Diane Williams – The Life And Legacy Of B.B. King: A Mississippi Blues Icon
Released last year, this short work makes an attempt to tell the story of a legendary blues artist’s life, in addition to enlightening readers to the extent that his artistry inspired others through the recollections of family members and a number of Mississippi-based musicians. The author, Diane Williams, is an acclaimed storyteller, author, and the retired director of grants for the Mississippi Arts Council. As she explains in the Introduction section, she first saw B.B. King live in 2001, getting two opportunities to see the aging bluesman that year. A third encounter came in 2014, at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. Her narrative contrasts the squalor from the homeless people living near the theater with the palpable excitement of fans lined up for one last look at the legend, who was a shadow of his former self and only months away from his final moments.
The first few chapters give a brief overview of King’s life, starting with his early years with his sharecropper parents. His parents split, freeing him from a seemingly uncaring father, but he lost his mother at the age of nine. He got his first guitar at the age of twelve, thanks to an advance from the plantation owner where he worked in the cotton fields. Growing up in the church, King learned to sing in the choir. Eventually he had to make the choice between singing God’s praises, or getting tips from people when he sang and played guitar on local street corners.
From there, Williams touches on some of the many high points from King’s career, from his time on Beale Street in Memphis, his spot on the WDIA radio station that spread his name & music across the South, making his mark with the hit ‘The Thrill Is Gone,” and spreading his fame even farther with a successful collaboration with U2, one of the top rock bands in the world. The author mixes in comments on topics like racism, the Chitlin’ Circuit, and the effects of non-stop touring on King’s life. In all, his life story is summarized in slightly more than forty pages, including more than twenty black and white photos.
The next section starts with a chapter on Shirley King, his daughter, and a blues singer herself. Williams explains that B.B. King had a roving eye, fathering fifteen children. Shirley was the third oldest living child at the time of publication. The singer relates some of the lessons her father imparted, and her pride at having such a famous parent. Mary Alice Smith’s mother was married to King at a young age. She recollects her impressions of him from times he visited her mother. The last brief chapter looks at Marvin Gardner, who claims his mother told him on her deathbed that King was his father. Gardner sings and plays guitar, billing himself as “Little B.B. King,” although no testing has been done to attempt to verify his claim.
The remaining twelve chapters feature various musicians waxing eloquent on King’s inspiration. Bobby Rush, a contemporary of King’s, bemoans the fact that black listeners were there to support King early in his career, but seemed to abandon him the later years. That is one of several insights in a chapter that focuses most of its attention on Rush. The chapter on Billy Branch is less than two pages, focusing on his Blues in the Schools program conducted at the opening of the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, MS.
Singer and guitarist Dexter Allen offers a more contemporary view of King’s legacy, stating the three key elements of a successful blues song are story, emotion, and delivery. Singer Jawonn Smith has made some noise in the Southern Soul marketplace. In his mind, B.B. King will always be the at the top of the blues world.
The final pages include a thank-you to King from Dr. C. Sade Turnipseed, several pages of photos from his funeral service, and information on his museum, in addition to the Mississippi Blues Trail. The author also included a discography with albums and a separate list of singles by year of release. Another section highlights his many awards, including multiple Grammy awards, and citations of distinction.
It is apparent that the author has a real affection for King. She utilizes her storytelling skills to weave a narrative that traces King’s life through historical facts and personal reminisces. Fans who are interested in a deep dive into B.B. King’s story will need to search elsewhere. Readers who relish a satisfying overview will be happy with Williams’ offering.