The Legacy of B.B. King

by Charles Sawyer

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 this chapter.

Part IV: The Legacy
Keep The Hammer Down

[Translated to German as
"With Both Feet On The Gas Pedal"]

A Postscript After 15 Years


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'Neill 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 tremendous 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 250 engagements per year for 46 years, he has conducted roughly 115,000 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, small-minded criticism 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 recognizes 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 line-up was formidable: Jimmy Vaughan, brother of the late Steve Ray Vaughan 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 Vaughan, 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 Vaughan. 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 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 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.


For Part 2, click here.



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