By the summer of 2007, B.B. King had long become something of a museum piece, the last great delta bluesman alive and kicking.
He was headlining a show in downtown Baltimore, and I was assigned to review it. The audience was predominantly white, which was no surprise to me. And if King had noticed it while sitting onstage under the spotlight, it probably didn’t surprise him, either.
A middle-aged couple in front of me had brought their two children; both looked younger than 10. The father pointed to King, and said to his son, “He’s the great bluesman.” The boy nodded as though he were in a classroom. And essentially we all were, as King regaled us with stories about travel, playing his beloved guitar “Lucille” and living and breathing the blues.
King’s coveted place in the American pop pantheon, the elder statesman of blues authenticity, has been cemented for decades. The 88-year-old legend will perform Tuesday at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto. Opening will be Poorhouse Millionaires.
“Rock Me Baby,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “The Thrill Is Gone” – several of King’s hits have long become standards. And no one who has picked up a guitar in the worlds of pop and rock in the last half century has escaped his influence. Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and John Mayer all owe huge debts to the searing and always deeply soulful style King pulls from Lucille.
He has outlived all of his blues contemporaries and rivals, including John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Whereas those guys became almost mythic legends after they died, King has lived to reap the rewards of many years of toiling and touring.
He travels in luxury on a custom-made bus with buttery leather seats and plasma screen TVs. He’s sold platinum albums and taken home 15 Grammys. He has made enough money to cover the bills of fellow artists who had fallen on hard times, including his friend and Portsmouth soul pioneer Ruth Brown.
But as King has rightfully earned his place among the blues elite, the people to whom he had always felt a special allegiance are hardly ever in the audience when he shows up to sing and pick Lucille. And it’s been that way for years.
The black working-class folks who supported King’s career and challenged his artistry early on abandoned him, even booed him, years before he found crossover fame in the 1970s.
That rich formative time of King’s career – incubated in juke joints, clubs and theaters patronized exclusively by blacks during the Jim Crow era – is “disremembered,” to borrow a phrase from author Toni Morrison.
Those places and faces down in Memphis and New Orleans, up in Harlem and Newark, N.J., are long gone. That era, roughly between 1949 and 1960 when King’s career took shape, is well documented with haunting sepia photographs and glorious analog recordings – a seemingly far-away time that’s also interspersed with painful memories of segregation and bloody civil rights marches.
King is an embodiment of that history, the peak years of the Great Migration and the brutal caste system of his childhood in Mississippi, all of which inform the urbane and rustic qualities of his music.
But as blacks pushed to become more integrated into the mainstream in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and as the music of Motown echoed a new black modernity, King and other irrevocable bluesmen noticed an abrupt change in the audience.
A 1998 profile in Rolling Stone magazine vividly detailed a show in the early ’60s at Baltimore’s Royal Theater, a hot spot on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
“The pretty men are all on the bill, sixties soul singers so handsome, so clean in soft alpaca and vented sharkskin: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Drifters. B.B.’s capable band backs them all; from backstage, he hears the screeching – the kind of uncontrolled, love-me-thrill-me-take-me female wailing that a man only dreams of. Finally, the blues singer is introduced, and those pretty little things are booing. B.B. dresses sharp, but he does not look pretty when he plays, and Lucille makes him grimace, wince and go all guppy-mouthed. Louder comes their cruel descant: Booooooooo. Tears are rolling down his cheeks as he sings “Sweet Sixteen.” He cries hardest when he reaches this line: “Treat me mean, but I’ll keep on loving you just the same. … One of these days you’ll give a lot of money to hear someone call my name.”
King later got his payback when he became a huge star, selling millions of records and playing much bigger and more prestigious venues around the world. But it hurt him, the cruelty from people who looked like him.
“I guess they saw the tears. And they applauded me,” King said in that Rolling Stone interview. “But that one time, I was hurt like never before. I’ve felt it many times, been cut down to size for being a blues singer.”
He wasn’t the only blues artist in the 1960s to see his audience change from wall-to-wall black to predominantly young and white. In the early ’60s when folk became the protest music of young white America and a scrawny songwriter-musician from Minnesota named Bob Dylan became its beacon, aging blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Rosetta Tharpe were enthusiastically embraced by that crowd. They were revered by the likes of Dylan, who name-checked them in interviews.
Folk enthusiasts gravitated toward what they felt was an “authentic” expression of black music, which to them was best captured in strident, unvarnished, pain-steeped delta blues. And that has more or less been the style template for white blues purists ever since.
But King never neatly fit into that group, and was able to establish a sound of his own that remembered the delta as it folded in elements of jazz, uptown soul and middle-of-the-road pop.
“Blues purists have never cared for me anyway,” King said in that Rolling Stone interview. “I don’t worry about it. I think of it this way: When I made ‘Three O’Clock Blues’ (his first hit on the R&B charts, in 1951), they were not there. They were not. The people out there made the tune. And blues purists just wrote about it. The people is who I’m trying to satisfy.”
Those who seem to be the most satisfied still pack airy venues to see the last great delta blues king. But years have passed since the majority of that audience resembled the man wincing behind his wailing guitar.