In a used record shop in Nottingham in January I find a 1970 B.B. King LP with a picture of a guitar made from a watermelon on the cover. It’s £8, and called “Indianola Mississippi Seeds”. Inside the beautiful gatefold cover is a photo of the birth certificate of Riley King, and amongst the musicians playing on the album is Carole King, Joe Walsh of The Eagles and Leon Russell.
As I hand over the cash it had me wondering: How did Riley become B.B.? And how did Carole King get to play on a B.B. King album before she released “Tapestry”?
There are two things that stand out in the story of B.B. King. One is that the man never changed his style, despite living through unprecedented change. The second is that although B.B. eventually achieved huge mainstream success, both in the early ’70s with “The Thrill Is Gone” and stints in Las Vegas and with U2 in the late eighties, it isn’t the acceptance from the mainstream community that makes him special. It’s the music he made throughout his career, which remains constant, and individual to the point that you could hear B.B. King play a single note on a guitar and know it’s him.
Actually there’s a third thing I learned about the life of B.B. King: People really had no idea about Health and Safety back in the day. It’s a wonder that any of us are still here…
It’s 1970. Fresh from the chart success of “Indianola Mississippi Seeds” BB King is about to play what he calls “the most amazing gig of all” his career, at an outdoor rock festival in Macon, Georgia. After many years of successful but gruelling touring in front of mainly black audiences BB King is gaining a new following. A mainly white, hippie, rock loving one, who “discover” BB King thanks to The Beatles and The Stones acknowledging his influence.
B.B. King flies in from California, and has a limo drive him to the outdoor festival. The limo is stuck in traffic so a couple of Hells Angels offer him a lift on the back of their bikes.
This is the year after Altamont. A Hells Angel is carrying a black man on the back of his hog in one of the Southern states of America at a rock festival. (I bet he didn’t give him a helmet).
When King arrives, his band members are giggling mysteriously, but don’t say why, and then leave.
There’s a knock on the door. King answers.
Outside is a young white girl in her twenties without a stitch of clothing. She explains she’s King’s escort for the festival. Not a groupie as it turns out- but an innocent flower-child way to welcome the musicians to the festival.
King is nervous even though he can hear his band still laughing. “I’m nervous because this is Georgia” he later reflects, “What does a gentleman do in a situation like this?
Perhaps he was thinking about 1944, when King enlisted into the US army. His bus, filled with newly enlisted black soldiers, passes some white women and one of the men calls out to them. At the next stop an enraged white man threatens them all with a shotgun.
It seems extraordinary now to read of the injustices of the time, but King found that after “growing up in a segregated world of uptight attitudes and prejudice” he welcomed being in a world where both he and his music were embraced.
Riley King of Blue Lake, near Indianola, Mississippi was a shy boy and had a stutter. His dad Albert named him partly after his brother and partly after Jim O’Reilly, the white plantation owner whose tractor he drove, and who found the midwife as Riley was being born. When little Riley asked why he dropped the O’ his dad replied, “because you didn’t look Irish”.
His dad was quite the wit.
Riley looked forward to church because he could sit next to a pretty girl, and because of the music.
Imagine looking forward to church because you like the girls and the music?
When I was growing up we’d go to the disco for girls and good music, and usually end up with neither…
He buys his first guitar aged twelve. It costs him $15. Two months wages.
As a teenager Riley travels to the nearest city, Indianola. For ten cents he sees a three minute clip of Charlie Christian play guitar. “A miracle man doing things to a guitar I never imagined possible.”
At Indianola’s club, “The Jones Night Spot” he is too young to gain admittance, but he peers through the cracks in the wall to see the ladies dancing amongst the four hundred people crammed in, and hears touring bands including Charlie “Bird” Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson.
Riley starts singing and playing guitar on Saturday afternoons to earn a little extra money.
He begins to sing gospel songs and draws appreciation, but no-one leaves even a nickel.
He soon learns an important lesson.
He switches the words from “My Lord” to “My baby” and personalises the songs he heard Sonny Boy play the week before. He gets the same praise, but also a few dimes. “Real life songs” he realises “have cash value”.
The Second World War comes. King is used to segregation, but it still hurts when the German prisoners of war are rested and treated better than the black plantation workers. He’s twenty years old and “starting to feel the weight of the system”.
King might have stayed in Indianola, but something happens that makes him move. It isn’t being threatened with guns, or being treated badly.
He crashes his tractor.
The thought that he has let down his boss, Mr Johnson, makes King panic and he worries Mr Johnson will want to shoot him. And despite the fact he has a wife at home, he grabs his guitar and $2.50, and runs.
All the way to Memphis.
And there, he stays with his mum’s cousin Bukka White for seven months, near the main musical hub of Beale Street. He tries to play like Bukka does with a slide, but he can’t get the hang of it. Instead he develops a vibrato sound with his left hand, which later becomes his trademark.
He returns back to his wife for a while, but Memphis calls again, and this time he has paid off the damage to the tractor and he starts afresh.
But where to start? Get a press agent? Release some demos and build up a following on social media? Not in 1948 it would seem…
King calls on Sonny Boy Williamson, now presenting a radio show in West Memphis. He turns up at the radio station, guitar in hand, and asks Sonny if he can play a song, live, on the show. He auditions, and a few hours later he plays on the show. Just like that.
What’s more, an impressed Williamson is double booked for a gig and sends King to one of the venues to cover for him for the then king’s ransom of $12.
Boosted by this, King goes to another radio station, WDIA and asks to play. This time, the owner asks him to write a jingle for a tonic called Pepticon. He hums, and sings “Pepticon sure is good, and you can get it anywhere in your neighbourhood.”
On the back of this BB King now has his own ten minute radio show, playing songs and promoting a so called health tonic that actually had the same alcohol content as wine.
(Why not just use wine? I digress.)
Soon he had a second slot at 12.30, and before long, and for the next five years, BB King was a DJ. He’d get up, pick cotton, plug Pepticon, then head back to the fields for another couple of hours. People liked the show, and King gained a nickname, the Beale Street Blues Boy. This became Blues Boy, Bee Bee and then B.B.
Before Memphis he didn’t even own a record player. Now he was surrounded by thousands of records. Salesmen gave him his own personal copies. “I hoarded those records like a squirrel hoarding nuts” he said. By the time he moved to Las Vegas in the mid ’70s he had a record collection of over twenty thousand shellac 78s.
Makes mine look incredibly modest, or so I keep telling my family.
In the winter of 1949, BB King plays a gig in Twist, Arkansas. It’s not a club, just a big room in a house, with a bucket of kerosene in the middle of the floor to heat the place up.
Here’s what I mean about health and safety.
There’s a club being heated by a garbage pail containing lighted aeroplane fuel that stands in the middle of the dance floor.
Health and Safety Inspector: “Couldn’t you move that away from where people are dancing?”
Club owner: “Don’t worry, it’s fine…”
H&SI: “I don’t know, it might get knocked. It’s jet fuel. It doesn’t seem awfully safe…”
Club owner: “Well I can’t move it to the side – it might set alight to the wall. Here, have a drink, what’s the worst that can happen…?”
A fight breaks out and the garbage pail of kerosene is kicked over, setting the house ablaze with “an incredible river of fire”. Panic.
Everyone stampedes out in a crush, elbowing each other out of the way.
Then BB realises he has left his guitar in the burning building. He doesn’t have the money to buy another, and heads back into the fire. A beam crashes in front of him just as he finds the guitar. He jumps over the beam and a wall collapses as he rushes to the exit. Two people are trapped in the building and are not so lucky.
“Damn” says one of the crowd, “you wouldn’t think two guys would near kill each other over a gal like Lucille”.
BB’s guitar is christened “Lucille” from that moment on to remind King not to go and do anything quite so foolish again.
The guitar is stolen not long afterwards.
Lucky she was called Lucille. It wouldn’t be as good a story if they had been fighting over a bloke called Gavin.
“Here’s my guitar. I call him “Gavin”…”
Soon afterwards, King shows up late to a show, and there’s Ike Turner waiting for him. Ike offers to help out and sits in with the band, playing piano.
Ike is also a talent scout for the Bihari brothers, who own Modern Records, and they sign up King, who records for Modern for the next decade. BB’s seventh single, a cover of Lowell Fulson’s “Three o Clock Blues” hits number one on the RnB charts. For eighteen weeks.
A big hit meant King could play bigger cities, for more money and so for the next eighteen years that’s what he does. 330 shows a year on the circuit for many years, often because the taxman is after him. By 1955 he has his own branded bus, presumably called the BBmobile.
Over the next decade or so he’s sometimes popular, sometimes out of favour. He’s the outsider bluesman during the rock n roll years and the outsider bluesman during the soul years at the height of the civil rights movement. He is booed by a young crowd impatiently waiting for Sam Cooke, and who see King’s blues as old fashioned.
Yet King keeps doing his thing. Despite all the external change, the fashions and the social change all around, BB King keeps playing the blues.
In 1964 he plays the Regal theatre in Chicago. “I’ve probably played hundreds of better concerts” he says. Only this time they record the show. The subsequent live album “Live at the Regal” wins critical favour and keeps B.B. King’s name in the RnB charts.
It’s still the best way to introduce yourself to BB King’s music.
With new manager Sid Seidenberg on board to sort out King’s money problems, King receives more appreciation from mainstream musicians only now hearing his work. John Lennon name-checks him, then Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter and The Rolling Stones.
King looks to expand his audience and his manager books him in to play the Fillmore. He feels out of place amongst the weed-smoking hippy contingent. He takes a drink to steady his nerves.
He’s introduced onstage by Bill Graham. Walks out onstage. And for the first time ever receives a standing ovation before he’s even played a note. Overcome, and with tears in his eyes, BB King plays for three hours. The times they are a changing…
King records the “Live and Well” album. Half the album is with BB King’s band but at the request of his manager the other half King agrees can feature white session musicians. It’s an attempt to broaden B.B.’s appeal.
For the next album “Completely Well” BB King agrees to have the whole album feature session musicians. King’s producer adds strings on a track called “The Thrill Is Gone”. It’s a smash hit. Number 15 in the pop charts. He supports The Rolling Stones on tour. B.B. King has now officially “crossed over” attracting mainstream attention.
For the follow up, “Indianola Mississippi Seeds”, session musicians return.
But what session musicians…
“Getting people to play with BB was never a problem” said his producer. That was an understatement.
On piano, Carole King is just working up her “Tapestry” album. She takes time out to play, on a few tracks and there’s a fantastic moment on the fourth song on the album where you hear a piano chord so recognisable that you can tell it’s Carole playing. Also on piano comes Leon Russell, who brings his song “Hummingbird”, which also features a pre-Eagles Joe Walsh.
The songs are strong and slightly skewed to a potential mainstream audience with fresh interest in the “Thrill Is Gone” star. Perhaps Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird” is the biggest expansion of B.B.’s sound, featuring a choir at its climax, just like Russell’s original. But in contrast to these slick touches, the album begins with King accompanied only by a piano with the deathless couplet “Nobody loves me but my mother / and she could be jivin’ too”.
Was it B.B.’s idea to bring people like Carole King and Leon Russell in on the sessions? ‘No, that was my previous producer Bill Szymczyk’s idea; but he did ask me if I would like to have them. I already knew of Carole King and I knew Leon Russell when he played with Joe Cocker. At that time we were looking for a follow-up to The Thrill Is Gone’ . . . I’d heard ‘Hummingbird’, but didn’t see how I could do it. So Leon came out and played it for me on the session. I learned so much from him; that guy is really out of sight’.
“Indianola Mississippi Seeds” reached number 26 on the Billboard Charts and the single ‘Hummingbird’ reached number 48 in August 1970. ‘Chains And Things’ followed and reached number 45 in December of that year.
“Indianola Mississippi Seeds” is B.B. King’s crossover album – capturing the time immediately after his biggest breakthrough and pitched to a wide audience of rock, pop and blues fans. But despite all the changes of personnel going on around him, all the expensive production and studio flourishes, the rock and pop influence, it’s still a B.B. King album. It’s still B.B.’s voice, B.B.’s unmistakeable playing and many of B.B.’s best songs too. It’s still a great blues album. You could take the man out of Mississippi, but you couldn’t take Mississippi out of the man, or his music.