Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Blues All Around Me' for the late B.B. King's 95th birthday

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B.B. King's 'Blues All Around Me.'
B.B. King's 'Blues All Around Me.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"I didn't think of B.B. King as a crossover artist," wrote the man himself in his 1996 autobiography (buy now). "I'm still amazed how the public suddenly fell in love with my blues."

Commercially, the turning point was "The Thrill is Gone," which hit the Top 20 in 1970. Professionally, the turning point was hiring Sid Seidenberg as his manager in the late '60s. Emotionally, it was stepping back onto the stage of the Fillmore in San Francisco circa 1968.

"Funny part was that I had played the Fillmore many times before. But in the old days it was a black club," wrote King. Somehow, though, the flower children had also discovered him. "For the first time in my career I got a standing ovation before I played. Couldn't help but cry."

King, who would have turned 95 this week, died in 2015 as an American institution so embraced by the white establishment that he was invited to lunch with Dan Quayle. (The story of how guitarist Lee Atwater made the extraordinarily square George H.W. Bush administration into an ostentatiously blues-loving White House could be a book in its own right.) The photo section of King's book, Blues All Around Me, has the author at the center of a 1992 photograph of guitar gods in which he's the only Black artist. Perhaps his other best-known song, along with "Thrill," is the 1988 U2 collaboration "When Love Comes to Town."

As King and — in a separate afterword — his co-author David Ritz describe it, the musical world essentially went through a stunning half-century evolution while the blues great stayed the course he'd set before the rock and roll explosion. Born in 1925, King was established as a bandleader with a bus by the mid-1950s. A consummate professional, he played hundreds of shows a year, doing consistent business and well-respected by his peers. Then, the world started to rock around the clock.

Suddenly, King wasn't an "R&B" artist, he was purely "blues." ("What happened to my 'rhythm'?" he wrote. "Did I lose it along the way?") He saw that rock was attracting white audiences to Black artists, but at first he didn't particularly benefit from that; the big blues artists were suddenly white guys from England. His audiences, and bank balances, started to shrink.

Enter Seidenberg, who encouraged King to think strategically and leverage his stardom. He got King into the studio with star collaborators like Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton, he encouraged King to work with new producers to diversify his sound, and generally supported King in insisting on a King-size place in the popular culture of a musical world where the biggest guitar stars were citing him as an influence.

As he recounted, King came out of the crucible of the blues. Growing up in a sharecropping community in the Mississippi Delta, he heard work songs in the fields, heard Blind Lemon Jefferson on the record player, and heard guitar at church — where he was introduced to the instrument by a reverend who told him, "The guitar is a precious instrument. It's another way to express God's love."

After voraciously consuming, and playing, all the music he could, King finally bolted for Beale Street in the 1940s, after accidentally causing a truck accident that would cost him $500 to repair — several thousand dollars in today's money. Without even telling his wife, he fled to Memphis where he stayed with his cousin Bukka White. King eventually returned home, but he'd caught the bug and soon moved back to Memphis, where he showed not just an aptitude for the guitar but the warm personality, musical knowledge, and business sense to work the DJ-musician-pitchman perfecta that kept him playing and getting paid regularly long before the word "payola" crossed any programmer's lips.

Riley B. King — named after the white plantation owner Jim O'Reilly, sans "O," his dad said, "'cause you didn't look Irish" — became B.B. as an abbreviation for Blues Boy, the name he was marketed under in those early Memphis years.

(King could also fill a book with the pithy wisdom of his dad Albert. When the younger King complained about being light in the pocketbook, the elder asked, "You make money gambling?" "No, sir." "You make money with your music?" "Yes, sir." The elder King left it at that; ditto when the younger said he wondered if he was working too much. "I don't know what that means," said Albert. "How can a man work too much?" Another mic drop.)

King's guitar got its name when, during a 1949 gig, a fight in the crowd led to a spreading fire that King had to brave to run back onstage and grab his instrument. "You wouldn't think two guys would kill each other over a gal like Lucille," he overheard one bystander say to another...and the rest is history. Like Sparky the seal at Como Zoo, Lucille is always Lucille no matter how many have gone before her. At the time of Blues All Around Me, he was on number 16. ("Lucille #17 is sitting on a stand right behind me, soaking it all in so when she's called into action she'll know what to do.")

He writes at how he arrived at his distinctive style, using his "fat hands" to sustain and bend notes like a plaintive steel or slack-key guitar. Playing with a famously emotive expression that inspired his first wife to call him "ol' lemon face" and dressing in sharp suits (after evolving past Bermuda shorts a la Augie Garcia, fancying them "Esquire-ish"), King was perfectly poised to play the part of a living legend.

Along the line, he branded himself well — and didn't look askance at associating with other brands. "We've franchised the B.B. King blues nightclubs in Memphis and L.A.," he wrote. "Gibson started a line of B.B. King guitar strings made of Swedish steel. There's B.B. King casual clothing and B.B. King food products — B.B. King barbecue sauce, B.B. King salad dressing, B.B. King salsa, and B.B. King bean spreads. We're even thinking about B.B. King frozen catfish...It's against my nature to turn down money."

(Well, he did have 15 children to support — by, as he noted, 15 different mothers. They knew his schedule, he wrote. He was there whenever they needed him. He was a man who loved women, as he mentioned many times in the book...sometimes, perhaps, in a bit more detail than the casual B.B. King fan really needed.)

In the end, it seems, the B.B. King brand worked because it was truly authentic to who he was. He learned, loved, and lived his music and his community — ultimately, his worldwide community. That was distinctively his guitar style, and his vast acclaim and popularity were testament to the fact that he showed up and delivered, with generosity and heart, again and again and again.

His efforts did not go unnoticed. He wrote about attending a garden party with Queen Elizabeth in Washington, D.C. As the guests arrived and realized who they were sharing space with, they started congregating around the bluesman. "Looks," quipped Jesse Jackson, "like more people are lining up to see the King than the Queen."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

September 24: My Life In the Purple Kingdom by BrownMark (buy now)

October 1: The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey (buy now)

October 8: See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould (buy now)

October 15: How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (buy now)


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