BB King performs during a concert in Denmark in 1969
Speaking of bad luck and trouble
Well you know I had my share
I’m gonna pack my suitcase, move on down the line
Yes I’m gonna pack my suitcase, move on down the line
Where there ain’t nobody worried
And there ain’t nobody crying
– ‘Every Day I Have the Blues‘, recorded by BB King in 1955
BB King was born on 16 September, 1925, on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. It would be many years before he lived the life of Riley.
Riley B King’s life started out far from carefree: born in a shack whose walls had gaps wide enough to look through and tell the time of day, his mother died early from diabetes and before the age of nine he was working the cotton fields, steering a plough and holding the reins of a mule. Jon Brewer’s superb documentary The Life of Riley, shown on BBC 4 last Friday, is a film I have wanted to see since it was released to great reviews last summer.
Riley King was born in a cabin on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi delta. His father left when he was five, and after his mother remarried, he was raised by his maternal grandmother. In the film, King tells Brewer of how he was doing arduous farm work, cotton-picking and driving a mule, from the age of seven. Even small children toiled, he says, ‘from can to can’t . . . from when you can see to when you can’t.’ King speaks of witnessing the lynching and castration of a young black man by a white mob – his crime had been to wolf-whistle at a white girl.
‘I remember the holler,’ says BB. ‘Holding the reins of a mule pulling a hoe through them cotton fields.’ The field holler, he explains, was a lament sung by a single voice. It also served to alert others in the field that the boss was coming, or that water was needed. ‘Yeah, the holler is where it all started. I think it’s in all of us.’
He sang gospel at the local Baptist Church and first heard the blues listening on his great-Aunt’s phonograph to records of Blind Lemon Jefferson. His uncle, the bluesman Bukka White, would sometimes visit from Memphis, and play and sing.
Brewer’s film draws on old and new interviews with King himself and the recollections of people who knew him as a young boy to vividly bring to life the story of those years. After his grandmother died, Riley went to live with his father 50-miles away. But, missing the Delta and the life he had known, he returned, riding his bicycle. An elderly couple sit on the porch of their home remembering that day when the nine-year old Riley cycled home. They talk movingly of the four years that he lived alone in a shack, working to pay off his dead mother’s and grandmother’s debts.
In 1943, King left to work as a tractor driver and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet of Inverness, Mississippi, building a local reputation performing at area churches and on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi. The film focusses heavily on the early years, piecing together his path to success. In 1946, King followed Bukka White, his mother’s first cousin, to Memphis where Bukka and other musicians were willing to help him learn. He served time as a disc jockey at WDIA, America’s first all black radio station. His nickname there – Blues Boy – was soon shortened to B.B.
Now here it is three o’clock in the mornin’
And I can’t even close my eyes
It’s three o’clock in the mornin’, baby
I can’t even close my eyes
In Memphis BB King developed his unique guitar style – the vibrato that is instantly recognisable as BB King’s after only a single note. He was staying with Bukka White, and as he tells it:
Bukka used to play slide using a bottleneck, or just a piece of pipe. I wanted to do that, and I tried and he showed me how – but I got stupid fingers, see, and I just couldn’t do it. But the sound Bukka made went all through me, and I devised my own technique for producing the tremolo without the slide. I swivel my wrist from my elbow, back and forth, and this stretches the string, raising and lowering the pitch of the note rhythmically. With my other fingers stretched out, my whole hand makes a fluttering gesture, a bit like a butterfly flapping its wings.
King built his band and released his first hit, ‘Three O’Clock Blues’. In The Life of Riley, King and band members recall the days of performing on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit, playing to strictly segregated black audiences. ‘Though I never called it any Chitlin’ Circuit,’ says BB King. From that time on, the road became home for King. Sometimes he would perform 350 days a year, staying in segregated hotels, eating at segregated restaurants.
Everybody wants to know
Why I sing the blues
Yes, I say everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
I really have paid my dues
When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
And everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
Mm, I’ve really paid my dues
‘I’ve put up with more humiliation than I care to remember,’ King says at one point. ‘Touring a segregated America – forever being stopped and harassed by white cops hurt you most cos you don’t realise the damage. You hold it in. You feel empty, like someone reached in and pulled out your guts. You feel hurt and dirty, less than a person.’ He tells of one night at the Gaston Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was staying at the same time as Dr Martin Luther King, when ‘they bombed the place. The bomb rocked my room.’
I’ve laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
To give the roaches some
Everybody wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
Yes, I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve paid my dues
King re-tells the story of how he came to name his guitar Lucille. A fight in a juke joint led to a can of kerosene being knocked over and the place catching fire. Everyone fled, but BB realised he had left his guitar inside and ran to get it. Discovering that the fight had been over a girl called Lucille, ‘I named my guitar Lucille to remind myself not to do something like that again, and I haven’t.’
I walk through the cities, people
On my bare feet
I had a fill of catfish and chitterlings
Up in Downbill Street
You know I’m singing the blues
Yes, I really
I just have to sing my blues
I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve really, really paid my dues
In Brewer’s film, there is a montage in which several great blues guitarists acknowledge King’s unique style, and their ability to recognise it instantly. King says: ‘I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.’ One of the most moving aspects of the film is the way in which BB King speaks of the white British blues musicians who recognised his qualities and so enabled him to break through to a much wider audience. He describes playing a gig one night in Chicago when four white guys arrived. ‘One of them was extra white,’ he recalls, referring to the albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter. BB suspected they were tax inspectors, so when Winter asked if he could sit in on a number, King was initially reluctant. But he relented, and, he says, ‘He was good. I tell you, he was good.’
From interviews with many of the British musicians who followed his example, Brewer’s film tells how King’s unique electric guitar sound – a sound that blended delta blues, jazz, pop, swing, and jump blues – inspired the 1960s generation of rock artists and introduced him to young, white audiences. We hear from John Mayall, who nurtured a stable of King-admirers that included Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor,and others such as Keith Richards. ‘I can tell BB from one note,’ says Eric Clapton in the film.
In another memorable sequence, King describes the first time he played at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco. At first, seeing the lines of young white people queueing outside, King thinks he is in the wrong place. He is overwhelmed by the audience reception and confesses that he was so moved after several standing ovations that he ‘cried back up the stairway’.
Yeah, they told me everything
Would be better out in the country
Everything was fine
I caught me a bus uptown, baby
And every people, all the people
Got the same trouble as mine
I got the blues, huh huh
I say I’ve been around a long time
I’ve really paid some dues.
What emerges from this fine film is a picture of BB King as a warm and generous man who has worked hard and lived life to the full. In the end, I guess, he really did live the life of Riley.