B.B. King The Authorised Biography
by Charles Sawyer
Published by Blandford Press
B.B. King is hardly a household name, yet ask any blues aficionado to name his three favourite artists and the chances are B.B. King will be in there.
The very word, 'blues' carries with it a snobbery by which it is often relegated to the lowest musical art form — a view held by many people, including musicians, even today — and, having adopted this music as his own, B.B. King has devoted his career to making it more acceptable.
The book, described by the author as a social biography, traces King's growth and upbringing from his days on a plantation farm through his 'arrival' in the 1960s to his present position of respected performer, 'King of the Blues'.
Sawyer confesses to having an axe to grind: "in telling B.B.'s story, I want to celebrate the death of Jim Crow, the mythic personification of racist segregation, the cancer afflicting the American soul on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line". References are further made throughout the book but if you are unaware of the significance you will hardly be any the wiser when you finish the book. This area is possibly of more concern to American readers who, some say, have not forgiven themselves for their past treatment of the 'blacks' but King's relationship with all his friends, employers, employees and associates in the early days (and, incidents, throughout his life) has always been extremely amiable. Sawyer says: "After thirty years as an entertainer, there are few people he has known who bear him any ill will..."
Insights into the resources and motivations of people, especially 'great' people and musicians and creative souls in particular, are always fascinating. B.B. King's decision to stay with the blues instead of branching out into jazz or more popular music was the rein which held him back as he fought the social and musical standards of the time. It was only his relentless stamina and durability which enabled him to survive an amazing life-style which involved more tours than a dozen bands combined. In 1956 he played 342 one night stands and he always accepted that his popularity rested mainly upon live performances.
Details of social patterns are essential in describing B.B. King's life and his eventual rise to musical recognition. The music and the man are inseparable and he is a result of his upbringing and experiences. The facts are noted plainly and fairly and Sawyer makes little attempt to pass judgement upon yesterday's standards; rather he sees himself as a historian and biographer and combines the two very successfully in this book.
Details of King's personal and moral standards are very clear but other aspects of his life, i.e. with his family are scant. Perhaps, being a friend, Sawyer declined to investigate or print this side of the man and concentrated the intimate details on his music.
The book contains over 80 photographs of B.B. King and those involved in his story and several appendices chronicle plantation life, lynchings, the problems of oral history and conversations with contemporaries of the man. There is also a detailed analysis of a B.B. King guitar solo and a detailed discography which lists the songs included on the numerous albums.
The blues is a branch if not a root of modern music and B.B. King is certainly instrumental in its growth and development. The details are recorded here and form an excellent story.
There's little doubt that the Old Grey Whistle Test has improved considerably since Anne Nightingale took over the limelight from whisperin' Bob Harris. This doesn't mean that I always support the horses that she backs — there have been some mind-bogglingly misguided eulogies at the end of some really inane sets in the OGWT studio — but, occasional touches of gaucherie apart, she's a good rock journalist with plenty of experience behind her.
'Chase the Fade' starts off with an introduction explaining how the lady was persuaded to put pen to paper, and succeeds in getting a camel through the eye of a needle seem child's play in comparison. And, whilst I think I appreciate her devotion to Binky, her outlando d'amour (alias Randy Grope, The Memphis Blueswailer, etc), I've never met him, seen him, or even heard of him before now, and so this review is, very definitely not for BOOBS, the British Organisation of Binky Supporters. Mind you, he can't be all that bad if he had the presence of mind to pour port and brandy over Tony Blackburn's head and write a single entitled 'Toe Knee Black Burn'.
The book also carries the subtitle 'Music, Memories & Memorabilia'. There's really very little in the way of the former, as Anne Nightingale has obviously decided that the 'genius' of those mentioned within this slim volume may be taken for granted. There is, however, oodles of the latter two and this makes for some good chuckles.
On the more serious side, there's her reaction to the death of Jimi Hendrix and the split of The Beatles. Judging by the attention she gives The Police in this book, she obviously regards them as those most likely to succeed in the way that The Beatles did almost fifteen years ago. I think she's on a safe bet, there, but the excess of adulation and lack of criticism is somewhat wearisome. Still, I don't suppose that it's really on to accompany a group like Sting & Co. on their world tour and then bite the hand that fed you.
Disregarding any musical comparisons between The Beatles and The Police, one aspect of The Beatles experience that would be hard to envisage today was their short-lived excursion into egalitarianism, the ill-fated Apple Corp. Ltd, an organisation which one commentator saw as a real-life magical mystery tour.
As Anne Nightingale says, "Apple wasn't a place, it was an experience. I believe they really intended it to work like a dream factory. Their dreams had worked — they were the four most famous people in the world — so why not help other people achieve their ambitions?" The early Seventies saw the collapse of the Apple empire in a cloud of lawsuits, and Anne Nightingale moved from the Sunday Splash side of journalism to the respectable slot of a Sunday request show at the Beeb (no causal connection implied). In her time in the corridors of power at Radio 1, she made life difficult for herself on more than one occasion: there was the time when she bet Joe Strummer of The Clash a Cadillac that 'London Calling' would make the Top Ten (he won); and there was the slight contretemps between the airwaves and some frightfully naughty words as a result of her playing the track 'Star Star' from an album by The Rolling Stones.
All this seems tame in comparison to the antics of Keith Moon, The Who's indefatigable drummer, which she recounts with relish: "Another of Moon's combination stunts required someone to dress up as a vicar and stand at a crowded bus stop. Then he'd drive up in the car, jump out and mug the vicar, and pull him into the car and drive off." Très amusant, as she would say. I enjoyed this book. It's hardly a reference book to past decades of rock music, and it is full of the sort of hyperbole that only rock journalists seem to be able to get away with, but it is fun, and who's complaining about that?
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