Saturday, February 20, 2016

American Masters: B. B. King (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a show KPBS aired between 11 p.m. and midnight — a woefully late time slot that I’m now stuck with given the change in our cable-TV service that makes my DVD recorders totally inoperative and means I can watch a show exactly when it airs, and at no other time (unless I want to try the ordeal of viewing it online — which, judging from past experience, means about two seconds of signal followed by five minutes of “buffering,” whatever that means, ad nauseam until I get fed up with the experience and quit) — an American Masters episode on B. B. King, directed by Jon Brewer (I can’t find an online listing for the rest of the cast and crew, either on PBS’s Web site or, though the PBS site said the program first aired February 12, 2016). King’s was one of the biggest deaths in the musical world last year, though since he was 89 and had long since become old, rich and famous playing the blues (quite remarkable given the usual trajectory of a blues musician’s career; even more than jazz or rock, blues is littered with musicians who died young, often of tuberculosis or some other relatively treatable condition they didn’t have the money to get medical attention for until it was too late, and even the ones who survived to an old age generally developed reputations only among the cognoscenti and died in obscurity and penury).

Since the show was only an hour long, there were certain things they couldn’t do — like actually show B. B. King play a whole song, start to finish — and others they chose not to (like King’s recording contracts — in one sequence label scans from his early records on Jim Bulleit’s Bullet label and the Bihari brothers’ R.P.M. are shown, but there’s no account of King’s history as a recording artist: he signed with the Bihari brothers, founders of the L.A.-based Modern Records, released mostly on their Kent label and would have stayed there indefinitely until the Biharis decided to release all their LP’s on a super-budget label called Crown; in 1961 King jumped to ABC Records, which at first marketed him only as a singer, covering songs like Jesse Belvin’s “Guess Who,” but eventually realized what they had as a singer and guitarist and, after the crossover success of his 1964 album Live at the Regal, started an entirely new imprint, Bluesway Records, to record him and the other blues artists they were attracting in the wake of King’s success, including such veterans of the 1940’s and 1950’s rhythm-and-blues scene as T-Bone Walker and the amazing Roy Brown; since then ABC has been absorbed by MCA and since spun off as Universal Music, but King remained under contract to them and continued to record until he died). But what they did do was tell B. B. King’s life story mostly in interviews with King himself (from various points in his career, as you can tell from the changes in his appearance as he got visibly older and heavier, and also because some of the clips are in black-and-white and some are in color) as well as musicians who either worked with him or were influenced by him: Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman; John Mayall; Eric Clapton; Bonnie Raitt; Dr. John; Ringo Starr (who recorded with King on the quite lovely 1971 album B. B. King in London, with MCA capitalizing on a fad Chess Records had begun with the Fathers and Sons album in 1969 by pairing Black blues musicians with the white players they had influenced) and record producer Bill Szymczyk, who’s best known for his work with the Eagles but did King’s albums even before he hooked up with the Eagles and was behind the boards for King’s all-time biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” from his 1969 album Completely Well.

What comes off most strongly in this documentary is King’s incredible modesty; he recalls his journey from plantation life with his family in Indianola, Mississippi (one of his albums was called Indianola Mississippi Seeds and the cover was a half of a watermelon, equipped with a fretboard and strings to make it look like a guitar, plugged into an amp) to Memphis, Tennessee (as our friend Garry Hobbs pointed out, Elvis Presley also began in Mississippi and moved to Memphis, but Elvis was brought to Memphis by his family when he was still a kid while King emigrated there as a young adult), where he was overwhelmed by the blues talent he heard. Among the biggest influences on King was his cousin Bukka White (the first name was short for “Booker” and the full name on his birth certificate was Booker T. Washington White), who was a master at slide guitar and tried to teach it to King. King admits that he never learned slide, but in order to simulate slide guitar he developed the killer finger vibrato style he called “twanging” and which became his trademark. Clapton and quite a few of the other interviewees are quoted as saying you can recognize B. B. King just by hearing one note, and it’s the heavy “twanging” vibrato he used when he fretted that made him so instantly recognizable. King also admitted he couldn’t strum chords — there’s a sequence from U2’s film Rattle and Hum showing Bono teaching King the song they’d written for him, “When Love Comes to Town,” and trying to teach him the chords. “I don’t know from chords,” King said, and proceeded to play a beautiful “twanging” solo on the song (maybe he couldn’t have played rhythm guitar to save his life, but he could pick up the changes by ear and improvise on them) and sing an impassioned vocal — and he said the experience of recording an album with Clapton was great except for Clapton’s attempt to get him to play acoustic guitar. (Like a later musician, Jimi Hendrix, King’s style was dependent on the sustaining quality of the electric guitar.) The show mentioned some of the quirkier influences on King as well as the more expected ones; in addition to T-Bone Walker (who came up in Oklahoma City and studied jazz guitar with the young Charlie Christian, then decided that playing blues would pay better than playing jazz, and developed a lot of the stage fireworks, including playing with the guitar behind his back and picking the strings with his teeth, that Jimi Hendrix, who saw Walker when he was in bands that opened for him on the chitlin’ circuit, later copied and which became his trademarks) there was Django Reinhardt, the French-Belgian Gypsy guitarist from the 1930’s and 1940’s who, along with Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian, was one of the founding fathers of jazz guitar but whose incredible style also influenced people like King and Willie Nelson who weren’t jazz artists.

Over and over again in the interview clips King adopts an aw-shucks, I’m-not-that-great attitude that’s quite a lot more appealing than the braggadocio all too many musicians fall into — and King’s music reflects that part of his personality; instead of being assertive and ballsy the way Howlin’ Wolf was, King’s music slyly sneaks up on you. You can listen to him and hear a quite good singer backing himself up with a decent but unspectacular-sounding guitar — he wasn’t a virtuoso the way Walker and Hendrix were — and then he’ll hurl out a vocal line or play a phrase on the guitar that spins you around and makes you ask, “What the hell was that?” B. B. King is the sort of artist you mourn but aren’t necessarily that sad to see go — he had a very long life and achieved pretty much all he wanted to, though as this show dramatizes the price of becoming old, rich and famous singing the blues was almost constant touring. His marriages broke up because he was literally never home — one year he actually played 365 days! — and he rather laconically said that the life of a touring musician was not conducive to having a wife and family. (That’s why a lot of the best musicians in the 1950’s and 1960’s went into studio work; maybe no one would ever hear of them again because they’d be anonymous, but at least they got to live in one place and come home once in a while to their spouses and children.) The American Masters episode on King was a pleasant surprise — though a full two hours that actually ran long enough to show him play some songs complete, start to finish, might have been better — and director Brewer, who worked with the B. B. King museum in Indianola and apparently had the full cooperation of King himself during the last two years of his life, adopted a low-keyed approach just right for the low-keyed but still impassioned art of his subject.