Saturday, May 8, 2010

B.B. and C.B. (Three B's in a Pod)

I bought B.B. King’s autobiography years ago, skimmed it, dipping here and there, but never read it until last fall, after visiting Indianola, Mississippi during my 24 hour visit to the Mississippi Delta. At the time I didn’t know much about Indianola except for the name, which I recognized without knowing why. And I wound up stopping there largely to ask directions to Yazoo City. I was driving without much of a map, and the highways and byways of the Mississippi Delta can be confusing to a newcomer. So I stop at a little restaurant in what appears to be a restored cotton gin mill. It is shiny and bright. The menu is, too. I order a Chicken Philly sandwich and an iced tea. There’s a stage off to one side with amplifiers and a couple of guitars hanging from the wall. There are pictures and posters of B. B. King everywhere. One says “Welcome Home B. B.!” (I assume at the time it might be a rare occurrence for B. B. King to show up in Indianola.) Since my waitress seems to be sweet 16 and shy I get up to ask directions of the bar tender.

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:

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. (  (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. 

It’s interesting that two men with so much in common were ultimately so different.

I’ve seen them both a lot of times.

I last saw King about five years ago. He played at the Opera House in Seattle and (although he talked a lot more than in the old days, and played sitting down), he put on a polished performance consistent with what I’ve seen over the years ever since I first saw him in 1969 or 1970. He says in his book that he sees himself as a “rhythm and blues” performer, and takes pride in the power of his backup band. It shows. He has active management and says he likes being told what to do. Berry doesn't seem to like being told what to do.  He manages his business himself, with a bit of help.  His performances are more ragged and rebellious, pure rock and roll that, when I last saw him at Blueberry Hill, was boiled down to a hard core, garage type sound that was almost punk despite some pretty elegant backup. That night, at least, the guitar virtuosity was gone, but the power of the music, the voice and the charisma were definitely still there.
King keeps making good records. I've liked his last two a great deal-- both simple, straight forward blues records.  Berry seems to have kept recording, too, but he’s hiding it all from us for now.  I wish he'd put it out there-- but alas, that stubborn streak of his might keep us waiting a while.
Amazingly, both men are still going strong at 82 or 83, performing all over the world, taking their music out there the only way they really can, with live performance. In fact, Chuck Berry will play at B. B. King's New York club this June 25!  (
We owe both a huge amount of thanks and respect.

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