[Editor’s Note: Very special thanks to Phillip-Michael for contributing this unique and intimate discussion with his uncle, the King, to Guitar Messenger.]
Noble, Legendary, Dignified; these are terms used to describe a King. However, the interesting part about royalty is that people are born into it with all qualities attached, fitting or not. How does one stay dignified in a world that’s trying to make them feel anything but? The eighty-two year old King of the Blues, Dr. Riley B. King has done it. Born on September 16th, 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, facing more blues in his eight decades than most can fathom, he is not only one of the most influential guitar players of all time, but also a soldier on the front line of Black History.
On a Saturday night, to a sold out crowd, King tells a story of his younger years where he crossed the train track dividing whites from blacks, just to drink from the ‘white only’ water fountain. “I got me a belly full of that white water and then I got to thinking: ‘this water tastes like regular old water to me!” As the crowd laughs and cheers, King concludes, “We can joke about it now because all of you people have made this world a much better place.” This passes over as playful and the show continues. Upon catching up with him later, I learned just how blue this world could get.
The Early Years
Now off stage, in a gentle voice, Mr. King begins the history lesson. During the bebop era (circa 1944), racism was still a big problem in the United States. King and his band found the most racism in the southern parts of the country. “You couldn’t go to no restaurants, a rest room that was nice – you’d go to a service station and they’d have signs: ‘White Men, White Ladies, and Colored.’ And you can bet your neck when you got to ‘colored,’ you wouldn’t want to go in there yourself. They didn’t clean them up, but they kept the others like a sheet on the bed. Of course, you were lucky if you found that.” This was one of many ways King found others attempting to keep him in “his place.” To B, physically fighting or rioting wasn’t a viable option. “In a lot of cases, riots usually ain’t got no head. Its just people looting and burning and in most cases you can’t win because you are against people who are educated and organized. Most of us stayed conquered in a way, because, you know, if there ain’t but twenty or thirty of them and there ain’t but twenty or thirty of you, you can’t win. And to me you’d be a fool to go die for nothing.”
He recounts an instance when singer Nat King Cole was signing autographs mid-show, and a few mean-spirited Caucasians had pulled his piano bench out so that when he sat to play again, he would fall. “A lot of the black people thought he should have blown up about it. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t raise hell, because either he would get killed, beat up, or ran out of town.” King’s confounding dichotomy began in Louisiana, when a promoter informed him that his band was to sit, unseen, behind a white sheet while he played. People wanted to hear his music, but not see his face. Perhaps the most daunting part of this situation is how few people saw a problem with it. While King played the show, it was the only time he would ever let that happen to his band again.
A Changing Tide
At the time, it was standard practice to put a rope in the middle of an audience to separate whites and blacks, but as time pushed forward, King and his band began to see something. “We started to find out that music played a big part in getting people together.” This notion was propelled forward with the emergence of rock n’ roll. Mr. King speaks of a time he was recording in L.A. and there was a big rock n’ roll festival held in Augusta, Georgia. He got off the plane in Atlanta and into a limousine to Augusta, but once he got close to the festival traffic was grid-locked. On the side of the highway, he saw whites and blacks swimming together. This was fascinating to him, considering his history with segregation. This experience was dwarfed when the infamous motorcycle gang “Hell’s Angels” approached his limousine. “They come by (I guess they recognized me) and one of ‘em says ‘B, you want a ride?’ and I said ‘yes!’ They put me on the Hell’s Angels bike behind him and boy – he was in and out of traffic. Scared the hair off me but I got to the place!”
At the same festival, B and his band were assigned a duplex. As King warmed up on his guitar, he received a knock on the door and was greeted by a completely nude, twenty-four year old Caucasian woman. “I wasn’t very comfortable and my band was going crazy! After a while, I started feeling normal again and found out that she was my escort. That was the first time I’d been around a festival when the whites and the blacks were mixing. That’s where we started to see things changing. Those rock and roll concerts made a big difference.”
As time went on, King noticed racism coming from a different angle: the radio (or the lack there of). At the time, the majority of music being played on the radio was rock and roll or country. Rarely would you hear any gospel, jazz records were being played less, and if the blues was played, it would be at night. “I had a guy come up to me and say ‘You know, we play blues every Sunday from two in the morning till four.’ I thanked him and asked ‘What do you do the rest of the week? Do you close at six?’ and he says ‘No, we’re a twenty four hour station!’” While B. was lightly teasing, it occurred to him that this was another form of discrimination. Of all the records that he made (sparing those made with superstars) the only song that ever got played like everyone else’s was his most recognized hit, “The Thrill is Gone.”
Not dwelling on his lack of radio airplay, King took a different route to success. In 1955, he played three hundred and forty-two one-nighters. “I never did that many again but that’s how I got my popularity. We had a saying that ‘if you can’t take the mountain to Mohamed, you take Mohamed to the mountain.’” Like many other times, this situation had it’s own prejudice. As far as audiences were concerned at the time, very few blacks were in professional positions, so a way of keeping them out of shows was to raise the ticket prices. Ratios have become a bit more balanced over the years and King is a still big contender for the title of “hardest working man in show business.” He played three hundred shows each year (in over ninety different countries) until he turned eighty and now plays three weeks on and three weeks off. If this doesn’t seem like much to you, think of what your eighty-year old relatives are up to.
When asked how these experiences have influenced his music over the years, much like black folk songs from slave times, B. notes that “You’ll be saying one thing and singing about another.” Under the general guise of women, he found an outlet for the emotions he felt from these experiences. “It was just a way to say what you wanted to say. A lot of the times it was about the boss, but it was a girl and we were singing bout him.”
While Mr. King does not say whether or not it has to do with racism, his voice takes a serious tone as he discusses the fact that he has received many assassination notices. “If they really wanted to get you, they can. You’re on the bandstand and you have people who paid to see you and can’t have people standing in front of you. So you sit out there and you’re like a sitting duck. You never know who the crazy person is. Some just talk, but one guy will do it just to prove to you, his best friend, and his girlfriend that he’d do it.”
While you can tell this is a concern of his, you can also see the unshakable courage in him. “There were many places we couldn’t go before, but now we’re welcomed almost everywhere.” King is first to notice how much everything has changed for him and his band: He has been inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award, and was given honorary doctorates from Tougaloo University, Berklee College of Music, Yale University, Rhodes College of Memphis, Mississippi Valley State, and Brown University. “For some reason – it’s my age, could be the respect, and could be that some of them like me that well, but it’s a rare thing when they say ‘Here is Mr. B.B. King’ that the whole theater doesn’t stand. Now I’m treated royally – I’m treated like my last name in most of the places.”
Today, in the Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo, Michigan, King sings the lines of “Sweet Sixteen” with unwavering confidence:
“You can treat me mean, but I’ll keep on loving you just the same.
You treat me mean baby, but I’ll keep on loving you just the same.
One of these days you’re gonna give a lot of money to hear someone call my name”
He could not have been more right.