B.B. King Remembered
B.B., who suffered from type 2 diabetes, died in his sleep at 89 and had been under home nursing care due to ill-health for some months. King was one of the hardest working blues artists ever and spent most of his long life touring.
He was born in 1925 on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi and began his singing career as a boy, becoming a junior member of a local gospel choir. After acquiring his first guitar at the age of 12, he played with the Famous St. John's Gospel Quartet at various churches in the Greenville/ Indianola area.
King was raised by his grandmother, a sister-in-law of the blues legend Bukka White who helped B.B. pick up some of the basics of blues guitar playing. B.B.’s subsequent career is well documented in great detail elsewhere, so I’ll not go into too much detail here.
B.B. cut his first record in 1948 for the local Bullet label in Memphis, while he was working as a popular DJ for radio station WDIA, where he was billed as ‘Blues Boy’ (later shortened to B.B.) King. He soon came to the attention of Sam Philips, who cut sides that he leased to RPM Records in Los Angeles. From 1950 onwards, King toured America non-stop and in 1952 achieved a number 1 best-seller on Billboard’s R&B Hit Parade with ‘3 O Clock Blues’. Later that year ‘You Know I Love You’ also hit the number one spot.
By then B.B.’s live bookings were being taken care of by the Houston-based Buffalo Booking Agency and in 1956 alone he played an incredible 340 one-night stands. In 1962 he left Modern/RPM Records and signed with the larger ABC-Paramount record company which released his records on the Bluesway label. In the same year he also left the Buffalo Booking Agency and joined the New York-based Milt Shaw agency in an attempt to reach a wider audience.
However it was not until 1968 that he started breaking through to a white audience. B.B. had been having problems with the IRS for several years over his back taxes and after his new accountant Sid Seidenberg sorted out these problems for him, B.B. fired his manager and persuaded Sid to take over as his personal manager as well. This marked the beginning of big changes in B.B.’s career. Seidenberg signed B.B. to Joe Glaser’s powerful Associated Booking Agency and B.B. soon found himself playing successful high-profile gigs such as The Fillmore West in San Francisco.
In 1969 he made his first overseas trip to the UK, where he toured as co-headliner with Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. I was lucky enough to see this great show at on 25th April at Portsmouth Guildhall where B.B. and his band received a standing ovation. At the time, I did not realise that our paths were to cross many times in later years.
Ten years later, Ace records inked an exclusive licensing deal with Jules Bihari’s Kent/Modern/RPM records that gave us access to a fabulous catalogue of seminal post-war blues recordings that included many of B.B. King’s classic 1950s and 1960s masters.
In 1984 the Kent/Modern catalogue changed hands and the master archive was moved to Nashville, where we were for the first time given unlimited access to this treasure trove of blues history. In 1991 Ace eventually managed to buy the catalogue and move all the masters here to the UK, which meant even more time to dig through uncatalogued tape boxes. Over the years since then, Ace has located several thousand B.B. King masters on both tape and acetate, forensically identified the very best quality masters including many stunning alternative recordings as well as dozens of previously unissued songs and instrumentals.
Over the ten years that followed our acquisition, I got to know B.B.’s manager Sid Seidenberg quite well. Whenever B.B was playing concerts in the UK, Sid came with him. In the mid-1990s, Ace repertoire researcher Ray Topping and I were in Los Angeles. I had arranged with Sid that we could meet up with B.B., so that Ray could try jogging his memory on a few elusive points.
Each year as they got older (Sid was one year older than King), Sid & B.B. blocked off time to spend a week together at a health spa in Santa Monica. Although Sid was not quite as portly as B.B., it would do him no harm to shed a few pounds and so these two elderly gentlemen, foreswore alcohol and red meat and existed on a nourishing diet of fruit juices, fish and vegetables for an entire week.
Ray & I rendezvoused with Sid & B.B. towards the end of their stay at the spa and we spent a couple of enjoyable hours together, while Ray quizzed B.B. on details of various recording dates from way back in the fifties. B.B. and Sid were happy to help as they really appreciated the work that Ace records was doing in bringing King’s fabulous old masters to the attention of a new audience. Ray Topping ‘aka’ ‘The Blues Detective’ was very knowledgeable about the US blues and R&B scene of the 1950s and 60s and had the knack of working out a lot about what went on historically, by deduction from whatever facts and information were available.
Ray was trying to confirm certain chronological facts, working from information gleaned from old RPM tape boxes. At one stage B.B. got quite angry with Ray and contradicted him very emphatically over one of Ray’s theories. We had both met B.B. several times before and he had always been so placid, polite and friendly. We were both shocked at this outburst as it was so out of character. The interview ended a few minutes later with B.B. bidding us a polite good night. Afterwards, Sid apologised for B.B.’s temperamental outburst and explained that B.B. was suffering withdrawal symptoms from his regular diet and had not been in the best humour to start with.
B.B. King was one of the greatest post-war blues artists and never stopped playing concerts. He worked with everyone from the Crusaders to U2 and reached a bigger public than any other Blues artist. His sublime guitar playing was unique, he listened continually to other guitarists and was particularly influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Over recent years, B.B. was awarded Grammies and all sorts of honours including the Medal of Freedom, the USA’s highest civilian award. In September 2008 a B.B. King Museum opened its doors in Indianola, Mississippi. http://www.bbkingmuseum.org
B.B., thanks for all the great music.
Ted Carroll 15 may 2015