How long does it take to get from Itta Bena, Mississippi,
A little over 70 years . . .
If these are good times for Mr. King, few people have worked longer or hard to get their little piece of the pie. When B.B. King started out, there was no pie at all.
He moved to Memphis in the late 1940s and soon was on the air at WDIA as "The Beale Street Blues Boy." That nickname was shortened to "B.B." and it wasn’t long before he decided that he could probably play the blues as well as the music that he was spinning on the air.
He combined some Louis Jordan, a little Django Reinhardt, a pinch of Lonnie Johnson and a whole lot of T-Bone Walker. He mixed it together with some Delta roots and came out with a sound that has influenced musicians ever since.
Some of his early regional hits were "Sweet Little Angel," "Three O'Clock in the Morning" and a string of others that kept him out on the road playing over 350 nights a year, a staggering number considering that King and his band traveled country roads in an ancient bus. One old itinerary shows him playing eight different states in as many days (i.e. Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas).
Years ago in Boston, I used to see B.B. play a place called Louie’s Lounge in the Roxbury section of town. It was under the elevated tracks on Washington Street and the whole building rumbled whenever the trains came through.
In the Spring of 1968, I was asked to book some music at a McCarthy for President rally in Fenway Park. I invited B.B. King to perform and, to my surprise, he accepted. The crowd was huge, far beyond the 40,000 capacity of the ballpark and they erected speakers in the street outside for thousands more.
B.B. played for about 30 minutes and was just taking his equipment off stage when word came that McCarthy was running late. I rushed back to the stage and told B.B. to start playing again and keep going until McCarthy arrived.
He ended up doing an extra hour and got his first opportunity to show a white audience just what he could do. It certainly didn’t hurt him at all that McCarthy’s speech was stupefyingly dull and people left talking about B.B. King.
Having the opportunity for success is one thing but taking advantage of it is something else entirely. But B.B. King had the talent that had been waiting all those years for the door to open. He had a huge commercial hit with "The Thrill Is Gone’ and followed that with "Why I Sing the Blues."
What English kids named Jagger and Richards and Clapton had known for years was finally apparent in the country were B.B. King was born. He is a national treasure and we are blessed to live in his time.
A few months before he would enthrall the Clintons and their society friends, I went to Mud Island in Memphis to see him. I was thrilled by a performance that was exuberant and energetic. After an hour with the full band, complete with horn section, he sat on a chair surrounded by only bass player, organist and double drummers. He proceeded to play an hour of music that was nothing less than an artist in passionate commitment to excellence. It transcended blues as a genre by elevating artistry into pure communication with every member of the audience.
He was cooking. He was on fire. He was almost 70. God bless him.
Every June, B.B. King comes home to Indianola and plays a series of concerts for the local folks at a low ticket price. He wants the children of the Delta to know that it is possible to come from poverty and still aspire to greatness.
I have always suspected, however, that B.B. needs that trip to his native soil as much as the audience needs to hear him. It gives him the continuing reminder of from where he came and how far his journey has been.
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About a year later, following on the heels of the publication of Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King (Avon Books), a book he co-authored with David Ritz, B.B. King was at a bookstore in Memphis to do a signing of that life story.
Since B.B. has so much personal history connecting him with Memphis, it was not surprising that his presence attracted a large number of people who have heard about him for years.
They showed up at Davis-Kidd in a variety of down scale clothing, heavy on the vinyl and polyester. They came to gawk, take pictures and hope that they might get a handshake and a smile. "See that man?," they would tell their kids. "He grew up poor like us and now he’s famous and wrote a book and everything."
If any of them had twenty-three dollars to spend, they weren’t about to buy a book to read about someone else’s misery and hard times.
The Avon Books representative traveling with B.B. King moved him rapidly through the signing procedure until all of the paying customers had left with their autographed books.
Then she took him by the elbow and ushered him to a waiting car.
The people with no money watched them leave and seemed very happy to have the chance to see B.B. King.
The people with money got what they paid for and the people with no money got a little bit extra.