When B.B. King died in May 2015, the world lost an artist whose distinctive style shaped several generations of musicians. King’s fluid guitar riffs and lead runs still define the blues for many fans. Eric Clapton called King “the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” but as journalist Daniel de Visé points out in his absorbing new biography, King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, King’s journey to such acclaim was never easy. Even King himself might have deferred to other blues artists, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, as more worthy of Clapton’s accolade.
Drawing on extensive interviews with almost every surviving member of King’s inner circle, including family, friends and band members, de Visé chronicles King’s life from his birth into a sharecropper family in Mississippi, to his parents’ split, to his early years being raised by his grandmother. King loved gospel music and sang in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church, but as much as he liked the Soul Stirrers and other gospel groups, he noticed they didn’t have a guitar, the instrument he most wanted to learn. One of his ministers taught King three chords on the guitar, and when he turned 16, King bought the fire-red Stella that would kick off his journey to becoming a master of the instrument. Recalling his exquisite joy at having a guitar in his hands, King said, “Never have been so excited. Couldn’t keep my hands off her. If I was feeling lonely, I’d pick up the guitar . . . happy, horny, mad, or sad, the guitar was right there, a righteous pacifier and comforting companion.”
Soon enough, King left Mississippi for Memphis and became an international star. As de Visé points out, though, King always looked over his shoulder at the poverty and scenes of racial injustice out of which he had grown, incorporating those deep feelings of loss into his music so that his listeners could feel his sorrow as he bent the blues through his guitar strings. King of the Blues is the first full and authoritative biography of King, and it accomplishes what all good music books should: It drives readers to revisit King’s music and savor it again.