Undercover: The B.B. King Story–Past vs Present (11/27/80)

There are strong moments in Charles Sawyer‘s The Arrival of B.B. King (Double­day, 274 pp., $14.95), and most of them concern the very beginnings of the great contemporary blues singer and guitarist: a one-room school and a dedicated teacher, a mother’s early death, sharecropping.

King’s arriving (disc jockey and then recording artist in Memphis in the For­ties) and arrival (na­tional fame and respectability in the Sixties and Seven­ties) prove less com­pelling than when he first set out, probably because we have heard similar tales from better writers. Sawyer is a thorough, careful reporter and a functional, sometimes clumsy stylist: he’s good on the road with King, not so good at juggling social and psychological theorems to make sense of King-the-­man (one chapter is actually subtitled “Character Development”). I found the long, strictly formalistic analysis of King’s music close to unreadable. The book is badly organized: since Sawyer doesn’t combine analysis with description, the same facts and stories are called upon again and again until King-the-­man, King-the-guitarist and King-the-sharecropper seem to have discrete biographies.

There are also musicological problems. Robert Johnson was in no sense “a founder” of Delta blues; the origins of King’s urbane urban blues, as opposed to the rougher, big-city blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, remain fuzzy. There is no mention of Roy Brown’s enormous influence on King’s vocal style. A study that offers Walter “Horten” for Horton, “Sun” for Son House, Peter “Greene” for Green, “Gerry” for Jerry Gar­cia and “Earle Bostick” for Earl Bostic is hard to trust. Which leaves a lot of interesting journalism—perhaps the definitive reconstruction of the death of Johnny Ace—and the story of King’s boyhood. There are, for example, these details from the financial records of Elnora Farr—King’s grandmother, with whom he lived and sharecropped until he was fourteen—as kept by her landlord, Ed­wayne Henderson, in 1939 and 1940:

…Elnora Farr drew $30 furnish [an advance for living expenses] between March 1, 1939 and the harvest in September… her account was credited twice… leaving her with a net balance for the season of 66 cents… In November she drew an advance of $1 and in December an additional $7. plus 5 cents for some lemons, 10 cents for lamp oil and 30 cents for wicks.

The next January, Elnora Farr died, having run up an eight-dollar doctor bill; five dollars were added to her account for burial preparations. Her share of a federal farm-support check covered part of what she owed Henderson, but she went into the ground with an outstanding debt of $3.63. B.B. King, then called Riley, does not seem to have been made to assume this debt when, shortly thereafter, he began sharecropping for Hen­derson on his own.

It’s not Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: the Life of Nate Shaw and it’s not All God’s Dangers, but neither is it the usual blues journalist’s “He spent 500 hours behind the plow before following the sound of the radio to Memphis.” One is always reminded that the crucial Chicago blues singers had their “roots” in Mississippi, but rarely does a writer do more with this information than strum its cliches. Interviewing King’s childhood friends, his teacher, his relatives, and Edwayne Henderson, Sawyer has taken the trouble to find out just what King’s “born in Mississippi” credentials mean in cold dollars and cents.

The disparity between what King left behind ( “Among Riley’s vivid childhood memories,” Sawyer writes, “was the sight of a black man’s body electrocuted by the State of Mississippi and placed out on the courthouse steps for public viewing”) and where he is today (a big house in Las Vegas, an honorary degree from Yale, an authorized biographer) is the organizing principle of Sawyer’s portrait of King as a Horatio Alger who doubts his worth and is suspicious of his success. At the same time, that disparity is so large as to be almost incompre­hensible. and it’s this fact that gives the rendering of King’s beginnings its power: every cent counts.

Even as you follow King’s story, you must constantly make leaps: from a rotting juke-joint (shot Walker Evans-style by Sawyer, whose many photographs, along with superbly chosen classics from the New Deal’s FSA, make this an unusually well-illustrated book) to The Ed Sullivan Show, from a $25,000 run in a Vegas keno game to the time when King “could be busted when he lost just one dollar.” These leaps are not easy to make; each side robs the other of some of its reality. The distance King has traveled—the same distance, Sawyer reminds the reader, that those King left behind did not travel—is one more measure of just how big this country is.


Rolling Stone, November 27, 1980

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