When B.B. King was a boy growing up in Itta Bene, Miss., his first role model was the Rev. Archie Fair, a guitar-playing preacher at the local church. King sang in the gospel choir, and watching his charismatic preacher engaging the congregation each Sunday inspired him to step out on his own. On Saturdays, after a week spent picking cotton on the plantation, the 16-year-old King shouldered his guitar and walked into town. He had a favorite spot on a corner where he could catch the attention of both blacks and whites. It was there on the street that King discovered two distinct audiences for his music. “When I finished playing it, if it was a gospel song they would pat me on the head and the shoulders and they would applaud … but they didn’t put nothing in the hat,” he told a reporter the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph in 2009. “But the people who would ask me to play a blues would always put something in the hat. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.”
B.B. King will play his first concert in five years at the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga on Thursday, March 29. He’s 87 years old this year, and yet his motivation remains the same. When asked if he plans to retire, he likes to say, “If I stop, I don’t get paid.”
His concerts these days aren’t exactly like the one he played at The Regal Theatre in Chicago in 1966. Listening to the recording of that famous show is akin to eavesdropping on a church service. King may have chosen to sing the blues, but then as now, his voice is steeped in gospel tradition.
That show was among the last he played, starting in the late 1940s, on the so-called “chitlin circuit,” the small black theatres and clubs on the edges of cities and towns all over the South. By the mid-1960s musical tastes in the black community were changing. Young blacks were turning their backs on the blues, music they associated with suffering and servitude. But while many of King’s contemporaries from the Mississippi Delta had begun playing for young white audiences who were attracted to the Rousseau-like simplicity of the country blues played by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Bill Broonzy, King “fell between the cracks,” as he put it. His music was too urbane for that crowd.
Around the same time that King played the celebrated show at The Regal, one of his acolytes, Michael Bloomfield, was making a big splash with The Paul Butterfield Band in Chicago. King’s spare, stinging, single-note playing had been Bloomfield’s inspiration, and his embrace of the style finally brought King to the attention of the burgeoning rock audience of the late ’60s. Within a year of the show at The Regal he was playing at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
It was hardly the first time he’d played that venerable venue. Before Bill Graham took it over and began booking concerts for the largely white hippie community, the Fillmore had been a dance hall. But for King it was a jarring shift. He felt, he said in the same 2009 interview in The Telegraph, “like a cat surrounded by seven dogs.”
“I’d played the Fillmore when it was a black theatre,” he explained, “but this time when we pulled up I saw all these long-haired kids outside. I thought, ‘My agent’s made a mistake.’ See, once in a while I’d meet a white person who might say, ‘Boy, you sure is good,’ but I wasn’t aware that a lot of these kids had been listening to me.”