By the time this piece goes to press, B.B. King will have been buried after a celebration worthy of, well, a King (I had already committed to avoiding such cheap tricks involving variations on “The Thrill Is Gone” or “The Thrill Ain’t Gone” or “The Thrill Remains” or other such verbal shenanigans, but some things are unavoidable). He has completed a journey that took him from the Berclair cotton field in Mississippi to legendary status and even unfortunate “first world problems” like posthumous estate battles.
Riley B. King was born into a world of limited scope on September 16, 1925; those limitations underscored by the very conditions of his birth. A dark-hued black boy who first saw light of day in the midst of a cotton field in Mississippi. There was no Barack Obama through which he could envision a place for himself as a self-actualized human being. Hell, there was no B.B. King, for that matter! To carve out an existence that involved something other than shucking and jiving to tow the line and picking cotton to subsist under the Jim Crow regime, young Riley had to have possessed an abundance of purpose, vision, and will. Enter the guitar, given to him by a relative at twelve. Riley poured all aspiration and hope into that guitar, self-teaching to a level of mastery that would earn him his living and his legend.
Guitar in hand, RIley paid his dues, singing in the gospel choir and working the tractor in Mississippi, before following cousin Bukka White to Memphis. The journey, now notable, was quite typical. Black Americans were in the midst of the Great Migration from the rural cotton fields to more urbanized centers of commerce. Northern destinations were shiny bastions of possibility for Blacks. To borrow the title of Isabel Wilkerson’s notable book on the subject, they were in search of “the warmth of other suns.” The sun shone brightly on Riley once he finally settled into Memphis. He performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show and then began his seminal deejaying stint at WDIA, developing a name for himself. A new name, in fact – Beale Street Blues Boy – later shortened to the instantly recognizable B.B.
If this all sounds like the origin story of a superhero, that’s because it is. Once B.B. King signed his first
recording contract and began to cut records with Sam Phillips (the Memphis record impresario who created Sun Records), the die was cast. He racked up a run of R&B hits in the 1950s that cemented his status as a star on the chitlin’ circuit. It was pre-Motown and pre-pop idol Sam Cooke. Black music was still “race music,” relegated to secondary status just like its creators. Sam Cooke was still singing gospel and Berry Gordy was boxing and selling records. The notion that a Black man could capture the imagination of the masses was still a bit of a fever dream.
Well, by the late 1960s, the British Invasion in full effect, rockers like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones were acknowledging the impact of the American blues, this humble music of folks descended from slaves, on their work. White audiences began to rediscover the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and all the rest. Simultaneously, for whatever reason, the blues also fell out of favor with Black folks. I have no official poll to assess why this happened, but my mother often speaks of not wanting to relive the past. For B.B.’s contemporaries, the blues that moaned from his voice and guitar no longer fit their lives, perhaps. They were punching in and out of steel mills and piled on top of one another in tenement slums, ready to hit the club to dance to the latest Temptations’ record. Still others were using the blues as the DNA for jazz, blues’ most sophisticated progeny. If Blacks lost their thrill for the blues, he gave them a jolt to the system with “The Thrill Is Gone” in 1970 (I guess my promise to avoid wordplay on this song title is revoked). It was urbane, sexy, funky, soulful. He dressed up the blues in a tux (loosened at the collar, but still a tux) and it was all the realness of the Mississippi cotton fields, migrated to the north. It may be the song that most reconciled everything that Black music was at that moment. Old and new. Bodacious and traditional. North and south. It felt like the older brother telling folks to move to the side to show them how it was done. And he did that.
In light of all this, B.B.’s passing earlier this month as our country continues to grapple with the shockingly regressive images from Baltimore strikes me as uniquely resonant. When I see B.B. and hear his music, I hear pieces of our collective experience set to music. I hear the mournful, world-weary sighs of people in cotton fields. I also hear the buoyant optimism of the civil rights era, when it seemed like we were resolving our country’s internal conflict for good. And now this man, this unifying force, this titan who spans generations, is gone. As he, and others of his era, pass into eternity, who is there to tell young men in depressed environs all over the country that sometimes the simplest act – picking up a guitar, – can give you a passport to destinations far beyond your present circumstance? No one represents this proposition as compellingly as Riley B. King. And sadly, perhaps, no one ever will.
Tanisha Jackson for Soulinterviews.com