The Legacy of B.B. King

by Charles Sawyer

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 B.B. 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 the greatest fireworks displays I've ever seen, and it was in my honor, so I cried some more." [Melody Maker, op. cit.]

The U2/B.B. 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 B.B. 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, shortwave 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 losing 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 playlist? 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 "The 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"
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 as 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 "The 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 Vaughan -- but nobody's contribution exceeds his. In part, the Academy awarded the Lifetime Grammy to B.B. King for legitimizing 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 Vaughan, 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 of 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.

For Part 3, click here.

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