WHAT a performance. And WHAT an audience. The mood – the back and forth – the communication going on – not just from up on the stage, but coming back at him from the crowd – is what live performance (and the blues) are all about.
Today is the birthday of legendary bluesman B.B. King, who died in 2015 at the age of 89. He had a six-decade career. He toured constantly, almost up until the very end.
Here’s one of my favorite live clips. Watch how King builds it. And listen to that guitar. One of the most eloquent guitars ever.
B.B. King was interviewed for the PBS oral histories “American Roots Music,” and it’s a goldmine. He was asked about Bo Diddley and Elvis and Little Richard and what these people meant for him and other blues musicians. His response is eloquent.
I never thought of it that way because, see, Little Richard played some blues; Elvis — believe it or not — played some blues; all of these guys. And I wondered why they called them rock and roll. The only reason I could see was because they were white. I couldn’t see any other reason why they were rock ‘n roll, ’cause a lot of the black guys was doing the same thing they were doing. So the only difference was sort of like the records when we first started making records. They would have “race records,” you know, if the dude was black. That’s a black one right there. If it’s pop, that’s a white one right there, and that was the difference. But when rock ‘n roll started, in my opinion – I said in my opinion – Little Richard had been doing some of the same things I heard the Rolling Stones doing. Fats Domino had been out – his way, his style – but he was doing the same changes and progressions that these guys were doing. The only difference I saw was white and black. I don’t know if it was done because of prejudice. I didn’t think of it that way, but I thought of it “Okay, that’s a white guy there; he’s rock ‘n roll. That’s a black guy over there; he’s playing the blues.” ‘Cause they hadn’t, for some reason, thought of soul at the time. These guys obviously didn’t have any soul. They called guys like me rhythm and blues, so somewhere along the line I guess I lost my rhythm! [And I] wind up here – just the blues, you know. To answer your question, I didn’t think anything other than we had more [people] on the scene. The more, the merrier – especially when you started having the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and many guys like that. Would you believe that the Beatles helped open a lot of doors for blues players like myself?
Here’s BB King and Elvis, in December, 1956, backstage at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium at a fund-raising event hosted by WDIA radio station, a black-owned and black-run radio station.
The funds raised went to “needy Negro children.” Presley was there that night to support, and it was a moment almost unthinkable in that day/age. The symbolism was lost on nobody there. By December 1956, Elvis was the biggest name in the country. He had a hit movie to his name. He was a millionaire.
BB King wrote in his autobiography:
The entire black community turned out. All the DJs carried on, putting on skits and presenting good music. When Elvis appeared, he was already a big, big star. Remember this was the ’50s, so for a young white boy to show up in an all-black function took guts. I believe he was showing his roots and he seemed proud of those roots. After the show he made a point of posing for pictures with me, treating me like royalty. He’d tell people I was one of his influences. I doubt whether that’s true but I like hearing Elvis give Memphis credit for his musical upbringing.
And because my site is what it is, here is a lengthy quote from a 2010 interview with BB King about Elvis, and the persistent accusations of Elvis’ racism. Let’s listen to what BB King had to say about all that.
Let me tell you the definitive truth about Elvis Presley and racism. With Elvis, there was not a single drop of racism in that man. And when I say that, believe me I should know. All of our influences had something in common. We were born poor in Mississippi, went through poor childhoods and we learned and earned our way through music. You see, I talked with Elvis about music early on, and I know one of the big things in heart was this: Music is owned by the whole universe. It isn’t exclusive to the black man or the white man or any other color. It shared in and by our souls. I told Elvis once, and he told me he remembered I told him this, is that music is like water. Water is for every living person and every living thing. Water from the white fountain don’t taste any better than from the black fountain. We just need to share it, that’s all. You see, Elvis knew this and I know this.
Many people make the mistake of being wrong about all of this. If you ask anyone, I’m talking about people from all kinds of music – Blues, Soul, Country, Gospel, whatever – and if they are honest with you and have been around long enough to know—they’ll thank Elvis for his contributions. He opened many doors and by all his actions, not just his words, he showed his love for all people.
People don’t realize that when ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ was first played (by Dewey Phillips in July 1954) no one had ever heard anything like that record. It wasn’t just country. It was Rhythm and Blues. It was Pop music. It was music for everybody. This is important.
I was barely 11 years old, when one of the greatest influences of my life, Robert Johnson, was recording just across the street from this theater recording his first ever songs. Johnson came from the same dirt Elvis and so many of us did. It was the world of sharecropping, and to survive that hard work bending over all day long, there would be plenty of singing. Elvis’ momma and daddy did their share of it – both the picking and the singing. It was called survival. It was called life. It was just as important to us as water. It was as important to those of us who had it in our souls as the water.
The other big influence was Jimmie Rodgers. Some people want to say he was the Father of Country Music, but like Elvis, he was more than that. He was a big influence on not just me. I used to listen to my aunt’s records of Jimmie Rodgers and that was a real treat. I liked that ‘Mississippi Delta Blues’ and to listen to him yodel. I never did yodel, but Jimmie Rodgers could sure yodel. He was very good at it. But yes, he influenced more than country music, he influenced Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters as much as he did Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson. See, Elvis did that too, but only much wider. Elvis influenced everybody’s music and it was for the good of all of us.
Now, where did Jimmie Rodgers learn his music from? He learned it working alongside the black railroad workers and hobos. Elvis lived and played with black children back in Mississippi. He told me that when he was just a baby and his mama had to work, he was cared for sometimes by his grandmamma, but mostly by a neighbor black lady.
People today will say things about Elvis they just don’t know about. They want to say this is black music, this is white music, this is country music. But when Elvis came along all that was suddenly washed down the drain.
Back in ’72, Elvis helped me get a good gig at the Hilton Hotel while he was playing in the big theater. He put in a call for me and I worked in the lounge to standing room only. Elvis fans came in different colors but their love of good music was all the same. They were always a good audience.
Many nights I’d go upstairs after we finished our sets and go up to his suite. I’d play Lucille and sing with Elvis, or we’d take turns. It was his way of relaxing.
I’ll tell you a secret. We were the original Blues Brothers because that man knew more blues songs than most in the business – and after some nights it felt like we sang every one of them. But my point is, that when we were hanging out in the Hilton in the 70s, Elvis had not lost his respect, his “yes sir,” his love for all fields of music. And I liked that.
If anyone says Elvis Presley was a racist, then they don’t know a thing about Elvis Presley or music history.
B.B. King had so many fruitful collaborations with other artists. In closing, I love his stuff with Stevie Ray Vaughan.