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"Chairman of the Board:" The Story of B.B. King

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 18, 2024 3:00 am

"Chairman of the Board:" The Story of B.B. King

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 18, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, he came up out of the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and into the bright lights of the stage worldwide. Here's the story of the “Chairman of the Board” himself, B.B. King…whose unique style of guitar playing and voice changed the music industry forever. Here to tell the story is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel de Visé…author of the first in-depth biography of B.B. in almost 30 years: King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King. 

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Now just $89 during Spring Black Friday at The Home Depot. How doers get more done. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, the story of a man who came up out of the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and into the bright lights of the stage worldwide. We're of course telling the story of the chairman of the board himself, B.B. King, whose unique style of guitar playing and voice changed the music industry forever. Here to tell the story is Daniel Daviesay, author of The King of the Blues.

Take it away, Daniel. Let's start with the proposition that B.B. King is the one superstar of the blues. There are arguably equally great figures in the blues. Maybe Muddy Waters is one. Maybe, possibly, Robert Johnson is one, although B.B.

would disagree with that. But he's certainly the one superstar of the blues. And I say this because he toured like 90 countries and, you know, at all these Grammys and sold massive numbers of records. He's much bigger than any other blues artist ever was. That's the starting point, but I would argue that why he matters is not just that, not just the fact that he may have played more concerts, which is close to 20,000, than any other major musical artist ever.

I don't think anybody comes close. Even that isn't why he matters. Why he matters, I would argue, is that he developed a signature guitar sound that was transformative for him and for the guitar and for its place in popular music. He redefined the guitar and that sound, the guitar as voice, passed from B.B. King to Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix to absolutely everyone.

But he's also bigger than the blues and people need to remember that about him. Riley King was born in 1925 to a sharecropper family in the Delta, Mississippi Delta, in a little cabin on land that was owned by a white land owner. And they worked the land and the sharecropper system was a really horrible economic enterprise. I mean, looking at it now, it sounds just a couple baby steps away from slavery, but the white owner typically would sort of lease the land to the sharecroppers. The sharecroppers would raise their crops, sell the crops, and then the black sharecroppers would, in theory, would get some proceeds from the sale of those crops. But after deducting all sorts of expenses, and a lot of times, I dare say most of the time, the sharecropper would end the year in debt.

So it was a sort of brutal sort of cycle of perpetual debt. His mother was, I believe, a teenager when he was born. He only knew her up until age seven, eight, nine. I think he was nine when she died. She probably had diabetes and probably succumbed to it. It's all a little unclear because, you know, there weren't hard records kept of a lot of this stuff.

But B.B. King's mother is sort of this almost ethereal character in his memoir. She's portrayed by him as a sweet, loving, angelic, beautiful creature. So yeah, it was inconceivably wrenching for him to lose his mother a terrible loss. And I would argue that through his life from that point, there were two things really motivating Mr. King. One was to kind of rebuild the family that he lost with the death of his mother. He had a big sort of hole at the center of his soul.

I think that when Mr. King entered adulthood, he felt like he was sort of alone in the world. And I think that's why he was not just willing, but really wide open to embracing paternity claims from children. I don't know whose children, but I would argue probably not his children. He went to a fertility doctor and he had a test and found out that he could not father children. The children who say they are his children are his adoptive children, and he loved them all and claimed them all as his own, but I don't think they were his biological children. I think that he loved having this big family. And you know, too, the other impulse was to sort of impress his father because his father was this tireless workaholic who famously said, it's a rhetorical question, how can a man work too much?

There was no such thing. Mr. King, I would argue, B.B. King spent his whole adult life trying to prove to his father that he could be as hardworking as Albert King. His father was a fairly prosperous tractor driver. The tractor driver was a really, really elevated position in the sort of system of sharecropping.

The tractor drivers were few. They operated very expensive machinery. If I told you how much he earned, it wouldn't sound very impressive because this is the 1935 dollars. But Albert King, B.B. 's father, earned enough from tractor driving that he supported a wife and her extended family. I think six or seven people were living under Albert King's roof. So Albert King was kind of an alpha male among sort of black agrarian workers of that era. And so Riley King as a child would have worked the farm. He had a term like can to can. I'm not saying that the right accident, but basically from the moment the sun popped up over the horizon, you'd go to work and then you'd work until you couldn't see anything anymore.

Right. And he would sleep in rickety cabins with no, you know, water, electricity. It was absolutely pitch dark all night. In fact, so much so that in later life, Mr. King was kind of terrified of the dark.

He always had to have a light on somewhere near him as he slept because it was so probably frightening being in utter darkness. And so I dare say that by the time B.B. King sort of is entering adulthood and he's in Indianola and he's working picking cotton, he probably would have aspired to become a well, he said so he aspired to become a tractor driver himself because he knew that job sat at the top of the heap.

The only person B.B. King knew who earned more than a tractor driver was a guy named Booker Baggett, who was the foreman under the white landowner on the farm where B.B. lived and worked. If this makes sense, the foreman was sort of the, you know, the top employee overseeing all of the tractor drivers and farmers. And typically that was a job given to a white person.

But this particular landowner was relatively progressive in his thinking. And so he gave the job to a black man. And this caused havoc when Booker, the black foreman, would go into town in Indianola. The white storekeepers often didn't want to talk to him or deal with him. They couldn't believe that a black man was the foreman.

Booker would have to go get the actual landowner and send him in to say, yes, this man is my foreman. That would have been the absolute apex of B.B. King's aspirations when he was an 18-year-old, 20-year-old young man. When we come back, more of the story of the chairman of the board, B.B. King, here on Our American Story. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

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Upfaithandfamily.com. And we return to Our American Stories and our story on bluesman, B.B. King. Telling the story is author Daniel Davisse, author of the fantastic book King of the Blues, available at Amazon or all the usual suspects. When we last left off, Daniel was telling us about B.B. King's childhood. You heard about his father's work ethic, but his mother, well, her death, her early death, had a profound effect on B.B. King.

Let's pick up where we last left off with Daniel Davisse. Schooling and B.B. King got schooling. Schooling happened only once all the farming was done for the seasonal cycle. So it wasn't probably a full year of schooling.

It probably wasn't from September 1st until, you know, May 30th. But he got schooling. I think Luther Henson was his only teacher. Luther Henson was an incredibly important role model for young Riley King, B.B.

King. Luther Henson operated essentially a one-room schoolhouse in Kilmichael, Mississippi, with black children of all different ages, taught all of the students. I believe his father had been a slave and had been freed. And Luther Henson taught his black students out of black newspapers, African-American newspapers from different parts of the country. He would find those papers and show the students heroes, you know, important African-American people who the black students were not going to read about most likely in the white newspapers.

The white newspapers mostly covered black America when black Americans were accused of crimes. And so Luther Henson taught the students, including B.B. King, you need to get an education.

This is something the white people will never take away from you. He taught them that not every white person is racist, that there are obviously many, many horrible white people who are going to, you know, try to kill you, or at least greatly, greatly hamper your attempts to be free and prosperous, but that, you know, have hope because there are good people out there, white and black. And certainly B.B. King absorbed the lesson because he became, B.B.

King became a very, very upbeat, endlessly patient man. I mean, he endured innumerable, innumerable slights and acts of racism large and small over the course of his career and had an amazingly tolerant and forgiving and patient approach to it all. I mean, working on the Chitlin Circuit was itself kind of one massive sight. I mean, the Chitlin Circuit was part of a segregated, walled-off music industry where white and black artists and fans basically worshipped in different churches, so to speak.

So all of the places where B.B. King was allowed to perform in the 1950s and into the 1960s were segregated black venues, and they were wonderful places, and he had amazing, loyal, knowledgeable fans, but the industry itself sort of blocked him from doing anything else outside of that system, that circuit. This is why, you know, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, other artists went into mainstream so-called record labels and broke out of the Chitlin Circuit and scored hits, massive hits, on the pop charts to break out of the segregated industry. As far as just sort of day-to-day racial antipathy, it was constant, you know. Many were the times when Mr. King and his all-black band would arrive at a hotel with Sid Seidenberg, his white manager, and the hotelier would ask Mr. Seidenberg to come in the front door, and the black musicians would be directed around the side or to the back, and Sid would say, hell no, I'm not doing that. If they're going around the back, I'm going around the back.

B.B. King had a bus that he called Big Red that traveled up and down the Chitlin Circuit, and when they would stop for gas, there was a perpetual battle, at least in the South, to get service and to get food. Typically, his roadie would have to go and sort of negotiate and say, well, I'll buy 100 gallons of gas from you, but you've got to sell us some food, because otherwise they would not. So if the band wanted to eat, they had to sort of parlay.

It's like, I will fill my tank and give you our money, but you've got to be willing to serve us. And then they would wind up having to eat and often sleep in the buses. Anyone who's at all familiar with Jim Crow America knows that black artists mostly stayed in segregated hotels, so when B.B. King went to Houston, he would stay at the segregated black hotel in Houston. Now, the upshot was he'd often be staying in the same hotel with, you know, Charlie Parker, which was kind of cool, and he got to meet the greatest musical artists of the prior generation, but it was still segregation.

Success has many parents. There are at least three separate accounts of Riley King getting his first guitar. The earliest is that Booker White, who was a cousin, I think a first cousin of B.B. King's grandmother, I'm probably saying that wrong, but was a relation of B.B.

King. Booker White shows up as a successful slide guitarist, shows up to Riley King's house where he lives with his mother, and this is around 1930 in Bertclair, Mississippi. You can find it, you can go there. It's like three or four little dwellings on a railroad track. I've been there. Booker brings his guitar and, according to whose account you believe, maybe just shows it to Riley, says, here's my guitar, son, you know, check it out, or maybe he actually gives it to him.

It's ambiguous. The people who interviewed Booker White, you know, got this story out of him, but it was a little bit unclear whether he just lent him the guitar or actually gave him a guitar. In any event, a few years later, Riley King is in Kilmichael, just out of the hill country in Mississippi, with his extended family and an uncle, kind of a little bit of a mean uncle, and supposedly this uncle gave Riley a guitar. It was not too uncommon for black men and women in Mississippi in the 1930s to have a harmonica, maybe a guitar.

Much wealthier families, like the family of Ike Turner, had pianos, but less well-off families often had guitars. So it's certainly plausible that this uncle gave B.B. King, Riley King, a guitar, maybe around age seven, age eight. B.B. King himself said that his first guitar was something that he bought with his own money, and he bought it with wages he'd earned as a sharecropper from a white young man, and I think it was $15. That story sounds the most credible to me because B.B. King himself told it. It's possible that he had possessed a guitar in earlier life, but I don't know what use a six or seven-year-old boy... I mean, even with B.B. King's incredible gifts, I don't know that he would have made much use of a guitar at age five or six or seven, but by the time he's 12 and 13, he clearly made use of that guitar.

B.B. King had a circle of churches that he went to with his kin around Kilmichael. One of these churches was overseen by, by all accounts, a fiery preacher by the name of Archie Fair, and Archie Fair becomes another really important role model for young Riley King. Archie Fair is a guitar-slinging preacher. He preaches and he sings and he plays guitar, and I don't think that Kilmichael was wired for electricity, so he might have had a battery-powered amplifier. I'm not really sure how that would have happened, but somehow or other, Archie Fair entertained his flock with a guitar, and Riley King was absolutely and utterly smitten by Archie Fair, fell in love with everything about his preacher performance, and decided then and there he wanted to become a guitar-playing preacher himself. So Riley King, when he first gets into music, he gets into sacred music, he joins, he forms, I would say he probably started it, he forms a sort of couple of gospel combos, and goes around and plays with them at churches, and he even gets onto the radio, I think in Greenwood, it was either Greenwood or Greenville, I always get those two cities confused, but one of those two cities had a radio station, WGRM or something like that, and Riley King and his gospel combo go on the air a number of times, singing multi-part gospel harmonies, and that was a thing, and even in the 1930s, despite the segregation on the radio, black gospel combos were allowed, permitted to play on white radio on stations like WGRM, so that might have been his fate. It might have been that B.B. King would have gone on to national fame with the famous St. John's gospel singers, I think that was the name of the outfit.

The other guys in the combo though didn't really have the same ambitions, and they didn't want to leave in Genoa, so that kind of dried up. And you're listening to author Daniel Davis say tell the story of B.B. King, the king of the blues and the chairman of the board, and B.B. King, as you heard, endured many racial slights. We heard the same story about Duke Ellington that Terry Teachout told. When we come back, more of the remarkable life story of Riley King, aka B.B. King, here on Our American Stories. And I'll keep it short. So let's do this.

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Upfaithmfamily.com. And we return to Our American Stories and our story on bluesman BB King. Telling the story is Daniel Davisse, author of the fantastic book King of the Blues.

Again, it's available on Amazon and all the usual suspects. When we last left off, BB King had formed a gospel group after being inspired by a guitar-slinging preacher in Kilmichael, Mississippi. But unfortunately for BB King, or perhaps fortunately for blues fans, that didn't pan out. Let's get back to the story.

Here again is Daniel. So I take you back to Inginola. Really strapping cotton pickers in Inginola could earn, you know, real money. And Mr. King was capable of earning pretty good pay picking cotton. And then once he got to be a tractor driver, just like his father, he earned even better pay.

But then here's what happened. Riley King went out and busked on the street corners in Inginola. If you go to Inginola, you can find the street corner where he busked.

There's a, you know, like a plaque there. And he would first play gospel songs and people would, you know, sort of pat him on the shoulder for doing that. But then he finally started playing blues songs and he learned that the blues songs could be monetized. People started throwing actual money into his guitar case or that. And he got so good at the busking that he was earning better money, frankly, than he was earning from tractor driving.

So this was a simple mercenary proposition. I mean, that's why he went into music. And that's also why he left gospel because gospel music didn't pay and blues music did. So he decides to go alone to Memphis. What triggers his departure is that he's out driving his tractor and he's probably tired.

It's been a long day. He's steering the tractor back into the sort of shed. And I guess it kind of bucks because he hadn't put it out of gear or in gear or hadn't secured it the way he was supposed to secure it. And so it lurches and the manifold or something breaks off of it.

I picture this as being kind of like an exhaust. And that's like a $500 repair. And apparently he panicked.

You know, I'm getting out of here. But I have to say for the sake of his currency that he returned and he paid that bill in full. He probably spent two full years at probably 20 bucks a month or something, repaying that debt to his landowner. But he hitchhikes to Memphis and this is around 1946 and finds his cousin Booker White and takes up residence with him in his apartment and basically sort of mentors under him and goes to house parties and watches Booker White entertain audiences on the slide guitar and sort of starts to learn more and more of a repertoire of what was then kind of popular blues and rhythm and blues songs. But he realizes that he's not good enough to make it really in Memphis so he treats back to Ingenola. And he returns to Memphis two years later as a more practiced, more polished blues guitarist and very quickly in a matter of days talks his way into his own radio show. It's a startup station called WDIA and it's historically the very first station with all black talent.

It's owned and run by white people but they decide to have all black performers. The first rainy day that Riley King walks into the offices of WDIA, he walks in as Riley King and he walks out as BB King and let me explain that. He sat down with the station manager and the station manager you know kind of said okay well we'll put you on the air and oh good here you sang the song and it sounded pretty you sang a Louis Jordan song sounds great we'll put you on you know next Tuesday or whatever and we need to give you a catchy name so let's call you BB. This white station manager came up with the the BB initials and it was just you know catchy something like the Colonel would have done for Elvis and it was not shortened from Blues Boy or from anything else.

That's a myth. He took to the radio at the beginning as BB King as a first performer who would come on for maybe 15 minutes and then he'd advertise whatever gig he was playing that night in West Memphis and then he gets an actual disc jockey job on WDIA. So from that point on he is DJing, he's spinning songs, acquiring a massive knowledge of rhythm and blues and he records his very first sides in the summer of 1949 for a Bullet Records out of Nashville and nobody listening to this has probably ever heard them. They're not very good frankly because BB King at the beginning didn't really keep time because he was a solo artist so you put him with a band and he didn't know when the measure ended but over the sort of a summer into the winter 1949 into 1950 BB King put in you know the thousand hours of practice. He sounds really damn good and what's more over that winter he had he had developed his own signature sound which he called the butterfly.

The best way I can think of to explain it is Nigel Tufnel you know from Spinal Tap that kind of you know don't touch it you know don't even look at it you know that Spinal Tap. Anyway BB King developed this signature sound and I would argue that he was the first prominent guitarist to really make a solo guitar sound like a human voice. This is his signal accomplishment. This is the most important thing probably in all of what BB King did in all of his career. All of his forebears, the earlier the Lonnie Johnson's, the Charlie Christians, even the T-Bone Walkers, they used some vibrato but they really employed the solo guitar more like a horn it didn't really sound like a voice. So he's this wonderful guitar player with this unique amazing breakthrough guitar sound so by 1950 he's leading a terrific band and BB King's first really good band has a two guitar attack which is a would have been a rarity in rhythm and blues of that era or in any of popular music. The guitar and this is what you have to wrap your brain around the guitar was a back bench instrument in popular music of the 1940s and into the 1950s. There weren't band leaders who played guitar. Most bands that were on the rhythm and blues charts were led by singers who might also play piano or might also play a horn.

Not the guitar. There were no certainly guitar heroes. In a sense BB King belatedly became one of the first if not the first. So for BB King to have a band that had a front line of two guitars was kind of an amazing thing and he hired an extremely versatile second guitarist Robert Lockwood or Robert Junior Lockwood. The junior is because he was supposedly like you know like a junior Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood is this just incredible guitarist who becomes basically the rhythm guitarist whose rhythm work allows BB King to solo. So BB King in this band with two guitars is liberated to do only solo work on the guitar not really to play rhythm and so thus he becomes this kind of front and center lead guitar guy and there were very few such characters anywhere in popular music I would argue in 1950. That's a huge breakthrough and he starts making a name for himself.

He starts charting. He charts his first number one hit with three o'clock blues and that put him into play as a Chitlin circuit performer. So then he's he is then empowered to go up and down the Chitlin circuit all through the 1950s and here's something that'll surprise you. Very few of the people who would have gone to see BB King on the Chitlin circuit in the 1950s thought of him as any kind of great shakes as a guitarist. BB King in the 1950s as a black star superstar was regarded first and foremost as a singer. He was considered to be sort of the preeminent kind of pure blues singer. His guitar playing was an afterthought.

It was barely mentioned in any of the articles about him in the ads. He'd be holding the guitar but nobody really cared about it. It's very hard to reconstruct this now because we're thinking of him as a guitar hero but that wasn't how he was regarded by his black fans in the 1950s into the 60s. In fact if you listen closely to BB King live at the Regal even if you listen closely to the BB King at Cook County Jail which is from I think 1970 how is BB introduced? The world's greatest blues singer.

There's no mention made of his guitar. When we come back, more of the story of BB King. The chairman of the board, the king of the blues.

More about his unique contributions to music and to the rich American artistic tapestry here on Our American Stories. The best conversations I have with my colleagues are the ones that happen when no one is looking. When we're not 100% sure yet what to write. Hopefully having conversations like this can help you figure out your own point of view. That's kind of our job as Washington Post opinions columnist. I'm Charles Lane, deputy opinion editor. And I'm Amanda Ripley, a contributing columnist. We're going to bring you into these conversations on a new podcast called Impromptu.

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No wonder it was one of the most streamed TV series in 2023. So, my dear friends, dive into the warmth of Heartland and let Upfaith & Family be your go-to service for all things uplifting. There are faith movies, comedies, romances, and series for the whole family to enjoy. Start your free trial today. Go to upfaithandfamily.com for your free trial.

Upfaithandfamily.com. And we return to Our American Stories and the final portion of our story on Bluesman B.B. King. Telling the story is Arthur Daniel Davisse, author of the fantastic book King of the Blues. Let's return to the story. Here again is Daniel. So it is into the 1960s.

B.B. King is at that point a journeyman, blues artist. He's done great stuff. He's sold a ton of records. He's made a lot of money, chewed through dozens and dozens of musicians.

Chewed through. He was a benevolent band leader, but they came and they went. It was a very punishing life.

And here's what happens. There's two huge distinctions between musicians in America and musicians in Britain right about 1964, 65. In America, we were in the midst of this kind of folk revival, you know, which gave us Dylan and Joan Baez. And there was armies of white folk guitar guys. And all those people would eventually go and see Hard Day's Night. And they all kind of en masse bought electric guitars and learned how to play like the Beatles.

And you know the rest of that story. In Britain, going into the 1960s, different things were happening. They'd come out of a sort of a ragtimey sort of jazz, trad jazz movement. There'd been this skiffle thing, which is sort of like jug band music. And all of the great guitar heroes from Britain had all been in skiffle bands, which is kind of funny. And then they progressed into a blues revival. And America was not having a blues revival, but Britain was. And so by the early sixties, you have a bunch of guitarists and drummers and singers who are pretty damn good, who are playing in blues ensembles. And all these records were coming in.

I picture them arriving in places like Liverpool, you know, being shipped in. And his records end up in England. Some of his singles crossed over and I think it was a single called Rock Me Baby around 1964 that sold pretty well in England. Now, white listeners in England were not nearly so blinded by race as were white listeners in the States. And so while most white people by 1964, 65 had not heard and did not hear Live at the Regal, a whole bunch of white guitarists and singers in Britain, including Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton heard Rock Me Baby.

And they said, well, this guy's amazing. Clapton was a great musicologist. And when Clapton figured out that B.B. King had originated the guitar sound that was Clapton sound, he never looked back. He became a sort of besotted B.B.

King fan for the rest of his life. So B.B. King spawned a whole army of white British guitar guys who then came over in the British invasion and sort of taught us all a lesson about black blues music. And I mentioned there were two distinctions. That's the one is that there was a blues revival happening in Britain. So there was a hunger for black blues music, which they revered. I mean, and we did not, you know, in America, we didn't even know about it. The second distinction is there was way less, there wasn't none, but there was way less institutionalized sort of racism in the music business in Britain. In Britain, it was not remotely unheard of to have a great treasured black artist perform in a quote unquote white club. That was fine in England.

It was not fine in the United States. So there wasn't this sort of these racial blinders. And so it is that in the second half of the 1960s, bit by bit, measure by measure, white guitarists, fans, bands, singers, performers start learning and embracing the music of B.B.

King, the black blues star. So once you get into these kind of pop bands in America in the second half of the 60s, like the Jefferson Airplane, the Birds, the Grateful Dead, all of those artists, not every last one, but for the most part, they were they were recovering folkies who had gone to the theater and seen A Hard Day's Night and decided to form rock and roll bands. And then only later, under the influence of Clapton, Beck, Page, only later did they even get into sort of the blues sounds. And by about 1967, he's finally allowed to perform for these huge white audiences who knew his music by then, because, you know, Keith Richards had played it for them. I'm not aware of a single white guitarist in America who knew anything about what he was doing. I'm sure there must have been some. But the first that I hear with my own ears, somebody playing like B.B.

King, who's white in America, it's got to be Bloomfield in the Butterfield Blues Band. And that's not until about 1965, 66. He did this all kind of in a vacuum for the better part of a decade and a half. So he was, I think, very much ready.

I mean, he was goodness. He was how old was he in 1967? He was entering his 40s. He was ready. He was ready to break through. He did not want to settle for being in the Chitlin' Circuit.

You know, B.B. was probably still felt like he was living hand to mouth. So he absolutely wanted to become a star for all of America, not just for black America. He wanted to do what Ray Charles had done. He wanted to break through.

There's a sort of sequence of events that puts B.B. King over the top toward the end of the 1960s. The very first shot fired off was this coming out gig at the Fillmore in February 67, which is, you know, this legendary performance where white America sort of discovers him. Now he's known as a guitarist. They know he's a great singer, but the guitar work suddenly is front and center. So Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop from the Butterfield Band, they went to Graham, the guy who ran the Fillmore, and said, Bill Graham, you've got to hire this guy.

You've got to have B.B. King, man. And so Bill Graham hires him to perform in February 1967.

Now B.B. shows up at the Fillmore and he knows it as a Chitlin' Circuit Palace. It had been a Chitlin' Circuit venue.

He had played there for black audiences, but I don't know if his manager, whoever his manager was, maybe hadn't told him, oh, by the way, the whole audience is going to be white. So he goes up the stairs and there's all these hippies and all this, you know, aromatic smoke in the air. And he's like, I'm not sure I'm in the right place here. And he finds Bill Graham and says, no, no, B.B., this is it. You know, you're at the right place. So Bill Graham introduces him, you know, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the chairman of the board, Mr. B.B.

King. And they just clap and clap and clap. And B.B. has tears streaming down his face because he suddenly realizes, holy, I've got an audience, you know, a white audience. All of a sudden, young Americans of every stripe know who I am. And that's why it's such a momentous occasion, this kind of breakthrough gig. And it's as silly as that, that he literally showed up thinking that he was playing at the Chitlin' Circuit Palace. So after that, things got moved very quickly.

I'm not sure if I remember how B.B. King wound up on the Stones tour in 1969, but my sense of it is that the Stones wanted to have the best black artists as their opening act because, you know, the Stones were a discerning gang. They thought they were the best rock and roll band. And, you know, you can imagine how Keith and Mick would have thought about this. Well, we want, let's see, who's the best blues guy?

B.B. King, you know, who's the best R&B soul band? Oh, that'd be Ike and Tina. So they hired Ike and Tina and B.B. King to open for them in their 69 tour. And that's an enormous, enormous event for B.B. King because it exposes him to, you know, probably a million or two million fans, lots of write-ups in all the best music publications all over the country.

And then by the turn of the 1970s, he's got a much, much higher profile than he had, gosh, three years earlier when he was barely known to white America. All the way up to his death, B.B. King loved nothing more, I would say, than to return to Club Ebony in Inginola, which was the old roadhouse in the black neighborhood. I've been there.

It's a lovely place. And it made him so happy to perform for black people again. This is part of the deeper part of his character that doesn't come out so much in the many interviews he did because he sort of hit a lot of this.

But I think he was heartbroken to not play for black people more often than he did. And he loved nothing more than to return to Inginola for these homecoming events and play for, you know, lower-income audiences who loved him for free or for very little money, you know, at places like Club Ebony. There's an anecdote in my book where Tony Coleman, who was this very funny drummer who played with Mr. King, was cracking up the band, talking about, look at this place with grass growing through the floor, and it's Club Ebony, give me a break, you know. He's kind of making them all laugh, talking about how this hasty joint they're going to play at. And Mr. King turns to him and says something like, Mr. Coleman, you know, I don't want you to forget that, you know, every time I come here, you know, that these are my people and this is why we're doing this and nothing's more important than coming back and, you know, seeing my roots.

And Tony felt terrible after this because he'd been making jokes about playing at this juke joint in Inginola, but for Mr. King it meant everything. And a terrific job on the storytelling, editing, and production by our own Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to author Daniel Davies-Say, his book, King of the Blues. It's available on Amazon.com and all the usual suspects.

Pick it up, you won't put it down. And what a story Daniel told, particularly about how the blues revival in Great Britain resuscitated blues music in America. It took young guitar players like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and Keith Richards and Jeff Beck to come and introduce white audiences to this traditional folk black music, which of course was and is the blues. And absolutely an American story, B.B. King's story here on Our American Stories. Viking, committed to exploring the world in comfort, journey through the heart of Europe on an elegant Viking longship with thoughtful service, cultural enrichment, and all-inclusive fairs. Discover more at viking.com.

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