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.”
Within a year of that first show at the Fillmore, King had a huge Top-40 hit with “The Thrill Is Gone,” as well as a new manager who was booking him into not only the new rock halls, but also into the upscale venues on the supper-club circuit. Almost overnight he’d moved from the fringe to the mainstream. In 1969 he appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and soon after he was the first blues musician from the Mississippi Delta to play on “American Bandstand.”
When he’s asked to cite the people whose playing has influenced him, King often talks about Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. But it may well have been the legendary Freddie Green, the guitarist in Count Basie’s big bands of the late ’30s and ’40s, who wielded the greatest influence.
But in the end, it perhaps tells you all you need to know about King that despite having been billed as “The King of the Blues” for more than 50 years, he doesn’t think of himself as a blues singer. “I don’t try to be a blues singer—I try to be an entertainer,” he said in another recent interview. These days King entertains with stories as much as with songs, but the spirit of the Rev. Fair still remains alive and well in every night’s performance.
B.B. King with special guest Beverly McClellan
8 p.m - Thursday, March 29
Tivoli Theatre - 709 Broad St.
(423) 757-5050 chattanoogaonstage.com