Saturday, May 8, 2010
B.B. and C.B. (Three B's in a Pod)
I learned (over the course of 24 hours) that in Mississippi a question like that can lead to a lot of conversation. I’m asked where I’m from, why I’m here, and how I like Mississippi. When I explain that I have always liked the blues, new shoots of conversation open. The men at another table must have overheard. They begin offering tips and directions through the bar tender. “They say there’s a blues heritage marker down the road in such and such a village. Turn left after the part store and follow the signs.” We talk for a while, and then I’m off, towards Yazoo City, and Jackson, and home, where, a few days later, I started reading B. B. King’s book in earnest.
Unlike Chuck Berry’s Autobiography, this one is ghost written—but the ghost-- David Ritz-- has credentials. He wrote the Marvin Gaye hit “Sexual Healing.” That’s good enough for me. And he has helped write some other great books. He co-wrote Ray Charles' autobiography, too.
And every word of the book seems clearly to be in B. B. King’s voice.
I first saw B. B. King at the Sacramento State Fair. It was probably 1969. They had an area for “youth” and King played an outdoor show there. It was, I now understand, towards the beginning of his "crossover" to general acceptance. I was mesmerized. I’m relatively certain I saw King before Berry, although I haven’t managed to find dates for either concert. I’ve seen King and his bands a number of times since, at a Lake Tahoe lounge, a couple of Seattle night clubs, and at the Seattle Opera House.
(King's website is easy to find: http://www.bbking.com/)
For me it’s impossible not to compare Berry’s book and this one. Heck, King even quotes a line from Berry, ending one chapter with the line "Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee."
They are about the same age. If King seems more “mature,” maybe it’s because he was born a year earlier, in 1925—but more likely it’s because Chuck really is a rock and roller. Because they’re the same age they share some of the same idols—notably T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Louis Jordan. Both admire Lonnie Johnson, Count Basie, Nat Cole and others. They even started learning from the same book of guitar chords by Nick Mannaloft. (These stories are so parallel that Berry talks about it on page 42 of his book, and King on page 44!)
Both held day jobs as they began achieving some success in music. Berry worked as a carpenter and studied hair dressing. King picked cotton in the morning before his radio show, and drove tractors on a plantation. Both worked with or near Ike Turner. (That man got around!)
Chuck (as his songs would imply) had more cars in his early years. He talks about driving the girls in high school.
King drove his dates to town on a tractor!
Berry chose at a certain point to dispense with a band and tour as a solo. King was forced by promoters to go solo after his first big hit song and fought hard to get back to travelling with a regular band. (Happy to say that Berry also travels with his own again these days.)
King was on the “losing” side of the battle between Rock and Roll and Blues. He laments that his audience got older and older, and that he could never have the mega hits of Berry, Elvis and Little Richard. He even remembers getting booed by crowd that was waiting for Sam Cooke to perform. (Cooke was from Clarksdale, Mississippi—an hour or so from Indianola.) It seems impossible-- but not surprisingly he won them over.
Then again, he remembers receiving acclaim from jazz greats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillispie, while Chuck remembers feeling dissed by Chess jazz producer/photographer Esmond Edwards. (http://ctsimages.com/edwards.htm) (Both King and Berry share a certain degree of sensitivity about their music. King knows the blues is an art form and resents when critics or promoters debase it; Berry often laments that his music wasn’t as blue as Muddy Waters, or as refined as Nat Cole.)
Both were extremely ambitious and hard working. They wanted it. They got it, despite the odds.
Both had trouble with the IRS. King managed to escape prison; Berry didn’t. Both played shows in prison, though it seems to be a regular thing for King, and a personal thing for Berry.
Both spend more time discussing their sex lives than some of us want—but then again, it probably sells books. And both had late stage circumcisions! Yikes! I turned those pages quickly.
Both are described by themselves or others as quiet off stage-- maybe even loners. On stage not at all.
Both had careers that were revived by British rock and rollers and U.S. hippies. Both had a giant super hit in the early 1970s (King had the thrilling “The Thrill is Gone” and Berry, [thrill having absolutely departed] unfortunately had the novelty “My Ding-a-Ling.”)
They both wound up playing Gibson semi-hollow bodies. Berry needs to have one named after him.
We owe both a huge amount of thanks and respect.