B. B. King, Baltimore Riots, and the Poetry of the Blues.

By Chris Thomas King

The passing of B. B. King is sadly the end of an era. On September 30, 2005 Buddy Guy and I performed at an intimate concert and dinner in honor of our friend and mentor, B. B. King. The celebration was held at a private residence in Los Angeles, California. It was King’s 80th birthday, a joyous occasion that also raised money to help open the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi. I was asked to serve on a board of researchers for the museum. I am honored to have helped illuminate the story of B. B. King, a true American story.

Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Chris Thomas King Los Angeles 2005. Photo by John Heller

The blues, which began in New Orleans in the 1890s with Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong, was originally upbeat bawdy dance music but featured the occasional slow-drag. B. B. King, however, carved his niche in its historiography by specializing in the blues ballad. His songs were songs of pain and longing, down-tempo meditations on unrequited female love. His poetry on the surface worshiped women but the double entendre of his songs such as, “Ghetto Woman,” “Chains and Things,” and “Why I Sing The Blues,” also suggested a cry for racial equality:

When I first got the blues, They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me, And a lot more with a whip
And everybody wanna know, Why I sing the blues
Well, I've been around a long time, I've really paid my dues
I've laid in a ghetto flat, Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs, To give the roaches some
Everybody wanna know, Why I'm singing the blues
Yes, I've been around a long time, People, I've really paid my dues

For decades, King was relegated to the chitlin circuit. His crossover to a white audience began in the late sixties. “The Thrill Is Gone,” a rewrite of an old standard composed in 1951 by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell —Darnell was a close friend and writing partner of my father, the late bluesman, Tabby Thomas—solidified his crossover. The song became King’s signature hit in 1970. I rewrote “The Thrill Is Gone” as a socially conscious blues about my decaying and forgotten neighborhood—I was living in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans at the time. 

On my rap version, “Da Thrill Is Gone, From Here,” I invited my dad to sing a duet while I rapped and played guitar: 

Everyday that goes by it seem to get worst, What happened to my hood?
There must’ve been a curse
Liquor stores the only thing left, only trade is selling drugs or theft
They say it takes a village just to raise a child 
But here in the ghetto you know they running wild
Not long ago back in the days, use to have a different way of trying to get paid
And if you got crossed and had to scrap, just a fist fight and that was that
But in the 21st century it's the wild, wild west, can’t leave home without a bullet proof vest
Da thrill is gone, da thrill is gone away from here
Da thrill is gone, thrill is gone away
Da thrill is gone, thrill is gone, thrill is gone away  

B. B. King once told me it hurt him deeply when young blacks in the sixties booed whenever he was introduced on bills with what was deemed to be more progressive soul and rhythm and blues acts, like James Brown. The elite African-American class looked down on the Blues Boy (hence B. B.), a former sharecropper with an 8th-grade education. In the early ’70s, most blacks turned a cold shoulder to the blues and have never looked back. "Being a blues singer is like being black twice," B. B. King said in his book, Blues All Around Me. "While the civil rights movement was fighting for the respect of black people, I felt I was fighting for the respect of the blues."

The early blues, once neither singable nor playable by whites, has gradually become a white musical art, formularized, codified and transformed according to white esthetics. The blues exists today merely for white cultural consumption.

It has always befuddled me, how erudite blacks, who claim empathy for the less educated class left behind in decaying cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, can turn their backs on the art and culture of poor black communities.

Although B. B. King reached worldwide acclaim, dining with Queens, Presidents, and Popes, he continued to perform for prison inmates. King used his gift to help bring a little hope to those ensnared in the prison industrial complex. “Live in Cook County Jail,” recorded in 1971 in the Cook County Prison in Chicago, Illinois, is a great example of his commitment to accentuating the humanity of poor people of color. 

There has been much debate lately about the broken prison system—sometimes referred to as the “New Jim Crow,” also the title of a notable book by the scholar, Michelle Alexander. However, we blues artists have written an exhaustive dossier of poetry on the conundrum, which dates back to the late 19th century, the start of the convict leasing system. The poetry that spring’s from poor black neighborhoods, such as Ferguson and Baltimore, is often crude when unfiltered by polite society. But it is also beautifully honest, unapologetic, and bursting with ageless wisdom.

Billy Holliday, once a young harlot in a Baltimore brothel, transformed her life through the poetry of the blues. Lady Day inspired us all with her recording of the poem, “Strange Fruit,” released in 1939. Holliday’s controversial protest song about lynching continues to echo 71 years later over the ashes of Baltimore. 

Booker T. Washington White, B. B. King’s cousin, in 1940 sang about the barbarous Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman Farm:

Judge give me life this morning, down on Parchman Farm (repeat)
I wouldn’t hate it so bad, but I left my wife alone
Oh, good by wife, all you have done gone (repeat) 
But I hope someday you will tell my lonesome song

Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, infamous for its cruelty, was the most notorious prison in America. Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, and bluesman, Robert Pete Williams, both did hard time on The Farm and lived to sing about it. Leadbelly recorded “Midnight Special” in 1934 while still an inmate: 

Yonder comes Miss Rosie. How in the world do you know?
Well, I know her by the apron and the dress she wore.
Umbrella on her shoulder, a piece of paper in her hand,
Well, she come to tell the Captain, "Turn a-loose my man."
Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me.
Oh, let the Midnight Special shine her ever lovin' light on me

Midnight Special is said to be a reference to a passenger train that would depart from Houston, Texas, at midnight and steam past the nearby Sugar Land Prison. Every “Candy” Land prisoner longed to steal away on that train to freedom.

Much could be gained by studying the music and poetry of the blues. The unrefined poetry of the blues is the quintessential literature of a class of people marginalized and antagonized by mainstream society. In many ways, the blues was the social-media phenomenon of the 20th century.

B. B. King loved women, but no woman could ever steal B. B. King away from Lucille, the love of his life. Many times I stood backstage and watched him enthrall a crowd. B. B. King, the master showman, standing center stage, beads of sweat dripping from his brow, face grimaced, twisted, and contorted with joy. He would pull on Lucille’s pure nickel strings as if his life depended on it. B. B. King would stretch each note until Lucille screamed with passion. Each note, so carefully chosen, helped to create his unmistakable signature sound. 

Astute note selection is an indelible signature of the blues. It’s the age old credo instilled in the young Louis Armstrong by King Oliver, one of the earliest trumpet king of New Orleans. Guitarist Lonnie Johnson, one of B. B. King’s earliest influences, was the first to transpose this monophonic, or singing note philosophy, to the guitar. There are rare exceptional blues musicians such as, Charlie Parker, who could turn density into soulful expression; however, I have always chosen to perform my music—like B. B. King— with an artful measure. Muted trumpet and astute note selection also distinguished Miles Davis’ successful late 1950s albums from earlier dense bebop recordings. B. B. King knew that three or four notes expressed with various bends, pulls and sustained vibrato, best-expressed one's essence to the listener. Penetrating emotionally, rather than a less discerning guitar solo, which takes the long meandering road. 

I couldn’t help but wonder over the years, time and again if I were watching the aging master for the final time. It was always obvious, whenever I had the pleasure of spending a private moment with the King, that I was in the presence of someone very special. 

In New Orleans, we have what is known as jazz funerals. Customarily, my family and closest friends follow the ensemble playing melancholy dirges during the procession to the cemetery. Once there, we say our last goodbyes to our dearly departed. It’s a time to mourn.

However, as we return from the burial, it’s a time to dance. The parading band strikes up a joyful refrain. Their spicy rhythm inspires friends, supporters and partygoers to form a second-line. Everyone joins in a celebration of life. Long live Riley B. King!

Louisiana Must Build Its Own National Blues Museum

By Chris Thomas King

I’m astonished and embarrassed at the lack of interest I’ve encountered in the preservation of Louisiana blues, an enlightened music. The blues was born here in Louisiana, before subsequently inspiring the world. Freedom of expression is an American virtue; it is also the very essence of the blues, America’s music.

As a blues artist from Louisiana, it is incumbent upon me to organize a campaign to build a National Louisiana Blues Museum. Any reasonable examination of the facts proves Louisiana is its birthplace. Consequently, we deserve to have the finest of all blues museums, one that will attract tourists the world over.

Fletcher Henderson Orchestra w/ Louis Armstrong

What is wrong with Louisiana when it comes to celebrating one of its greatest artistic achievements? In my travels, I have witnessed the financial investments others have made to appropriate our culture. Later this year, St. Louis will open a new, $14 million National Blues Museum. A $3 million Blues Hall of Fame will open soon in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. Good for them. I helped B.B. King raise millions of dollars for his B.B. King Museum in Mississippi — a state heavily invested in the blues as an international tourist attraction with great success. Furthermore, Mississippi is also building a $15 million dollar Grammy Museum. The Grammys did not originate in Mississippi, but the blues did begin in New Orleans, which is why our lack of effort is bewildering. Here in Louisiana, there hasn’t been as much as a whisper to reclaim our homegrown culture.

It is beyond the scope of this writing to cite numerous documents, court records and facts to prove or disprove the origin of the blues. However, my extensive research will be published soon in a new book I’m writing.

The Cliff notes summary is as follows: The blues began around 1895 in New Orleans with Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and master guitarist Lonnie Johnson, to name only a few. It continued over the years with the likes of Leadbelly, Professor Longhair and Clifton Chenier. The blues began in black communities; however, the first phonograph blues record, “Livery Stable Blues,” was recorded by a white New Orleans band, the controversial, Original Dixieland Jass [sic] Band, in 1917.

New Orleans blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson 

New Orleans blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson 

St. Louis and Memphis cling to songs such as “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues,” both written by trumpeter W. C. Handy, as their claim to fame. But musicologist Ted Gioia questioned those claims in his recent book, “The History of Jazz”: “W.C. Handy may be lauded by his admirers as the ‘Father of the Blues,’ but he never encountered this style of music until around 1903, when Bolden was already twenty-five years old. … Bolden was likely incorporating the blues sensibility and structure into his music around this same time.”

I believe the museum should be a “living” museum, one that features a hall for live performances. Live music is fundamental to the way we express ourselves. Live concerts would tell our ongoing story in real time, a role the original Tabby’s Blues Box, my dad’s famous ramshackle juke joint in Baton Rouge, once played before it was razed in 1999. Through music and dance, Tabby’s had helped to bring our fractured community from post-Civil Rights-era race riots to the door of America’s promise and Martin Luther King’s dream. However, despite its significant cultural impact, it was not allowed to enter the promise of the 21st Century. I’ve been approached many times by investors to open a new Tabby’s. Some of those propositions have been tempting. But I’ve concluded that the best way to continue the spirit of Tabby’s is through a nonprofit entity.

Regardless of the location for this projected $15 million museum, I plan to raise awareness and support for my idea across the entire state, through speaking engagements, lectures and performances. It’s the main goal of the Chris Thomas King Foundation, with support by the Tipitina’s Foundation of New Orleans.

We Louisiana artists should not be forced to acquiesce the role of sidekick in the folklore of museums in Mississippi, Tennessee or Missouri. We deserve to play the protagonist in our great American story — in our own National Louisiana Blues Museum.


New Orleans Music Direct-to-Disk

By Chris Thomas King

The other night I was hosting some friends from out of town. I was playing tour guide to the "real" New Orleans—beyond Bourbon Street— as we locals would have it. While we were passing time for an hour wait for dinner at the popular Carrollton neighborhood restaurant Jacque-Imo's, we walked to a nearby sushi bar for drinks. The gentleman sitting next to us said hello, and without pause, began raving about bassist, George Porter Jr., who was due on stage at the Maple Leaf next door around midnight. The gregarious gentleman ran off a list of clubs my guests should visit and bands they should see. Then he said one band in particular sounded special because, "they use gated microphones!" There were blank stares on the faces of my guests. After a puzzled pause, one asked, "What is a gated microphone?" As the friendly gentleman began to explain the technicalities, my mind wondered.

I began thinking about a call I received from producer Chad Kassem, of Analogue Productions, in the autumn of 2013. I was asked to travel to Kansas to record Direct-to-Disc—not to be confused with today's computer hard drives. I wistfully thought of that scene in O Brother Where Art Thou, wherein, as one of the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys, I was asked to sing into a can by a frayed sightless old record man. The can was a protruding tinhorn attached to a gramophone. During a typical old-time recording session, sound waves would emanate through the tinhorn and vibrate the gramophone stylus, which would then etch a musical groove into a rotating wax disc, instantly creating a phonograph record. Direct-to-Disc as the process became known, predated the use of tape and was standard procedure by the 1930s. The Kansas session would be an extraordinary experience. I was intrigued to say the least.

I must admit I'm neurotic about the recording process. In my studio, which is equipped with analog gear as well as today's industry standard Pro Tools. I can easily accommodate over 100 tracks of digital recording. The problem I often have is too many choices. Sometimes it takes weeks for me to decide which plectrum to use with which microphone. After testing every microphone and plectrum combination in my studio, I occasionally lose the original inspiration and excitement I first had when I began the process. An inspired performance is essential for anyone to create a great recording.

I seized the chance to leave behind the somewhat paralyzing conundrum of infinite options afforded in the digital recording studio, to become virtually transported back to an unobtrusive immediate analog method. It was a dream come true as if I'd died and gone to blues heaven. As it turns out, that's precisely where the recording session took place, in Blues Heaven Studios, which is located in a venerable converted church, in Salina, Kansas.

I have long treasured historic Direct-to-Disc recordings. The Bristol, Tennessee recording sessions of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers, produced by Ralph Peer, changed the course of music. As did the red-hot blues recordings of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five in Chicago. The Direct-to-Disc recordings by John Lomax—in metropolitan Baton Rouge's Angola State Prison—of Huddie Ledbetter, likewise, have also been greatly influential. Before these early recordings the only way one could hear these great musicians was to be within earshot while they performed live.

My Direct-to-Disc session does not merit such historical significance, but neither did these sessions in real-time. Future generations will ultimately decide its connotations. Nevertheless, it was a delight to document my current New Orleans acoustic folk performance through the purest recording process known today. No retakes, no overdubs, no plugins and—lol— no gated microphones. Only my J-45 Gibson guitar, vocal, and the ethereal reverb from hallowed church walls, is etched into the 200-gram vinyl disc.

We in Louisiana have a long colorful and influential musical history. Our live music scene has no peers—sorry Austin. However, New Orleans is not well known for capturing great recordings of its native musicians. Visiting artists, from Little Richard to Bob Dylan, has made many great recordings in our studios over the years. Furthermore, New Orleans has had some fine studios in the past, such as, J&M and Ultrasonic. Today The Shed is one of our last remaining great rooms. Nevertheless the art of the great studio recording remains elusive to many of us who may have mastered the art of live performance over the years. The greatest recordings of New Orleans music reside in our collective memories, the soundtrack to good times we’ve had grooving in the cities’ joints.

Nowhere else could you meet a random stranger in a restaurant and within two minutes you're deep in conversation about a myriad local bands and “gated microphones.” There is no “gated microphone” or dynamic processing used in my Direct-to-Disc (D2D) recording. My movements and recording techniques controlled all dynamics. By the way, a “Noise Gate” is a dynamic processor that is commonplace in live joints, George Porter, Jr., may have used one on his microphones at the Maple Leaf that night.

We toasted the city and said good-bye to our new friend before enjoying a splendid dinner at Jacque-Imo’s. It was well worth the wait. Although I’m mostly vegetarian, the decadence of our shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake appetizer, was delightfully luscious. We joint hopped the rest of the night, enjoying dozens of live bands until the wee hours of the morning. My guests left town with an indelible New Orleans soundtrack in their collective memories, which sadly, cannot be shared with their friends back home. A Direct-to-Disc[1] recording would have been the perfect postcard, the next best thing to being there.

[1] Notes: My new limited vinyl LP “D2D” (APO Records/Acoustic Sounds) is essentially an offering to my most loyal fans. It is my hope they will experience great listening pleasure from it. I presume record collectors and audiophiles will also be very pleased with the care Blues Heaven engineers has taken to produce such genuine vinyl results. The LP is now available for order from (acousticsounds.com). I was asked to sing into a can by Blues Heaven Productions on October 13, 2013. They documented a little piece of my heart, and preserved it for music fans all over, and for that I am gratified.