The Legacy of B.B. King

by Charles Sawyer

Excerpted from the concluding chapter to "B.B. King Der Legendare Konig Des Blues"
by Charles Sawyer. Hannibal Verlag, Vienna, 1995. Translated to the German from
"The Arrival of B.B. King" Da Capo Press, 1982. Copyright © Charles Sawyer, 1995.

Acknowledgments: to Blues-L for connecting me with Hannibal, the German language publisher, and to Marcia Grodsky of the University of Pittsburgh Libraries and Erica Wissolik of the Library of Congress for invaluable research assistance in writing the chapter this excerpt was taken from.

In 1980 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.

[. . .]

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 Paulo, 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 photo 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 Beijing 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.

[. . . ]

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.

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. Armstrong, 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.

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