of the album for the Los Angeles Times (April 5, 1990, Sec. F, page 8) "The most entertaining thing about this ensemble salute to spicy Memphis-style '50s and '60s R & B is the way it lets you surprise your friends. Play a selection such as 'Knock on Wood' or 'Bad Boy' for someone without identifying the singer, then watch their eyes bulge when you reveal that it's the controversial national chairman of the Republican Party ... Lee Atwater." The reviewer's summary critical judgment of Atwater, the musician, was, "Better than a singer in an average bar band ... more convincing than such other celebrity pop figures as, say, the Blues Brothers." The two stars awarded to the album seemed to say better than poor, not quite good. [It should be said that getting two stars from the L.A. Times reviewer is far beyond the realistic expectations of most day-job musicians, should they ever get the chance to release an album.] About Atwater the musician B.B. is both honest and generous. He was careful to distinguish him from the average wannabe: Atwater could make a living as a musician, B.B. insisted, but instead music was his hobby. "Some people like to play tennis and some like to jog. He enjoys playing the blues. And he's very good." (Jet, March 27, 1989, page 57) The Grammy nominating committee thought the title track from the album worthy of a nomination.
Lee Atwater was not the sort of man to be content with one album of music, any more than he would have been content with a one-term presidency for his boss in the Oval Office, but fate had a harsh surprise in store for him. Just when all his ambitions had become realities and he was in his prime, he collapsed at the podium during a speaking engagement and was rushed to a hospital. Eventually he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He accepted the challenge of his illness with the same fierce, fighting spirit he brought to every political campaign he ever waged.
As the tumor grew he opted for the most hazardous radiation treatment available, in which pellets of radium were thrust into the affected part of his brain, making his brain tissue radioactive. But it wasn't enough to stop the growth. Finally, after a hard-fought battle he succumbed on March 29, 1991. He was 40 years old. B.B. spoke of his own loss in these strong terms: "I felt as if I lost a son when Stevie Ray Vaughn passed unexpectedly and I feel similarly on the passing of my friend, Lee Atwater." (Jet, March 15, 1991)
There is a darker side to the story of Lee Atwater, the hottest Republican hotshot, political hatchet man for the President, which is bound to raise conflicting feelings for anyone who loves B.B. King and who is also politically aware, and that is the role Atwater played in the presidential election campaign of 1988, when he was at his height.
The 1988 campaign was particularly venomous, especially on the topic of race. Throughout most of this century the Republican Party has had little constituency among black Americans. Republican candidates have rarely had to worry that their positions on issues of social policy might lose them black votes. Given the racism that has survived in white America long after the death of Jim Crow (the mythical character who symbolized racial bigotry in America), Republican strategists have often been tempted to play the "race card." The only risk in playing that card lies in alienating white voters who might object to the implied intolerance. Any politician who could find a way to appeal to racist sentiments, without offending liberal-minded voters, would gain support from bigoted white voters who would gladly turn the clock back to a time when Walter Doris, B.B.'s school chum, now deputy sheriff of Montgomery County, Mississippi, would be wearing bib overalls, instead of a badge and gun. American pundits call this the "Bubba vote," after the Southern nickname which is a corruption of the word "brother." It conjures up the image of a red-faced, middle-aged Southern white man driving a pickup truck with a gun-rack across the rear window, a hunting dog in the passenger seat, and a Confederate flag in place of the front license plate.
In the 1988 campaign for President the Republicans found a way to woo the Bubba vote, at little cost in support among more tolerant white voters. It was accomplished under the guise of a tough-on-crime issue. The Democratic candidate for President was Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, one of the New England states. During Dukakis' term as governor, Massachusetts had a prison furlough program that allowed prisoners, some of them serving long sentences for violent crimes, to leave prison for a few days at a time without supervision, based only on their promise to return. One such prisoner was a man named William Horton, who had been convicted of armed robbery and murder, and sentenced to life without parole in 1974. Horton had been allowed nine previous furloughs and had always returned, but on June 6, 1986, he left prison on his tenth furlough and disappeared. Soon the FBI put him on its "Ten Most Wanted List." Ten months after he "escaped" from prison in Massachusetts, police in Maryland caught William Horton driving a stolen car owned by Clifford Barnes, who, with his fiancee, Angela Miller, had been kidnapped from his home. Barnes had been bound and assaulted. Miller had been assaulted and raped. Horton was tried and convicted for these new crimes, and was returned to prison, this time at the State Penitentiary in Maryland.
"Willie" Horton, as he came to be called, offered Republican strategists the chance to charge that Dukakis was so soft on crime that he had released a violent offender into the community, with a result of assault, kidnapping, and rape. Television advertisements, paid for by the Bush campaign and aired across the country, featured a menacing Willie Horton, hands cuffed behind his back, being led away by the police after his capture. For any viewer with the slightest trace of racial bigotry, Horton was their worst nightmare -- the crazed, criminal black man who invades your home, ties you up and rapes your loved one. Another campaign ad showed a line of mostly black prisoners walking near a guard tower, passing outside the prison walls through a turnstile, suggesting that leaving prison was as easy as entering the subway. To some voters the message was simple: Dukakis turned this beast loose, rather than keep him in chains where he rightly belonged, and if you elect him he will turn all their black asses loose.
The issue of crime in its various guises -- "law and order," "safe streets," "tough on crime,"-- has been a factor in national elections for decades, and often it has been recognized as a thinly veiled appeal to the racism which persists in spite of the great progress since the 1960's. But never before had the association of crime and race been so conspicuous, so blatant, so inflammatory as it was in 1988.
The architect of the Bush campaign was Lee Atwater. When political commentators called the television campaign racist Atwater dismissed the charges. He wore his combative stand, his win-at-any-cost approach to waging politics, as a badge of pride. Indeed, he made Lee Atwater the issue, a brilliant tactical move, since he, not the candidate, took all the heat. In private he boasted that he had made Willie Horton into Dukakis' Vice Presidential running mate. When the campaign was over and Bush was President-elect, the country was more racially divided than it had been since the days of the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. It seemed unlikely that we would have the "kinder, gentler nation" that Bush had promised as the fruit of his presidency.
Black Americans were quick to express their feelings about Atwater and his effect on American politics. Soon after Bush took office, Atwater joined the Board of Trustees of Howard University, the country's leading black university in Washington, D.C., Atwater was genuinely enthusiastic about the appointment and was eager to use his fund-raising talents on behalf of the university, but his appointment was short-lived. The students were so angered by his selection to the Board that 200 of them occupied Howard's administration building in protest. Atwater resigned.
There is an odd coincidence in all this which seems to symbolize how race continues to plague American politics and how out-of-the-way places provide the political scene with its most influential characters. South Carolina's old segregationist warrior, Strom Thurmond, discovers South Carolina's new master of negative campaigning, Lee Atwater, who discovers the escaped murderer, Willie Horton, born in Chesterfield, South Carolina, just six months after his own birth, and converts him into the ideal instrument to appeal to racist sentiments in the quest for the highest office. Thurmond was among the political celebrities attending Atwater's gala inaugural celebration that featured his favorite soul singers. Thurmond's skin is like parchment, his dyed-red hairline is the obvious result of a transplant and his face is a mask. The sight of this octogenarian war-horse of the Old South applauding the National Chairman, who was doing splits on stage and singing "Diddy-wah-diddy," sitting among a throng of young politicos, most of whom were not yet born when he first took a seat in the U.S. Senate, was a testament to how very strange are the juxtapositions of American politics.
The public friendship between Lee Atwater and B.B. King is another strange juxtaposition that may cause discomfort to some of B.B.'s admirers. B.B.'s great achievement is a triumph over racism and his contribution to American culture is the preservation of the blues form and its elevation to a plateau of high respect alongside jazz as a unique American art form. But questions are bound to come up. Was it a compromise of his art and accomplishment to lend his prestige to a political figure known for his toxic effect on race relations? Did B.B. King, knowingly or not, seem to acquit his powerful admirer by inviting him on-stage to trade licks? Did Lee Atwater use B.B. King to distract attention from his role as the man who made race an issue in a presidential campaign?
These are troubling questions and very unpleasant at best, but they must be addressed in fairness to B.B. King. To dismiss them or never to raise them would be to taint any summary of his life achievement. A look back at how he has handled celebrity may shed some light on the subject. From the beginning when celebrity in the white world rushed upon him in the late 1960's he has carefully and skillfully avoided politics. For example, on his first real exposure to the white press in New York around 1968 he was asked "What do you think of Ronald Reagan and what do you think of the Black Panthers?", in one breath, no less. "Well, I hear the Panthers feed breakfast to poor children and anyone who does that can't be as bad as they are made out to be," he answered, "and I think that Reagan was a pretty good movie actor." So much for any attempt to push him into politics.
To B.B. King the idea that he might reject the friendship of anyone who is so obviously and sincerely devoted to R&B;, soul and blues music because his political career is "seen by some to be antithetical to minority interests," as described in the L.A. Times (op. cit.), would be absurd. He is not one to let politics -- or race --dictate his choice of friends. It would run contrary to his most basic values on friendship and music. Isaac Hayes, who co-produced six of the songs on the Atwater/King CD, "Red, Hot and Blue," was asked if he thought it was appropriate for Atwater to join the recording scene. He laughed at the notion that there was anything wrong.
"First of all, music should be for all people," Hayes told the L.A. Times (op cit). "It should be free: No one should put a tag on music and say who's to like what. If it suits your fancy, you embrace it, and that's what that little boy from South Carolina did. I don't see it having anything to do with party affiliation."
And what would be the result if B.B. King had rejected Atwater's friendship? Blues would not have gone to lunch at the White House. Blues would not have been honored at the Kennedy Center. Blues would not have been featured at the President's inauguration. Blues would not have been featured at the 1992 Republican nominating convention when B.B. King played a concert in honor of Atwater's memory. In short, he would have lost a chance to bring the unique respect and recognition bestowed by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the music he has campaigned for, for forty years, not to mention the friendship he would not have enjoyed had he chosen to spurn his young admirer becaus of his politics.
And finally, as for Lee Atwater, his devotion to the music rings true in every respect. Whatever political gain he might have realized from associating with B.B. King, it doesn't diminish his good deed in elevating soul, blues, and B.B. King to new heights of respectability, nor does it dilute his sincerity. And let it be said that in promoting soul, blues and B.B. King, in particular, Atwater, paradoxically, did something positive for race relations in America. Doubtless the friendly association of Atwater and many of the best black artists is strong testimony to the power of music to transcend all differences however great they may be.
In the end, long after history has forgotten Lee Atwater, B.B. King will be remembered as the greatest blues artist of his generation and blues will be celebrated along with jazz as an American original, and a great contribution to world culture.
A complete account of B.B. King's step by step ascent to the highest level of American idols would be incomplete without mentioning several lesser honors he accumulated during the decade and a half of the 1980's and 1990's.
¥ In November of 1991 the City Council of Jackson, Mississippi, named a stretch of Interstate 95 the "B.B. King Freeway." Now, every day in the state of Mississippi, whose flag still bears the stars and bars of the secessionist Confederate States of America, founded to preserve the institution of slavery, cars drive along a freeway highway named after a native son, B.B. King, grandson of the Mississippi slave, Pomp Davidson.
¥ The front page of the New York Times on June 11, 1983, carried an article describing a reception in honor of B.B. King, held in his home town of Indianola, Mississippi, The Times cited his contribution to improving race relations in a place where, fifty years before, the killing of a black man by a white might attract scant recognition from the authorities.
¥ Berklee College Of Music, widely regarded as one of the country's leading conservatories of jazz , and Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, gave honorary doctorate degrees to B.B. King in 1985 and 1990, respectively
¥ On October 18, 1987, B.B. King was one of 15 new inductees into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. To qualify, an artist must have released a recording at least 25 years before becoming eligible. Inducted at the same ceremony were Big Joe Turner, memorialized by Doc Pomus; Muddy Water, inducted by Paul Butterfield; Clyde McPhatter, lead singer of The Drifters, eulogized by Ben E. King; Jackie Wilson, who was remembered by his son; Marvin Gaye; Bill Haley, whose son, Pedro, dressed in the uniform of his military school, was introduced by Chuck Berry; Roy Orbison, who sang a duet on "Pretty Woman," with his nominator, Bruce Springsteen; Carl Perkins, saluted by the man who discovered him for his Sun Records label, Sam Philips; and Bo Diddley; Smokey Robinson; and Aretha Franklin. Also honored in 1987 were non-performers: songwriters Mike Lieber and Jerry Stoller, and record producers Ahmet Ertegin, Jerry Wexler and Leonard Feather. Finally, among the honored artists were three "early influences" Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and Hank Williams.
¥ The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) honored him in 1993 with its Blues Image Award for the third time, 1975 and 1981 being the years of previous awards.
¥ The National Endowment for the Arts gave him a national Heritage Award, calling him one of "our national treasures." The honor was accompanied by a $5,000 award.
Besides an Oscar, Hollywood has one other tangible award that is universally recognized as a credential for stardom, and that is a star on the Walk Of Fame. The political intrigues and pressure groups that come into play during selection for a star on the Walk rival those of the Oscars. The five-member selection committee is comprised of one representative each from the film, radio, recording, performing, and television industries, and whose identities are, in principal, secret. The chairman of this secret committee, Johnny Grant, also ceremonial mayor of Hollywood, represents the Walk of Fame Committee at awards ceremonies.
In September, 1990, when B.B. King was immortalized with his own star, two other musical artists, jazz singer Nancy Wilson, and Marvin Gaye, were enshrined on the Walk in separate ceremonies. ( It is worth noting that King and Gaye were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in the same year, 1987.) The entertainment press found the combination notable in that all three endured an unnecessarily long wait for this honor, especially in light of the committee's choice of Janet Jackson, youngest of the eight siblings of Michael Jackson, for the same honor five months before. Ms. Jackson is no show business lightweight with four #1 hits to her credit, and a $32 million contract with Virgin Records [signed a year after her star was laid in the Walk], but she was born 27 years after the first B.B. King record was cut and seven years after Marvin Gaye made his first record.
The dedication of Gaye's star followed an intense 18-month campaign mounted by Motown Records and the Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation. The first time his name was proposed Gaye'x nomination was passed over (for "insufficient public support", his backers were told). His supporters collected 100,000 signatures, making it difficult for the committee to further defer the honor. As if by way of apology Chairman Grant told the press "The Walk of Fame is such a big tourist attraction... [and] we like to honor some of the younger stars who show all the signs of having longevity in the business.... The committee goes through 200 to 300 applications per year." [Billboard, Oct. 20, 1990, page 24.] B.B. King's name had been proposed three times over a three-year period. The exact timing of the award ceremony was chosen to coincide with the release of his album "Live At San Quentin, which won a Grammy that year.
When I read the schedule of a B.B. King tour invariably I imagine a map on which are marked the actual locations of each stage where he performs. Each stage, like the deck of an aircraft carrier, waits for him to touch down at the exact time specified by the contract. Like a carrier pilot, condemned to fly from flat-top to flat-top, he touches down, sings and plays for the throng gathered on the deck, refuels and is airborne again. That is his life, that is his choice. Can such a life hold anything else beyond the next landing? With such a schedule how can there be time for anything else?
In the 1980's he returned to radio as a disk jockey with his own weekly show, "B.B. King Blues Hour," syndicated on 112 stations -- most, but not all black-oriented -- around the U.S., as well as the Armed Forces Radio Network abroad. B.B. always carries enough music, even backstage in his briefcase, to make an excellent hour of listening, so recording programs was simply a matter of arranging periodic appointments in studios at participating radio stations in the cities where he played. This endeavor is B.B.'s answer to the young black audience apparent indifference to their heritage. " 'More than anything else it is important to study history, to know history,' he says. 'To be a Black person and sing the blues, you are Black twice,' he told Ebony Magazine in February of 1992. (Ebony V 47 P45) " 'Long after I'm gone, when [blues artist] Robert Cray is my age, I hope kids will know what this music is all about....' " (Ebony, V 47, p48) To this end he played and talked about vintage blues, contemporary blues, and blues rock on the "B.B. King Blues Hour" which was broadcast every Sunday morning at 10:00 AM. for X years -- one of the few radio blues programs not aired in the middle of the night. In April of 1990, the syndicator canceled the program rather abruptly, to the dismay of the audience. Angry listeners embarked on a letter-writing campaign to "Bring Back B.B., to no avail. But there will be, and are, other pulpits for B.B.
Besides returning to the airwaves B.B. King returned to Beale Street in Memphis during the 1990's. For many years after its decline as a center of black night life in the middle South, Beale Street looked like the main street of a ghost town. In the late 1970's there was not a single business open on the strip. All the storefronts and club entrances were covered up with sheets of plywood. On May 3, 1991, at the heart of a full-scale revival of Beale Street, B.B. King's Blues Club opened for business.
Three years later, in September of 1994, B.B. King played the opening of the 500-seat B.B. King's Blues Club in Universal City Walk, the sprawling entertainment and shopping complex in the Los Angeles suburb of Universal City. These two clubs on opposite sides of the continent are the vanguard of a projected chain of clubs licensed by KINGSID Ventures, Ltd. Plans are for new clubs to open in Nashville in November, 1995, followed by new franchises in Orlando, (home of Universal Attractions and Disney World) in early 1996, then Seattle, Miami Beach, and Tokyo in 1996-97.
In strictly musical terms B.B. King has grown artistically in this time since 1980. As to be expected he has not diluted his devotion to the blues. At the core of his every concert is still classic blues, performed in the style he forged during the 1950's. Younger artists continue to relish every lick he plays and to find new depths in his playing. As Jerome Geils of the smash blues-rock band "J Geils" said on the eve of embarking on the Blues Music Festival tour with B.B. King, "no matter how long you listen to him, he always finds new and surprising ways to play."
But B.B. has not been content simply to stick with his stock in trade. In 1985 while on tour in the Far East, he met a young jazz singer named Diane Schuur when the two of them played a music festival in Tokyo. The fact that they admired each other's work was not surprising -- she was a respected jazz singer and pianist, and he was King of the Blues. What was, to some, unexpected, was the urge to collaborate. But as much as B.B. loves the blues, he loves many other forms of music as well and yearns to express himself in other styles. Schuur's eagerness to work with B.B. is not surprising. Everyone from country singer Randy Travis, to Mary Travis, of Peter, Paul and Mary, is eager to merge his or her music with B.B.'s voice and guitar.
Reviewers were skeptical about the combination of B.B. King and Diane Schuur when their album, "Heart To Heart," was released on jazz-oriented GRP Records in May of 1994. Would B.B. King attempt to sing standards and ballads without resorting to his trademark grit? Would he, could he, croon? And would Schuur tone down the oversinging she was prone to when paired with a blues singer? The initial skepticism gave way for most reviewers, to praise and appreciation that they had taken the risk to perform together.
One critic, Geoffrey Himes, caught the sense of this risky combination of talents immediately when he compared it with the pairing of R&B; artist Brook Benton with jazz Singer Dinah Washington on the album, "The Two if Us," produced by Clyde Otis in 1959 for Mercury Records. That album yielded two top ten hits, "Baby (You Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love)," in 1960.
Phil Ramone, best known for his role as producer on the Sinatra duet albums and several albums of Billy Joel, produced "Heart To Heart." The production is so slick it gleams. The choice of material reveals an attempt to find an audience in several popular genres. There are two cuts that could be called country, "I Can't Stop Lovin' You," and "You Don't Know Me," which were back to back hits for Ray Charles in 1962, the first holding the #1 spot for five weeks, and the second, written by country crooner Eddy Arnold, reaching #2 on the Billboard Pop Chart. There are standards, "Glory of Love," and "Try a Little Tenderness;" a soul tune, Aretha Franklin's classic "Spirit in the Dark;" a taste of funk, "Freedom," which gave B.B. a chance to let Lucille do some talking in her classic "twingy string" mode; some jazz ballads, "No One Ever Tells You" and "At Last;" and a showtune by Irving Berlin, "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket."
In the studio B.B. King presented himself with all the trepidation and humility that accompanies his every move into new dimensions. " 'I've played pop tunes before, but I had never tried to sing them,' " B.B. told Billboard in July of 1994. " 'Diane was like the teacher and I was the student.... She tried to show that I was there, and gave me confidence.' " (Billboard July 9,1994, P1) The collaboration turned out to be enormously satisfying to B.B. For him the move from blues to jazz/pop balladeer has a close parallel in the move of Nat King Cole from jazz pianist to popular balladeer. Whether or not it results in the kind of breakthrough Cole had, it has provided B.B. with a great sense of accomplishment and the prospect that he will be remembered not only for his blues.
The album was generally well received and held the #1 jazz album position for five weeks after its release -- B.B.'s first #1 album ever. It produced one side effect that, by itself, might make the investment worthwhile for both artists. This was a television commercial for Northwest Airlines which portrays a passenger relaxing in his reclining chair aboard a Northwest flight, and seeing/dreaming that the inflight entertainment is B.B. King and Diane Schuur, live! B.B. plays Lucille, Diane plays her electric piano, and they harmonize a few bars to the delight of the passenger. Such exposure, however fleeting, is tremendously important in establishing a performer's credentials as thoroughly mainstream. B.B. King's endorsements for products such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's Hamburgers, Pepsi, Budweiser beer, Amiga computers, and Panasonic have played an important part in making his image secure and robust across generational, cultural and racial boundaries.
In personal terms the 1980's and 90's brought changes for B.B. King. His family life, never normal by ordinary standards, changed with the loss of his father in the early 1980's and the addition of five children by adoption. His grandchildren number fourteen. Until recently B.B. has been protective of his scattered family. He specifically requested that his authorized biography should not identify his children by name, except for those in show business, Shirley, a dancer, and Leonard and Willie, who work for him on the road. In 1993 he made an important exception to that policy when he played a free concert at a Florida prison where his daughter, Patty, was serving a term for trafficking in drugs. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to show young people the pain that drugs can inflict by bringing prominent attention to his daughter's case. Whatever the reason, he arrived at the Gainesville Community Correction Center in Gainesville, Florida, with an entourage of journalists from one of the three major television broadcast networks, CBS, and People Magazine, America's major popular celebrity magazine. The reunion between father and daughter was, predictably, emotional. Courageously and tearfully, B.B. and his daughter went before the television cameras of CBS's Street Stories, held hands, and answered questions by Ed Bradley, America's leading black television journalist/interviewer. When Bradley asked B.B. what kind of father he had been, B.B. answered "not nearly good enough." When asked how she came to be imprisoned there, Patty answered "by making a lot of bad decisions."
The details of the story which they gave to People (March 23, 1993) offer a glimpse of what it meant to be one of B.B. King's children.
In the 1950's B.B. King made Gainesville's Blue Note nightclub a regular stop on his periodic swings through the deep South. Essie Williams, the club's owner, and B.B. became lovers. In 1956 Essie, who had two children from a previous marriage, gave birth to Patty. B.B. and Essie never married, nor did Essie ever remarry. Patty described growing up as B.B.'s daughter by recounting how she and her mother anticipated his visits. "When I was 5 years old and my daddy was coming in [to visit], my mother dressed me in this beautiful crinoline dress," she told People (op cit). "She would allow me to stand in front of the big picture window. And I would wait and wait. And then I would hear the bus coming. And I would get so excited, my little heart would just pound because I hadn't seen him for a while. He'd come maybe four or five times a year, whenever he was performing in the area."
In 1974 after graduating from high school, Patty moved west to work for her father as a receptionist in his Las Vegas office, By 1982 she was back in Gainesville, a single mother of two daughters. She married a man, Leroy Walton, and discovered "too late" that he had a criminal record. That same year her mother, Essie, died, and Patty and her husband, were convicted of forging $857 worth of checks. Her life began to unravel from there. She received probation for the forgery charge, but she violated her probation status when she was charged with possession of marijuana. She was sentenced to two consecutive five year terms, of which she served four years. She and Walton were divorced in 1984. Patty remarried in 1988 to a convicted felon, Alvin McHellon. They had two children, Alvin, Jr., and Alton. In 1990 they were arrested for cocaine trafficking. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years. She becomes eligible for parole in 1995.
The reunion between B.B. and Patty King in the Gainesville prison, like all their meeting was fleeting. After the concert and taping B.B. spent just an hour visiting with Patty and her four children, ages 3 to 20. Then he returned to the road to make that evening's gig in a concert hall.
How long will B.B. King keep the hammer down? This question is frequently on the lips of interviewers and B.B.'s answer is always the same: so long as his health permits him to continue meeting his public, and his public still wants him, he'll be there. His attitude toward his career late in life is reminiscent of the answer given by jazz great Red Mitchell, when asked what plans he had for retirement: "I plan to be cremated my first day of retirement," said Mitchell.
B.B.'s health continues to be a testimony to human endurance. He has two chronic conditions, diabetes and high blood pressurewhich he monitors and controls, daily, with medicationaggravated by obesity. In April, 1990, he collapsed on tour and was hospitalized. It was then that he was diagnosed as diabetic. He resumed his tour schedule in a matter of days. With attention to diet and medication his diabetes is well in check. The 1995 European tour was marked by a rare event that demonstrated the limits of his stamina. In Italy he ate a tuna fish sandwich which had not been properly refrigerated. A few hours later he was hospitalized with violent vomiting. The toxins he ingested with the sandwich destabilized his diabetes and he was barely conscious until the medical team understood the diabetic complication and gave him an injection of insulin. One Italian performance was cancelled, the first time he had ever missed a show on a European tour.
His weight has been a problem for the last twenty years. The diagnosis of diabetes made it even more imperative that he lose weight, and with that goal he checked into the Pritikin Institute, a weight-loss clinic, in 1994 for a two-week stay. Weight loss for the seriously over-weight must, necessarily, be achieved gradually and by a systematic approach. He now makes a two-week stay at Pritikin an annual part of his schedule. The Pritikin visits seem to have had a beneficial effect, for B.B.'s bulk is shrinking.
In 1995 a B.B. King performance has every bit as much energy as one from the 50's or 60's. His only concession to age is a chair, placed at center stage by his nephew and musical director, Walter King, in the middle portion of every performance. Nephew and uncle, by their ceremonial air turn a simple folding chair into a throne for the king. As B.B. takes his throne the horn section quits the stage, leaving him with a small combo, little more than a rhythm section, that purrs along behind him as he stretches out his legs, and relieves his mind. The mood becomes relaxed and conversational. The king is holding court. He talks about old times, jealous lovers and whatever else seems to come to mind. During this part of the performance he plays extended guitar solos and sings, emphasizing the gentler, more reflective songs of his repertoire. After, perhaps, twenty minutes in this mode, the horns return, the chair is removed, B.B. stands and delivers the climactic conclusion. This soft interlude brings an element of sustained, quiet intimacy that had been absent until the 1980's when he slipped on an icy sidewalk and injured his knee. Forty-five minutes' performing on his feet was no longer an option and the chair was the solution.
In the mid-1980's B.B. developed a persistent hoarseness that became progressively worse. He had always treated his voice with great care, avoiding air conditioning, even in the hottest weather, drinking tea with honey and lemon in the dressing room, and downing a tumbler of water moments before taking the stage. He always took care to keep his fatigue levels from dropping below the threshold where his larynx became an exhaustion meter. But these troubles were different. None of his usual measures could relieve the discomfort he felt or the rasp in his voice. Eventually he sought the help of a specialist, who examined his larynx with a lapriscope, a tiny camera on a flexible probe, which the doctor maneuvered up B.B.'s nostril and down his throat. The view from the lapriscope was projected on a screen. In the dim light of the examination room, B.B. gazed at the two pairs of folds of mucous membranes with which he had made his living for thirty-five years. The doctor saw no polyps, the great fear of all professional singers. What he observed was severe inflammation of one side of the larynx caused by over-singing on that side to compensate for a weakness on the other side. No surgery was required but a prolonged period of total silence was prescribed for the patient, lest he do permanent damage to his voice.
B.B. King canceled all engagements for six weeks and retreated to his Las Vegas condominium. [He had sold his grand house in favor of a smaller, more manageable dwelling.] Once a day his secretary would call in person to deliver his mail and messages to him and to take any instruction he might have prepared for her in writing. Most days it was simply "Here's your mail Mr. King," to which B.B. would bow gratefully. "Can I get you anything special today?" she would ask, to which B.B. would smile and shake his head in a silent No, thank you. "Then I'll call by tomorrow around the same time," she would say in parting.
The regimen of silence was a complete success. When he returned to his concert schedule B.B. King was in the best voice he had enjoyed in many years. No problems have occurred since then.
This interlude was completely without precedent in B.B.'s life and career. It gave him a chance to reflect on what lay behind and what might lie ahead. If ever there was a time when he might decide to ease the pace or substantially cut back his appearances to use his creative powers in other ways, this forced vacation was such a time. But to do so would have been to violate all the lessons he learned from Planter Barrett and to desert his flock. Preacher Fair had shown him how to move the bodies and levitate the souls of the congregation. Every great preacher believes he has a duty to preach and the greater the gift the greater the duty. When the doctors pronounced that it was safe for him to resume singing B.B. put the hammer down. B.B. King belongs to the Red Mitchell school of retirement plans -- cremation on day one of retirement.
How will history remember B.B. King? This is the most difficult question of all to answer. His place in history is assured and yet such achievements, both personal and musical, as described in this chapter, are usually relegated to the status of footnotes when it comes time to write the history of an epoch. Put another way, history will remember Charlie Parker, large as life, and will, less vividly, remember Django Rheinhardt, but it has already forgotten Paul Butterfield.
First, history might well have forgetten B.B. King were it not for the events of 1965-66, beginning with the performance of Paul Butterfield at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when urban blues was exported from the ghetto into the mainstream. Q uite possibly, urban blues would have been lost to the collective consciousness of the decade that followed, and B.B. King would have remained unknown beyond the racial enclave that patronized his music. Blues music would have been a historical curiosity, despite its already substantial role in our culture. B.B. King was the principal beneficiary of those events, Yet, without his force of character, his tenacity and ambition to make his music widely known, the recognition of this music as a distinct form would have been much less pervasive. His dedication and devotion to winning the widest possible recognition for this music is the single most important reason our culture has embraced this form as something more enduring than the mere predecessor to rock and roll which would otherwise have been its likely destiny.
B.B. King's contribution is properly compared with that of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Ellington brought jazz from the nightclub and dance hall into the concert hall and the cathedral. Amstrong, before him, brought ensemble jazz from the saloon to the silver screen and onto the diplomatic circuit where it became a symbol of America in the 20th century. Our cultural center of gravity was shifted by their contributions. The same can be said for B.B. King. His penetration into the mainstream has given blues a distinct place and a clearly defined identity as a result of his success.
The second legacy of B.B. King is his contribution to racial tolerance. By bringing the chit'lin' circuit to Middle America, B.B. King allows white America and the wider world to experience the musical culture of black America undiluted. The wider the exposure between the two cultures, the greater the interface between the races, and the deeper is the liberalizing influence on race relations. When B.B. King, an orphaned sharecropper, who witnessed the body of a black man on public display on the courthouse steps after his electrocution, is hosted at the White House, our society has changed for the better. When he, who ran in fear from the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, bows his head to accept the crimson hood of Doctor of the Arts from Yale University, our values are confirmed in a way that marks progress.
Every generation considers its successor to be its legacy, good or bad. B.B. King, as the one artist who, more than any other, defined the guitar as the primary instrument of blues music, leaves as his legacy a generation of younger players whose debt to him is evident every time one of them picks up the instrument to play. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear younger players quote entire B.B. King solo's, note for note, in their performances and recordings.
Finally, there is a legacy embodied in his recorded music. Many generations from today, when people want to hear the music of the 20th century known as blues they will listen to the records of B.B. King and hear that music played at its very best.
* From B.B. King Der Legendare Konig Des Blues, Hannibal Verlag, 1995 © Charles Sawyer, 1995Back To Charles Sawyer's Homeboy Page