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!