Daniel de Visé – King Of The Blues: The Rise And Reign Of B.B. King
Atlantic Monthly Press
482 pages Hardcover edition
Over the course of his lengthy career, B.B. King saw his fame steadily grow until he was undoubtedly the universal ambassador for blues music. Beloved by fans around the globe, King offered a vivid contrast to those who pictured a blues man with a beat-up guitar and dressed in overalls. His sharp appearance and genuine humble manner combined with his expressive vocals and stinging guitar licks served him well, from the small clubs in Memphis in his early years to the largest stages in countries all over the planet.
Given his impact on the music, one would think that there would be a number of books documenting his life and legacy. Yet, other than several books on his guitar techniques, there are only a handful of books that take a close look at his life, including his 2011 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, done with noted biographer David Ritz. With his new book, Daniel de Visé offers a career spanning look at King’s life, including an unfettered view of his final years, which is missing from the earlier works.
The author has two other books to his credit, one on the friendship between Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, the other on American cyclist Greg LeMond. He has worked at a number of major newspapers including the Miami Herald and the Washington Post. In 2001, he was part of a team that earned a Pulitzer Prize.
His journalism background certainly gives de Visé the skills required for the research needed to develop a thorough reckoning of a legendary career. That is apparent as you peruse the variety of source material he refers to as laid out in the 35 page “Notes” section. Another key element is the first-hand accounts that the author gathered through interviews with King’s band members, producers, managers, family members, and fellow musicians. Consequently, readers are treated to a well-rounded portrayal of the artist and the man that doesn’t shy away from delving into some sensitive issues.
Born in the Mississippi Delta, King’s life in the early years was spent on farms, moving around between the homes of different family members after his parents separated. His entry into the world of music was singing tenor in a local gospel group, giving him a taste of attention, especially from local girls. It was his cousin, Bukka White, who inspired King’s interest in the guitar, through his frequent visits. At the age of 16, King received an advance on his salary to pay for a fire-red Stella acoustic guitar, quickly proving his willingness to master of the instrument with far more gusto than he applies to his school studies.
From there, the author traces King’s career in chronological order with his first trip to Memphis in 1946, and a return visit in 1949, when the determined guitarist talked and played his way onto WDIA radio, a station that focused on the black Memphis population. Getting his own radio program allowed King to promote his live shows in the area, which quickly raised his status with the show’s audience. But King had some rough edges, so his early band members tutored him on the concepts of timing and tempo, as much for their sanity as King’s continued success. The author also covers the development of King’s unique guitar sound and playing style, which became the standard for guitar players to emulate.
Soon the guitarist hit the road, establishing a relentless schedule that kept him touring for hundreds of nights year after year, only easing up in the latter years of his life. At critical junctures, de Visé highlights key records that steadily built King’s visibility, with “3 O’Clock Blues” hitting number one on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart in 1952, and peaking with his Completely Well album in 1969, featuring the classic “The Thrill Is Gone.” At that point, the guitarist started playing large concert halls like the Fillmore West, and opened for the Rolling Stones tour that year, providing doorways to the coveted white listening audience.
The book also delves into the many musicians that influenced King and some of their history. King certainly tried to emulate T-Bone Walker’s guitar prowess while studying the vocal style of blues shouter Roy Brown, who had a huge hit with the song ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.” When it came to entertaining an audience, King looked to hitmaker Louis Jordan for ideas. Several record producers and their contributions are highlighted by de Visé as well.
King eventually achieves a higher level of international fame than any of his contemporaries. He gained admission to several Hall of Fame’s while still alive, played for Presidents and other dignitaries, and was a consistent draw throughout his career. The other side of the story is not ignored by de Visé. He chronicles the toll that decades of touring took on King’s health, and of his band members, many of whom were loyal to the leader for long stretches. Another part of the story is the guitarist’s great love for members of the opposite sex, which at times reached epic levels. He claimed to have fathered numerous children, but de Visé offers evidence that seemingly contradicts the veracity of the claims.
The last part of the book documents King’s decline as age and health issues steadily robbed him of his abilities, particularly on guitar. In his final years, concerts became more about talking and telling stories, with music shoved to the back-burner. Those shows were tough for band members and longtime fans. With his death came the fight over his estate, pitting his extended family against his closest friends and caretakers at the end. It was a sad finish to a glorious career.
This work is exactly what you would expect from a first-rate biography. Throughout, de Visé does an excellent job of telling B.B. King’s story while grounding it in the people and events that impacted the tale at key junctures. Readers will find it hard to put the book down, a true testimonial to de Visé’s talent for weaving all of the elements into a compelling narrative. For blues fans, and particularly anyone with an interest in B.B. King, this biography comes highly recommended!