BB King: Boy to King - the big breakthrough

King's hard work in the '50s and '60s pays off

BB King
BB King, July 1969

BB's 1952 hit, Three O'Clock Blues, was a massive stepping stone. Hitting number one on the Billboard R&B chart, it afforded him the profile to move up the ladder of his career and the music business in general.

While America was still largely divided along race lines when it came to music – BB King was playing to black audiences only – his shows now took in the East Coast cities to which he'd never been before.

He'd rub shoulders with trumpet-legend-to-be, Dizzy Gillespie, sax virtuoso Charlie Parker, not mention Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan

The first big step was signing to a booking agent in New York, Universal Attractions, via his new manager, Robert Henry. BB had his own small band by this point, but due to UA's existing roster of musicians they wanted BB alone, and that's what they got. What followed was a demanding schedule, compounded by the pressure of playing with musicians he didn't know, night after night.

There were other musicians, however, all carving out their own careers too: he'd rub shoulders with trumpet-legend-to-be, Dizzy Gillespie, sax virtuoso Charlie Parker, not mention Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan with whom he was performing for various shows.

Musicians today might be used to playing a few nights on the hoof, others sporadic dates in the month, but these travelling shows were over two months or more back to back; play, travel, play, travel, repeat ad nauseam. Not only that, but you'd often be looking at multiple shows in a single day.

Eventually, however, the gigs became less frequent, and the money was scaling back, so the following year BB headed back to Memphis to reconsider his plans.

Better Band

One of Memphis' influential musicians was Bill Harvey. The saxophonist and band leader had a strong reputation in the city, respected for his music as much as his connections. He helped BB hook up with new management and a booking agent in Texas, while Harvey himself supplied the new band, a regular group of musicians who would travel and play from East Coast to West, and back again.

Again, the culture of the day is barely believable now. Steps forward with race issues were significant in the late 1940s, albeit far from ubiquitous. President Truman had officially ended segregation in the US Army three years after the end of WWII in 1948, for example, yet by the following year less than half of the US States had dispensed with segregation in public accommodations.

Now they could find all the food they wanted, but they often weren't allowed to buy it

What that meant for BB King on the road, was that neither he nor his band were allowed to stay in motels. According to King, they stayed with friends, often in the cars themselves – by this time, BB had his first Cadillac. However good that may have felt, it could never have made up for the fact that even basic, everyday tasks such as getting food could be a problem if you were black.

As a child, finding something to eat wasn't always easy. Now they could find all the food they wanted, but they often weren't allowed to buy it.

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That was one factor of many that were making the road hard for BB and his band. The money that was coming in was coming from shows, not from hit records, and it wasn't enough. So he decided to point his Cadillac back to Memphis once again, followed by the two other cars that carried the band. BB wanted his own band for real – not Harvey's – and to take this thing on again to the next level.

One year, 342 nights

After a deal with the Texas booking agent, Evelyn Johnson, to continue getting the shows, BB had also put the funding together to buy his first bus in 1955. Right from his early yearnings to drive the tractor on the farm, it was as much about status as it was a practical solution for being on the road. It's impossible to imagine fully just how BB must have felt, having come from literally nothing to owning his very own bus with his name down the side.

New band assembled – many of whom remained lifelong friends and colleagues – that bus carried the show coast to coast and up and down the country once more. The staggering figure comes from 1956 with BB working the network of black clubs and venues known as the chitlin' circuit: 342 'one-night stands' as they were referred to, in one single year.

Nobody could stop anyone listening to whatever they wanted on the radio

That number is impressive enough, but then consider that he then went on to average well over 300 dates a year for the next four decades. Those must be some pretty serious calluses on BB's fingertips.

Back in 1956, however, and despite the efforts of his management and booking team to get his music heard in the areas he was playing – by paying DJs to play his records – big success on the road was hard to come by. It was even alleged by Evelyn Johnson, BB's booking agent (in BB King: Treasures by BB King with Dick Waterman) that rival record companies were paying DJs to not play the records to protect their own artists. Popular music and culture were changing fast in the US as well.

The arrival of rock 'n' roll doubtless made rhythm and blues seem like yesterday's news in certain situations. Elvis had released That's All Right Mama in 1954, the same year eager ears first heard Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock. By the time 1956 rolled around – bringing Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to prominence – popular white music had changed radically. The following year Buddy Holly also shot to stardom.

Black music was changing too; venues and scenes were still largely divided along race lines, although Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry started to attract the attention of white teenagers. They were taking rhythm and blues in a distinctly rock 'n' roll direction, and creating a popular musical revolution in the process.

The physical barriers remained, but nobody could stop anyone listening to whatever they wanted on the radio – if you were young, chances are you were more excited by this new music than the rhythm and blues of the early fifties.

Big Red – the bus of which he'd been so proud – was involved in an accident with a butane truck, leading to a huge firey wreck

As it turned out, by one Saturday in 1958 a changing music scene was the least of King's worries. On a road near Dallas, Big Red – the bus of which he'd been so proud – was involved in an accident with a butane truck, leading to a huge firey wreck.

Two people in the truck were killed, and while all of BB's band survived (BB himself was not on the bus), it transpired that the insurance was invalid because the company that had provided it was stopped from trading by the government only the day before. King had been informed, but had not yet bought new insurance, assuming he'd wait until Monday.

The subsequent lawsuit was a huge sum for which King was personally liable. According to his account of the ordeal in his autobiography, it left him in debt for years to come. He also needed a new bus, using up all of the money he'd had earmarked for taxes. Now not only were the lawyers after him, but so was the IRS (Internal Revenue Service, America's tax collection department).

Agents would reportedly show up at gigs and demand money – BB himself has said he was down to paying himself just $75 a week for the best part of a year.

Regal for real

As the 1960s got under way BB King was – and always would be – working relentlessly on the road. His ambitions were growing and his business relationship with the Bihari brothers came to an end, switching instead to ABC Records in 1962.

Bigger, more successful and with greater influence, he hoped they would be able to take him to the next stage. The black blues audiences were starting to tail off, however, as rock 'n' roll's net was cast wider than white-only audiences. Folk music was also in a period of revival and, while blues was arguably at the heart of it all, blues music itself wasn't winning young audiences.

There was nothing wrong with the audience on the afternoon of 21 November 1964 at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. King remembers it as much the same as any other show, and later commented that there was nothing particularly special about the performance. What was special was that it was being recorded for a live release – his first – that would sound and feel very different from King's studio recordings to date.

The 1965 release, Live At The Regal, won significant critical acclaim and is considered among the best live albums of all time. Pervis Spann, a veteran of black radio and friend of BB's, introduced him that day. Just before the band kicks into BB's opening song – Every Day I Have The Blues – Spann says, "…How about a nice warm round of applause to welcome the world's greatest blues singer, the King of the blues, BB King!" It was a term Spann had started using around this time, even going as far as to officially crown King at his nightclub in the city. The term stuck: he remains the king of the blues to this very day.

Live At The Regal remains a landmark recording with its star in commanding vocal and guitar form and the band as tight as you'd expect given how long they'd been on the road. Put it on, play it loud and soak in the sheer energy of the performance.

New territory

More significant for BB personally, however, was the 1967 show at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. King had played the Regal in Chicago countless times before the live album recording – it was a familiar venue for him and one for which he had great affection.

He'd also played the Fillmore on plenty of occasions too, but in February of 1967, it was promoted by rock music legend Bill Graham, and the audience profile on the night was very different to that BB had experienced to date: they were white. A standing ovation before he'd even played had King in tears – white hippie kids appreciating the rhythm and blues of a black man was entirely new territory.

King's exposure to this new audience received a helping hand via a new generation of electric blues guitarists. Eric Clapton had re-energised the blues with his own interpretation in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, likewise Michael Bloomfield in the USA with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Both hip young players – and quite a few others to boot – were giving lots of credit to this man called BB King who had influenced them both so much.

It did no harm at all for BB's profile in a whole new audience group. Coupled with new management in the form of Sid Seidenberg – "the smartest career move I ever made," according to King – the endless hard work and financial hardship of the late 1950s and 1960s showed signs of turning around.

What a Thrill!

The pay-off came in 1970. The touring and hard work continued as usual, but in mid-1969, King had gone into the studio with producer Bill Szymczyk to record his album Completely Well, released that year. One of the tracks was a song written all the way back in 1951 by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins, The Thrill Is Gone.

A blues song at heart, it was nevertheless a long way from the I-IV-V chord structures of many R&B standards. Szymczyk was also keen to add strings to the arrangement, which was a significant departure in King's sound and gave it true mainstream appeal.

The result was his highest ever position in the Billboard pop charts, elevating King from rhythm and blues artist to true crossover potential. He also received a Grammy for the song in 1970: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

Twenty years into his career, the big time was finally beckoning for BB King.

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