B.B. King of the Blues

Documentary ‘The Life of Riley’ out on DVD

Jul. 17, 2014
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B.B. King has been called the “King of the Blues,” and not simply because of his surname. The documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley (out on DVD and Blu-ray) contains enough vintage concert footage to show that the man really had the royal touch. He wasn’t necessarily playing fast and fancy. It was the emotion he evoked as he transmuted the joy, frustration and fear of his life into musical gold.

Riley B. King was born in 1925 in a leaky-roofed sharecropper’s shack in the Mississippi Delta and discovered a love of music early on. As chronicled by director Jon Brewer (and narrated by Morgan Freeman), King embarked on an endless road trip with his large band even before he bought his first tour bus in 1955. During the early years of segregation, King played almost exclusively to black audiences on the “chitlin’ circuit” of bars and theaters that looped across the U.S. Often the band had to sleep in the homes of fans or eat cold beans and crackers on the bus when no other accommodations were open to them. One night a bomb blew up in the next room of a blacks-only motel where the band repaired for the night. The terrorists were trying to kill another King, Martin Luther King, Jr., who was sleeping a few doors down.

The elegance of his guitar playing may have been tailored from his influences. The still vibrant subject of The Life of Riley talks about the blues—especially T-Bone Walker, Elmore James and Blind Lemon Jefferson—but also such seminal jazz guitarists as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. His genius was to make his playing his own—to say it all with a few notes.

The Life of Riley is studded with the testimonials of a multi-generational cast of stars, from Eric Clapton to Bono and John Mayer. Maybe the most memorable comes from Johnny Winter, who went to see King in a little bar where whites seldom went—unless they were cops. Describing Winter as “extra white,” King was suspicious that he might have been an IRS agent (this at a time when he was being audited). Winter recalls that King demanded to see his musician’s union card before letting him on stage.


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