King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King
- By Daniel de Visé
- Grove Press
- 496 pp.
- Reviewed by Terry Zobeck
- October 6, 2021
A masterful account of a masterful musician.
B.B. King’s career arc would make poor fare for an episode of “Behind the Music,” the VH1 program that typically chronicles the meteoric rise and depressingly predictable crash of major rock ‘n’ roll acts. As the title of this new biography suggests, once King became king, no one ever dethroned him. And there was no self-inflicted decline and fall.
Author Daniel de Visé takes a standard chronological approach to telling King’s story in King of the Blues. Much of the blues legend’s childhood and adolescence is lost to the historical record, so de Visé has to rely upon often-conflicting oral and written accounts; King’s early years are recounted with many a “maybe” and “perhaps.”
Riley B. King (the “B” didn’t stand for anything) was born on September 16, 1925, in Berclair, Mississippi, a smudge on the map in the heart of the Delta. His father, Albert, was a sharecropper farming cotton. Albert deserted the family when King was young. His mother died when he was 10, and King grew up in a succession of relatives’ homes.
He was raised in abject poverty and received a minimal education. Racism was prevalent throughout the Delta, where Jim Crow laws were the fabric of everyday life. While King had little exposure to whites, other than his various landlords, he was raised to be nonconfrontational and avoid trouble, traits that followed him into adulthood.
King was drawn to the blues, with its earthy themes of lust, betrayal, and hard times. Like many bluesmen before him, he sought his fortune in the north. In 1949, King left his young wife and headed for Memphis. Unlike many of his predecessors, he stayed in Memphis rather than travel on to Chicago; the winters were too cold for him.
In short order, King obtained a regular paying gig at a local nightclub and his own 15-minute radio show on KWEM — on which he could promote his live appearances in lieu of pay — and began recording singles for local record labels, including his debut, “Miss Martha King” titled in honor of his wife back home in Mississippi.
By June 1950, King signed with Modern Records, an independent, Los Angeles-based label specializing in jazz and R&B. Two of the three brothers who ran the label, Jules and Saul Bihari, recognized King’s talent and were soon recording him in Memphis. King stayed with Modern for about 15 years, and while the Biharis never could deliver massive sales and financial rewards for King, they did record his most important and influential songs.
These tracks laid the foundation for what became the standard for electric blues: three chords, 12 bars, with verses followed by single-string solos. They included “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Did You Ever Love a Woman,” “Downhearted,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “Rock Me Baby,” and many more. These classics remained in King’s setlist until he stopped performing decades later.
De Visé ably chronicles how, in the mid-1960s, when the blues had fallen out of favor with Black audiences, the British blues revival — led by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Peter Green — brought King’s music to white listeners. King soon found himself playing to huge audiences of long-haired white boys and girls. While he appreciated the newfound fame and wealth, he missed the enthusiastic Southern Black audiences of his Chitlin’ Circuit days.
King toured and recorded relentlessly up until shortly before his death in 2015, traveling all over the world and playing for rapturous audiences that included presidents and royalty. He never came close to losing his own crown, however, although he had many admirer-challengers, including two other famous though unrelated Kings (Albert and Freddie), Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Robert Cray.
Unlike other famous performers, King’s personal life was mostly free of scandal. His vice of choice was gambling; he would bet on almost anything, including which elevator would arrive next in the hotel lobby. His weakness was women. King was married twice, but both unions ended in divorce (although he remained close friends with his second wife). He maintained three-ring binders listing women he knew around the world.
Though King claimed as his own — and supported — nearly two dozen children, it is doubtful he fathered any of them due to childhood injuries to his testicles. His kids were argumentative with one another, and while he never explicitly acknowledged he was not their biological parent, he strongly implied it during one especially contentious Thanksgiving dinner. He told his assembled brood that if they didn’t stop bickering over his estate, he was going to order a series of DNA tests. The topic was never raised again.
Daniel de Visé has produced here a biography befitting B.B. King’s status as the premier blues guitarist of all time. He tells the story in straightforward prose, is sympathetic but not uncritical of his subject, and focuses on what is important: the music. You could search fruitlessly to find a better way to while away a few hours than to read King of the Blues while listening to some B.B. King. I suggest Ace’s “B.B. King: The Vintage Years,” which collects the best of his Modern recordings.
Terry Zobeck received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Tennessee. He is retired from the federal government, where he was a substance-abuse researcher and policy and budget analyst. He is the author of A Trawl Among the Shelves: Lawrence Block Bibliography, 1958-2020.