B.B. King created a sound with his electric guitar that changed the world and made him a legend around the world. In this episode, I’m joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel De Vise, author of King Of The Blues: The Rise & Reign of B.B. King to share 5 songs that encapsulate the story of this iconic musician.
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Welcome to the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast on the Pantheon Podcast Network. I’m your host, Brad Page, and we’ve got a special episode lined up this time. You all probably know by now that I love guitars and guitar players, and there is no guitar player that I’ve loved as much, or for as long, as I’ve loved B.B. King. This September 16 would have been BB’s 97th birthday. Daniel De Vise as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His biography of B.B. King, called “King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King”, was published last year, and it is excellent. So I’ve asked Daniel to come on the show to talk about B.B. King and why he’s one of the most important artists of the last 100 years. We’ve picked five songs to illustrate his career, his impact, and the path that his life would follow. So, let’s get into it. Here’s my conversation with Daniel De Vise.
BRAD: Daniel, thanks for joining me on the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. I read your book, “King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King”, and I really, really enjoyed it. So, I’m excited to have you on here to talk about B.B. King. We decided to pick 5 songs as a way to show the scope of his career. It’s no easy feat when you consider he released dozens of albums. But first, to get us started, can you give us just a quick overview of his story, where he came from, how his career got started, and how he ended up being, I think, one of the most important musical figures of the last century?
DANIEL: B.B. Was born in 1925, I think, on September 16, a day before my birthday, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, which is in the Delta. He was born into a sharecropping family, which is economically kind of like a system that came in after slavery was abolished for many black Americans in the south. You were nominally free, but kind of indentured to the land and to the landowner, because the way the system was set up, you were always in debt. You never get out of debt. You end up owing more than you make in most years, anyway. So this is like 100 pages of the book, but I’ll gloss over it. He first emerges out of impoverishment, out of poverty to become a tractor driver, which is kind of a higher-up job. And so that paid enough that he was actually earning money, which was cool. And his father had done that. His father was kind of an alpha male, hardworking dude, who also was a tractor driver. And the story might have ended there; I mean, that’s where it ended for Albert King, the father. He became a tractor driver and was able to raise a family and end the story. But B.B. had deeper ambitions. He had an ear, which I think was a remarkably gifted ear for music. He was really drawn to the field hollers, the people, shouting blues out across the fields. He was really smitten with the records that he heard. He had a great aunt who had a Victrola, and so he was able through that to listen to all this stuff like, Blind Lemon Jefferson was a huge star. So he heard recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, just playing the guitar and singing. So he heard whatever was popular, and then he just kind of fell for some new sounds. He heard electric guitar. The sound he heard that he really fell for was T Bone Walker. And that would have been in, like, probably ‘46, ’47, when T Bone had his big hit, “Stormy Monday Blues”. And he also, around this time, also was exposed to Charlie Christian, really great black jazz guitarist who sort of introduced solo guitar into jazz music. B.B. also had heard Lonnie Johnson, who’s not as familiar of a name, but people who really, really know their guitar history would posit Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, as one of the all-time greats. He was actually bending strings and playing solo guitar in the ‘20’s, in the blues idiom and jazz idiom both. He was recording all up through the 40’s & 50’s. So BB just really fell for this solo guitar sound. And that’s how he wound up straying from gospel singing and getting into playing and singing rhythm and blues on the guitar. And this takes us to the latter years of the 1940’s.
BRAD: One of the things that in your book that really jumped out at me– and it makes perfect sense, but you don’t think of it that way– with somebody like B.B. King, who’s been an icon for as many years as you and I have heard him, h was a master by then, but like everyone when he started out, he really wasn’t very good.
Speaker A: Um, right. I don’t know that anybody had written about this, but if you listen to BB’s first, very first recordings in 1949 for the Bullet label, which was out of Nashville, he couldn’t keep time at all. He wasn’t accustomed to playing with other musicians. And also his solo playing was rudimentary, let’s say, at the beginning; he sounds more like a guitar student than a guitar master at the very beginning. And what I think happened, and I say this in the book, I think between 1949 and 1950, he really buckled down and spent hours and hours and hours and hours playing. And he learned how to play with other players and he developed this wonderful lead guitar sound. He’d been doing acoustic, more like Robert Johnson-style guitar, and I think he learned, maybe only in the latter part of ‘40’s, tothe play electric guitar, and to do this kind of solo style that he’d learned from T Bone Walker. So, by the time of his first really professional singles, which were recorded for Sam Phillips in 1950, by that time he sounded pretty close to the BB King we know and love.
BRAD: And that kind of brings us up to the first song that we chose to talk about, which was a single from 1951, a song called “3 O’Clock Blues”, which is it’s a landmark record in BB’s career, right? Tell us about that song.
DANIEL: So by 1951, BB had cut and released a number of singles with Sam Phillips at the controls. And Sam Phillips was kind of a genius. But Sam, I would argue, and I think Sam Phillips’ biographer, Peter Guralnick, probably would agree, didn’t really know what to do with BB. I think he was thinking of BB King as a singer. You can’t fault him for that, because the guitar wasn’t a prominent instrument in 1950, even as late as 1951.
DANIEL: I point out in my book that there weren’t a lot of songs that had gone to the top of the rhythm blues charts that featured guitar. Almost all the band leaders were pianists or horn players or just singers. So there just wasn’t a lot of precedent for somebody fronting a band, playing the guitar and singing. And so I don’t think Sam Phillips thought that way. He was thinking of BB as a singer, which he was. He was a fine singer. So the irony of all this is that Sam has a falling out with the Bahari Brothers– the Bahari Brothers being the gang who ran BB’s record label. So the Baharis were left with BB. They lost Sam Phillips as the engineer. And so the youngest Bahari brother, Joe Bahari, winds up recording BB’s next side. And the song that they chose was “3 O’Clock Blues”, which had been a hit for Lowell Folson, who was a pretty well-known West Coast blues guitarist. By this time, 1951, BB was a DJ operating out of Memphis, WDIA, which was the first all-black talent radio station. So Folson allowed BB to record the song, because BB had been spinning Folson’s version of it on the radio. And the way that I describe it in the book is BB set out to put his own stamp of sincere intensity on Folson’s song, whose lyrics, quote, I’m quoting from another writer, start out as an insomniac lament, but end up with a weepy farewell more suited to a suicide note. Close quote. It seemed perfect for Bibi’s emerging vocal style, fervent, intimate and intense.
DANIEL: It was sounding good. But after the first take, Joe Bahari didn’t quite have the sound he wanted. The pianist, who was Phineas Newborn, a wonderful top-drawer jazz pianist, but he didn’t have that rhythm and blues sound. So on a break, Joe Bahari hears this really great rock and piano, like, wait, that’s the sound I want in this song. Turns out the person playing the piano was Ike Turner, who’s not yet known, but he’s just this kid, like, the Prince of his day, you know, amazingly versatile. He can play anything. So let’s get rid of Phineas Newborn, the great jazz pianist. Let’s have Ike sit at the keys. And so Ike turned in this wonderful swinging piano, and the second take, it all came together.
DANIEL: I kind of say that in my book, that I think “3 O’Clock Blues” was the first song where the producer showcases BB and his guitar Lucille equally, they get equal prominence in the song. And prior to that, BB’s voice was overshadowing his guitar. So this is, in a way, this is where the story begins, and it shot like a bullet to number one on the rhythm & blues charts, and it became BB’s first number one.
BRAD: Yeah, there’s a few things fascinating about the track. For one, the fact that it was recorded in a YMCA, not in a studio, not in anything resembling a professional environment. It does feature some of the classic BB King licks; they’re in there, but he hasn’t quite developed the legendary BB King phrasing yet, and you don’t really hear that classic BB King trill or vibrato that he became famous for. There’s hints of it there, but it’s not fully developed yet. And the solo doesn’t really flow the way his later solos would. You can just hear that he’s made major leaps, but he’s still he’s still developing.
DANIEL: And early on, BB was obsessed with Roy Brown, the rhythm & blues singer, and if he’d stopped making records around this time, he might have been remembered as a great singer in the sort of Roy Brown mold. And that was what BB sounded like as a vocalist at first.
BRAD: Right. The next track– we’re going to skip ahead to 1964, and a single called “Rock Me Baby”, one of the most influential songs he ever released. Talk about that.
DANIEL: Okay, to unpack “Rock Me Baby”, let me first explain that at the beginning of the 60s, BB switched labels. He left the Bahari Brothers fold, the RPM records fold. The Bahari brothers… this is very difficult to completely explain because on the one hand, they kind of robbed BB blind. I mean, they took composing credits for songs that they hadn’t written. And then I picture them kind of paying him, like, one advance check on every song, and I doubt BB would see any more money, no matter how many copies sold. So that side of the ledger makes them look kind of bad. But on the other hand, they didn’t mess with him. They let him record the songs pure, sounding the same way they would sound if BB were to perform them live in a club. And they hired great musicians, great arrangers, the most important of whom was Maxwell Davis, just a wonderful musician and arranger. By 1961, ’62, BB had gone to the major label, ABC Paramount. But ABC Paramount didn’t know what the hell to do with him, and they kept recording him with the Ray Charles Orchestra and just, again, made the same mistake Sam Phillips had made a decade earlier; they thought he was a singer. For some reason, they didn’t realize they had this amazing guitarist on their roster. So they kept giving him these croony ballads to sing, and he was going nowhere in his career. So, meanwhile, the minor label, the race label, RPM, still had a trunk load of songs that he had cut for them. So they kept releasing them, through the first half of the into the second half of the 60’s. “Rock Me Baby” comes out, and just like everything that BB had done for RPM, it’s tastefully done. It’s simple, pure, no orchestration. It’s just a nice five- or six-piece blues song. And oddly enough, it became one of the most important songs that this RPM Records label would ever release under BB’s name. And the reason is, it hit at a good moment. I think that listeners out in the world were starting to– especially in Britain– were starting to discover first acoustic and then electric blues. It actually charted in the States, too. It reached number 34 on the Billboard pop chart.
Now, “Rock Me Baby” was originally, I think, a Bill Broonzy song that was originally called “Rocking Chair Blues”. And BB retooled it. And I think this is important: his arrangement of it is very musically disciplined. It has a very strong and memorable, and kind of dependable melody, that kind of doesn’t change, set against a simple repeated guitar riff that’s doubled on the piano. It’s very very simple and very disciplined, and it just works.
DANIEL: And Jimi Hendrix discovered it and put it on his repertoire when he started out as a solo artist, “Rock Me Baby” became one of his kind of standout songs.
DANIEL: And in Britain, it was the first big song of any stripe released by BB King. And this is very significant, because this is right when the people who would become the Stones and the Yardbirds were all just soaking up any black American music they could get their paws on, nobody had heard any BB King music at all in Britain. So, Eric Clapton discovered the song, I think the Animals, Eric Burton, The Animals wounded up covering it and so the song was a huge deal in Britain, and it was a significant single in America. It caused BB’s new label, ABC Paramount, to start rethinking their strategy with him because, hey, his old label had just gotten him onto the Top 40, which his new label had failed to do.
BRAD: Right. It’s one of his songs, maybe the song that’s been probably covered the most. I mean “Thrill Is Gone” is the song he’s most known for, but if you’re looking for cover versions, I mean “Rock Me Baby” was like a standard cover song, up into the ‘80’s. I mean, Johnny Winter did a killer version of it, Deep Purple used to include it in their set; I mean, it was a go-to song for so many of the blues-derived rock and roll bands. And, of course, we are more than ten years past when “3 O’Clock Blues” was originally cut. But here, you really hear that BB King phrasing, especially the way the solo pushes and pulls against the beat.
BRAD: Even that simple opening guitar lick; you can hear him kind of almost tugging back at the beat, just with that couple of notes lick there. It’s very distinctive. BB, and the vocal, it’s classic BB King too. The way he moves between belting it out to bringing it down to almost a gentle coo, all within the same line.
BRAD: And some of that vocal phrasing, like the way he sings the opening line “Rock me all night long”:
BRAD: It’s just quintessential BB, everything about this song. By now, the BB King style, both vocally and musically, I think, has been distilled. It’s all there at this point. He’s mastered that.
DANIEL: I guess I listened to most of these songs in chronological order as I was writing the book, and I get what you’re saying, because when I reached “3 O’Clock Blues”, from ‘51, yeah, I could tell that his vocals, although he still sounds like Roy Brown, he’s confident. And you can tell he’s been a DJ because he just doesn’t seem awkward anymore singing. And his guitar is starting to creep toward the sound that we know and love today. He knew how to do the vibrato very early on. I think I actually caught the vibrato on one of his very earliest Sam Phillips recordings, but he didn’t use it all the time. I don’t think he’d realized yet that that was going to be kind of his signature sound, you know?
BRAD: Right, exactly.
DANIEL: And over the years, both his voice, and we’ll talk more about his voice a little later in this, but his voice and his and his guitar attack just progressed toward the thing that we know and love and recognize today.
BRAD: So the following year, 1965, he releases a live album called “Live at the Regal”, which by any measure, is one of the most important guitar albums of all time. So first, let’s talk a little bit about this album. Talk about where this album came from.
DANIEL: Yeah. So that’s moving directly forward from the song we just discussed. “Rock Me Baby” went top 40, and that would have been an embarrassment to ABC Paramount, because they had this first-ranked blues guitarist and didn’t realize it. I think they finally decided, well, this Ray Charles orchestra thing isn’t working with BB. Maybe he’s not a crooner after all, maybe he’s a blues guitarist who sings. Thankfully for us all, they found somebody who did know what to do with him; they went to Johnny Pate, who was a fine jazz bassist turned producer. He had made a string of great singles with Curtis Mayfield, including “Keep On Pushing”. And Johnny sat down with BB, and, you know, what are we going to do? How can we capitalize on this “Rock Me Baby” hit? And they basically decided they didn’t have time, really, to go and do a big studio album. So let’s do something live, that’s the quickest way to do it. And so it was just a matter of convenience that this landmark live record was made.
BRAD: A hugely influential record amongst guitar players, both in the States and in England. Particularly in England. I know Eric Clapton, he always sang the praises of this record. Just a really important record, guitar player wise. The song that I chose to talk about from this album is “You Upset Me Baby”. The original version was released in 1954, I think, but this version– it just cooks. It’s the first track that we’ve listened to so far on this show that features the bigger band sound with the horn section. It opens with a nice little guitar solo.
BRAD: But primarily it’s a great showcase for BB as a vocalist. He just sounds like he’s having a great night in front of a great audience.
DANIEL: So, “You Upset Me, Baby”, when it came out, I really seized on that song in my manuscript here, I wrote in my book, “it boasted neither his greatest lyrics nor his most accomplished guitar work, yet as a finished song”, and I’m talking now about the single from ten years earlier, “it was somehow more memorable than anything BB had recorded before. The reason was BB’s vocal. In hindsight, and this is 1954, this recording seems to mark the emergence of his unique voice as a blues stylist. BB was no longer channeling Roy Brown. His relaxed delivery, his conversational singing style, his tendency to lag behind the beat, the warm rasp that engulfed his voice at the end of each melodic phrase; from first to last, the vocal on “You Upset Me Baby” was unmistakably BB. King.” And also, I say it was also unmistakably ribald. And so you’re hearing all the same things in the “Live of the Regal” recording. The song was possibly the first recognizable, this is BB singing. There’s no question: this is BB. King.
Speaker A: And then ten years later, it slots perfectly into this “Regal” set.
Speaker A: The reason why live at the Regal is so important, I think, is that he’d been doing this Ray Charles orchestra crooning stuff for a few years. And the fact that he was a great guitarist who also was a great singer, had not registered with anybody who mattered in the music industry. And “Live at the Regal” showed the double-barreled attack of his guitar and voice. And then the incredible effect he had on a black audience in a black club, just to such potent effect. It was like a revelation.
DANIEL: And the irony, though, as you know, because you read this, I interviewed a couple of his bandmates from that era, and they thought the record was crap. And the reason they didn’t like it was, Duke Jethro, the keyboard man, told me this, is that the band was paired up with the house band, so there’s two bands playing behind BB. And as a result of that, it’s not the tightest instrumental performance, because the house band at the Regal, they knew BB’s stuff, but it wasn’t, like, nearly so tight as a normal BB King performance would be with just his band. And so they didn’t like it. BB thought it was just okay, but it was still a very good BB King show. And that was good enough. Yeah.
BRAD: It’s interesting how those things turn out, right? Artist’s perspective of their own work versus how it’s received by the wider audience. And I love the record, but it is not my favorite BB King live record.
DANIEL: Well, Scott Barretta, the great, great blueshound from Mississippi, Scott told me his favorite BB King record is the next live record after this one, which is called “Blues is King”.
BRAD: That’s a great one, too. Yeah.
DANIEL: Much less well known and was recorded at a different Chicago club. And it is a wonderful record. Really, really powerful. It’s a breakup record, in fact.
DANIEL: I would recommend it to anybody who’s interested.
BRAD: I like that record quite a bit, too. Yeah, so “Live at the Regal” was a landmark album. One of the things that you point out in the book, and I agree, is that for all of his amazing playing so many great songs… for a guy who put out something like 50 albums, there’s actually very few of the albums that are really great– like, great start to finish.
DANIEL: Yeah. I wrote an article for All Music, the website. Off the top of my head, I think in this All Music article, I advocate for the “Completely Well” album, which is the one that has “Thrill Is Gone” on it. That’s a really solid record, front to back.
BRAD: Yeah, and one of his better records, is an album from 1969 called “Live And Well”. And so that brings us to the next song that we were going to talk about, which is “Why I Sing the Blues”. Let’s talk about that song.
DANIEL: Yeah, so with that record, which became known as “Live And Well”, he starts working with a 26 year old white guy named Bill Szymczyk, who was this young, I think staff producer at ABC Paramount, who had the impulse that you and I were just discussing, which is, ABC has this amazing guitarist on their roster, and they’re not doing anything with him. So Szymczyk has this vision; He wants to set BB up with a group of really solid session guys in the New York studio and just see what they could do to modernize his sound, because his sound was desperately in need of modernization at that point. And I think BB wanted maybe to do another live set, so they wind up compromising, and half the record is live and half of it is Memorex– half of it is recorded in the studio. The whole record is very good. But the final cut on it, the closer, “Why I Sing The Blues”, is truly remarkable. And here’s how I describe it in the book:
“An eight-minute explosion of anger and hurt. A performance so propulsive and powerful that it left the listener wondering why the band had been holding back. “Why I Sing the Blues” was BB’s first overtly political statement.” And I mean this. I listened to hundreds of his songs, and he had not done politics prior to this. All through the 60’s, he had not expressed himself politically in song. So, this song appeared as a single several months after James Brown’s landmark “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud”. BB’s message was both longer and angrier. BB had not addressed race in a song before, let alone slavery. Now he raged about urban blight and slum housing, the chitlin circuit and the welfare state. The Dylan length lyric, apparently co-written with a rhythm & blues writer named Dave Clark, unfolded as an extended sociological observation on black America, a theme Marvin Gaye would explore at album’s length two years later with “What’s Going On”.
BRAD: It’s such a great track on so many levels; It’s a considerably funkier song than anything he’d tackled to date, which, that alone, you can see the influence of the James Brown sound. Not that it sounds anything like James Brown, but until then, he hadn’t done anything that funky.
DANIEL: Yeah. I needed, Jerry Jemmott, the bass guy, to kind of explain this to me. I’ve been listening, obviously, to this stuff for all my life. But he was helping me to understand how BB and all his musicians were used to the swing beat. And with this record, BB and his musicians broke out a funk beat, which is the sound of Sly Stone and the sound of latter-day James Brown. So it was new for him, and it made him sound more modern.
BRAD: And it sounds great. I mean, he works, unlike some of the other trends, if you will, like he slotted into this sound fantastically. He sounds great. He sounds at home on this track.
DANIEL: And young and energetic, really good.
BRAD: It’s the first time, and one of the very few times in his whole career, really, where he addressed anything that remotely had a political spin to it.
DANIEL: Yeah, I wanted to say just a few words about that. He’d done a lot of work for the civil rights movement, but really shied away from getting any publicity for it. You will not, I promise you, you won’t find any write up of him, any of the many times that he played at, like, fundraisers for Dr. King or for, the NAACP or various different civil rights organizations. He was clearly involved in the movement, but it was all behind the scenes. And he’d chosen never to go political in any of his songs up to then, and it took the war and it took some different societal changes to get artists, both black and white, to kind of go there into political statements in their songs.
BRAD: Yeah. And he touches on all of that in this song. The history of slavery and racism, housing, economics, the war, along with a lot of classic BB King work. Between every verse, practically, there’s a guitar break. There’s a great solo at three minutes and 20 seconds.
BRAD: There’s another one at four minutes and 30 seconds. That, it’s like a string of pure BB King licks.
BRAD: It’s just like a textbook example of why he’s such a great guitar player. And then the song really doesn’t so much end as it just kind of runs out of… It’s like they’re just exhausted at the end of it, and they just kind of slowly peter out. It’s an interesting way to end the track and end the album, because it’s the last track on that album.
DANIEL: Yeah, and if anybody listens to this and hears that song and really loves that song, the reason I love the follow up album so much, “Completely Well”, it’s the same musicians, and by the time they reconvene to make “Completely Well”, their second album, it’s sort of like they met as friends and they’ve got their weed, they’ve got their wine, and they’ve got their familiarity. They were no longer session hands. They were like friends, because they’d done all this before and they’d probably really bonded on this very song that you and I are discussing. So, if you listen to the next record, “Completely Well”, it’s just a masterful record from start to finish.
BRAD: Yeah, to me, those records are like two of a pair, almost. They kind of go together really well and they’re two of his strongest records. Like we said, there’s a lot of records, unfortunately, in his catalog, that they all have their moments, but they’re not great front-to- back, but I would definitely recommend, for anyone looking, particularly if you’re looking for something with more of the modern sound, that “Live And Well” and “Completely Well” are two great places to start with his album catalog.
Okay, so one last track I wanted to bring us all the way to the end– to BB’s very last album, “One Kind Favor”, released in 2008, and the track that opens that album; it’s a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, which you talked about at the beginning of this conversation. A song called “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”. Because it’s a really poignant song for him to choose at this time; his performance of it is very poignant, and just the role that the song would play at the end of his life. Tell us some of that story.
DANIEL: He’d become this huge and increasingly renowned, celebrated titan of American music and popular culture. But his records of those final years weren’t consistently good. But he and his handlers came up with the idea of, I think maybe for posterity’s sake, of giving it one more really good try. So they found T-Bone Burnett. I interviewed him, he said, we started with T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson, which is, you can’t do better than that, and revisited the artists that BB had loved from the first time he cranked up his great aunt’s Victorola. T-Bone told me he consciously sought to invoke the sound and feel of BB’s recordings with Maxwell Davis and Modern Records in the 1950’s. Quote, “because I viewed them as by far the best example to BB King’s Records.” I mean, I got to agree with the man there, I think the modern record stuff is the best of BB’s work. There’s no guest artists, it’s BB and his band. He needed no help, he owns the set. And these are songs he’d known for 50 years. He was killing it. That’s what T-Bone told me. And the resulting album, the very first track, is this Blind Lemon Jefferson song, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”. And I describe it in the book, “The prevailing theme of the album is weariness. BB, he knows he’s in his autumnal days, he sings with a sepulchral baritone, rising out of a funeral dance rhythm.”
DANIEL: It’s a really heavy record. More than one of BB’s musicians told me that they couldn’t listen to this record because, it’s like, “Man, BB, you know, don’t die yet. I mean, you’re not dead yet”. They really had a hard time listening to this album because it was so dark and so funeral.
BRAD: Well, the song ends up basically being his own instructions for his own funeral.
DANIEL: That’s right. He intimated as much to a dear friend of his toward the end of his life, Alan Hammonds, I believe, who was behind the BB King Museum. “Listen closely to that song, Alan”. And so they wind up following to the letter the lyrics of that song. When BB dies, his funeral, they got the white horses, and the golden chain, and thus was he buried.
BRAD: Yeah, it’s a really moving moment. And he definitely sounds all of his years on that track. But it’s powerful. It reminds me, it’s like those last few Johnny Cash records, right?
DANIEL: Well, that’s just exactly what I was going to say, I was going to jump in and say, if this is another example of him taking inspiration from other artists, you could very much see this as an answer to the American Recordings series. And it’s a very worthy record. I mean, you’re exactly right. It’s definitely one of the best.
BRAD: So there’s five great songs out of a lifetime’s worth of amazing music to get started with. But what was it that pushed you over the edge into writing this book? Because it’s not a small undertaking, writing a book like this.
DANIEL: Yeah, I chose BB partly because out of the artists I really, really revere, he hadn’t been the subject of sort of a literary biography since 1980, which is quite a long time. And then secondly, because I just thought I felt very animated by the question, is this the guy who created the solo guitar sound that became the prevailing solo guitar sound in pop music for the whole latter 30 years of the century? The best way I can think of to explain what that sound is, is if you ever watched Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnell is telling Meathead to keep his paws off his guitars, he talks about sustain and he says, you hear that? And goes, he actually makes the sound with his mouth because he doesn’t want to actually play the guitar. That’s the sound, that’s BB’s sound. And I just thought it was a great starting point to try to figure out if indeed BB was kind of the guy who popularized that sound. And that’s kind of why I set out to write it and everything else all the civil rights in the book and the kind of microcosm of the story of America, that’s in the book, and the finesse I tried to bring to the biographical mission, all of that is, I’m just very glad all that other stuff wound up in the book, but the initial charge that I gave myself was just to answer that question of, was he that guy?
BRAD: Yeah, well, I think the answer is yes.
DANIEL: I think so.
BRAD: Spoiler alert for the book, but the answer is yes, he is. In many it’s, you can never put your finger on the first of anything, but there are people like The Beatles that refine, right, that take a bunch of elements and refine them into something that becomes special. And BB King is one of those guys. He is in the rarefied few, of like a Dizzy Gillespie or a Louis Armstrong, an artist who is a spokesperson, a representative, an ambassador for a whole genre of music and a whole culture, because music is cultural. And that’s a heavy weight, a burden to carry. But he did it so elegantly for almost his entire career.
Daniel De Vise, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show and to talk about BB King. The book is called “King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of BB King”. And honestly, I encourage anyone who’s not just interested in BB King, but if you’re interested in the history of the blues, the history of the guitar, pick up the book. It’s a fascinating story and it’s told really well in this book. Highly recommended. So, thanks for writing the book, and thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Daniel.
DANIEL: Oh, no, no, thanks, it’s really, really kind of you to have me on. It’s been a blast talking to you. I can tell we like a lot of the same stuff, so it’s been a really pleasant time talking to you.
BRAD: Same here. Anything that you’re working on, um, coming up?
DANIEL: Well, yeah, actually, while I was working on this book, I had the occasion to talk to John Landis, the great filmmaker, a couple of times because I wanted to know why BB wasn’t in the “Blues Brothers” film.
BRAD: Right. Turns out, which you talk about in the book for anyone who’s interested. That’s in the book, yeah.
DANIEL: Yes. That’s answered in there. But anyway, I got to talking to John Landis, and long story short, I wound up selling my next book. It’s going to be paying homage the Blues Brothers; the film and the dudes, and the kind of transformational comedy that happened in Second City and Lampoon and Saturday Night Live, and leading up to this great film. And also, I’m going to explain that the real “Mission from God”, if you’re familiar with that film, the actual real-life Mission from God was that Aykroyd and Belushi wanted to help the careers of their favorite rhythm & blues artists—Aretha, Ray Charles, James Brown… most of those artists, even though they’re now regarded as probably some of the most important artists in the history of American pop music, at the time they were struggling and they decided to use their ephemeral but enormous fame to shine a light on their heroes. And so, it’s kind of a sweet story.
BRAD: Thank you, man, I really appreciate it.
DANIEL: Thank you.
BRAD: Take care. Have a good day, bye bye.
DANIEL: You too. Bye bye.
BRAD: Thanks to Daniel for joining us. And thank you for tuning us in. I hope you enjoyed that. Please join me here again in two weeks for another new episode. On behalf of everyone on the Pantheon Podcast Network, I thank you for listening. Now go explore the catalog of BB King, there’s so much great music there. You won’t regret it. See you next time.