The Legacy of B.B. King

by Charles Sawyer

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 nightlife 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 pressure, both aggravated by obesity, which he monitors and controls with daily oral medication. 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 overweight 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. Quite 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.

For Part 1, click here.

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