B.B. King left a legacy as America’s Musical Goodwill Ambassador to the world: There’s going to be a killer blues session in heaven tonight

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In the wake of B.B. King’s death, the mass media has focused on his legacy as the “King of the Blues,” which was earned through hard work, song writing, distinctive singing, lyrical guitar playing style and a unique ability to blend the blues with other musical styles. However, King’s most significant legacy was his struggle against hardship and poverty to become America’s musical goodwill ambassador to the world.

Blues legend B.B. King performs at the 2011 National Memorial Day Concert at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2011.

Blues legend B.B. King performs at the 2011 National Memorial Day Concert at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2011.

“B.B. King was born a sharecropper’s son in Mississippi, came of age in Memphis, Tennessee, and became the ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world,” said President Barak Obama in a statement on April 15. “No one worked harder than B.B. No one inspired more up-and-coming artists. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues. There’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”

B.B. King died at the age of 89, while sleeping at his home in Las Vegas at about 9:40 p.m. on April 14, 2015. King continued to work until recent health problems surfaced on Oct 3, 2014. He did not feel well enough to finish his performance, at the House of Blues in Chicago. A doctor found King was dehydrated and exhausted. King cancelled the eight remaining shows of his 2014 tour, which had 70 scheduled dates. He lived with type 2 diabetes for about 30 years ago and died from a series of mini strokes. King was also hospitalized in March due to dehydration and exhaustion.

This was not the first time President Obama has honoured B.B. King for his legacy of overcoming adversity and representing America around the world. King was invited to the White House in February 2012 to perform at a concert called Red, White and Blues, which celebrated blues music and Black History Month. Buddy Guy coaxed Obama to sing a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago”, while Mick Jagger gave him the microphone. This video shows Obama singing a short duet with B.B. King.

King’s first trip to the White House came during George Bush’s 1989 inauguration. The newly-elected president joined him onstage, playing a white Fender guitar. Under the Clinton administration, King was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors during a ceremony at the White House. In 2001, Clinton joined King onstage playing the saxophone at an event in Beverly Hills. George W. Bush pays tribute to the legacy of King in the following video. King is being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 2006. The medal is the highest civilian honor the U.S. government offers.

King achieved international fame over a six and a half decade career, but his commercial breakthrough occurred in 1968 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. When King arrived, he called his road manager to say, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” King was confused, because he saw “longhaired white people” lining up outside. Promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd of enthusiastic, appreciative, younger, new fans. Everybody stood up out of respect. This was the first time King got a standing ovation before playing. He was overwhelmed and broke into tears of joy.

Poster of B.B. Kings first concert at the Fillmore in San Fransisco in 1969. Photo Credit - Smithsonian Institute

Poster of B.B. Kings first concert at the Fillmore in San Fransisco in 1969. Photo Credit – Smithsonian Institute

This was a turning point in his B.B. King’s career, because blues had been falling out of favour with African-American audiences, since the late 1950’s. The performance at the Fillmore marks a watershed in the expansion of King’s audience worldwide, and he toured the world for next 47 years. Charles Sawyer, the author of B.B. King’s 1980 biography “The Arrival of B.B. King,” said King performed 100 nights a year well into his 80s and has done about 18,000 concerts in 90 countries. This means he played more than 300 shows a year for three decades.

Sawyer observed in 1995 that King had taken over the position of America’s unofficial musical ambassador of good will from Louis Armstrong, who left the post vacant after his death in 1971. Armstrong brought ensemble jazz from the saloon to the silver screen and onto the diplomatic circuit where it became a symbol of America in the 20th century. Armstrong and King both shifted the cultural center of gravity of the world by their contributions to American music.

Several other significant events set the stage for King’s role as a musical ambassador. In 1969, King opened for the Rolling Stones on 18 of their American concerts and he appeared on The Tonight Show. After the Rolling Stones featured King, he released “The Thrill is Gone” in late 1969. King performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, giving him exposure to 50 million viewers. Finally, in 1970, “The Thrill Is Gone,” reached #3 on the R&B charts and #15 on the pop charts. The song was King’s first crossover hit, which also earned him the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

King played “The Thrill Is Gone” during a concert in Kinshasa, Zaire, as part of the build up to the world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. King gave one of the most thrilling performances of his life before a crowd of 80,000 people. He was accompanied by James Brown and other African-American artists, who reveled in their return to the motherland.

bb-king 3oclock

The rise to fame for King began with the recording of “Three O’Clock Blues,” which entered Billboard magazine’s Rhythm and Blues charts in December 1951 .The song spent 17 weeks on the charts, including five weeks at number one and was one of the top-selling R&B records of 1952. “3 O’Clock Blues” launched King’s career and provided his first opportunity to gain a national audience. The song was first recorded by Lowell Fulson in 1946 and was released in 1948. It was Fulson’s first hit.

King had a major breakthrough in 1949, when he cut his first four tracks for Jim Bulleit’s Bullet Records and signed a contract with the Bihari Brothers’ RPM Records. The Biharis recorded “Three ‘Clock Blues in 1951. The first big break for King came in 1948, in Memphis, when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on WDIA. As a result, King got a steady engagement at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and a 10-minute spot on WDIA. King was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, but as his popularity on WDIA increased, he shortened the name to “Blues Boy King” and B.B. King.

King married his first wife, Martha Denton on Nov. 11, 1944 in his hometown of Indianola. He hitchhiked to Memphis the first time in May, 1946, after wrecking his boss’s tractor. Once in Memphis, King found his cousin Bukka White, who was a country blues guitarist. White taught King the finer points of playing blues guitar for ten months. After returning home to be with his wife Martha, King returned to Memphis in late 1948.

B.B. King in 1971. Photo Credit - Wikimedia Commoms

B.B. King in 1971. Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commoms

Riley B. King was born on Sept. 16, 1925, to Albert and Nora Ella King, in Berclair, Miss., a hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. Albert and Nora Ella King were hardworking sharecropping farmers, who had lived in Mississippi all their lives. Nora left her husband Albert for another man when Riley was 4 years old, but she died five years later. Riley was raised by his maternal grandmother Elnora.

Riley went to Elkhorn School, which was right across the road from and affiliated with the Elkhorn Baptist Church. Nora and Elnora were very religious and Nora sang in the choir. The minister of the church, Archie Fair, taught Riley how to play the guitar and he became an important part of choir.

Young King began listening to the music at his Great Aunt Mima’s house, where he heard the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on records. King dropped out of school in tenth grade and earned a living picking cotton. In his youth, King played on street corners for change and earned more in one night singing than he did in one week working in the cotton field.

BB King' marries Sue Hall in June 1958. Photo Credit - Smithsonian

BB King’ marries Sue Hall in June 1958. Photo Credit – Smithsonian

When “Three O’Clock Blues” became a hit in 1952, King divorced Martha, after eight years of marriage. One of the reasons Martha divorced King was because he was performing an average of 275 one night stands every year, all over the country. King was a major star when he married his second wife, Sue Hall, on June 4, 1958. He was divorced a second time in 1966.

King did not have any children with his wives, but he fathered 15 children with 15 different women. He is survived by 11 children. Three of them had recently petitioned to take over his affairs, asserting that King’s manager, Laverne Toney, was taking advantage of him. A Las Vegas judge rejected their petition in May, 2015.

The Empress of the Blues Dies: Who killed Bessie Smith?

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Bessie Smith, the greatest singer of the classical blues era was killed in a car accident near Coahoma, Mississippi in 1937. But, why is her death still shrouded in mystery and controversy today?

BESSIE SMITH

BESSIE SMITH

Smith was on her way to a performance in Darling, Mississippi just outside of Memphis, Tennessee on Sept. 26, 1937, at about two in the morning. Richard Morgan, who was Smith’s lover, was driving down a dark country road in their old Packard. They crashed into a truck that was parked on the shoulder of the road to check its tires and just pulled out.

Tire marks at the scene suggested Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of the old Packard. Smith was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window. She took the full brunt of the impact.

BESSIE SMITH AND RICHARD MORGAN IN FRONT OF THE OLD PACKARD

BESSIE SMITH AND RICHARD MORGAN IN FRONT OF THE OLD PACKARD

Smith’s right arm was nearly severed in the accident. Morgan escaped without injuries. A few minutes later, a doctor drove down the same road and stopped to tend to Smith. As he was taking care of her, another car carrying a white couple crashed into the back of the doctor’s car.

After Smith’s death, a myth emerged that she bled to death, after being refused admission to a “whites only” hospital in Clarksdale. Her ambulance drove around in search of a hospital that would treat black patients. The white doctor at the scene ignored Smith, while he tended to the bumps and scrapes of the white couple. The white woman in the second car was rushed to the hospital in the ambulance that had arrived to take Smith away. Smith became a martyr, because she was thought to be a victim of the racist medical system in the Southern U.S.

This version of events originated in an article written in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine, by Jazz writer/producer John Hammond. In addition, this story was the basis for Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith. This scenario was easy to believe. Jim Crow racial laws segregated schools, hospitals, public places and public transportation, restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains for whites and blacks.

The myth perpetuated by the play was largely accepted as fact until convincing evidence to the contrary appeared in the original 1972 edition of Bessie, a biography of the singer. The author Chris Albertson interviewed the white surgeon, Doctor Hugh Smith, who came upon the wreck. The doctor and his friend Henry Broughton were on the way to a fishing trip.

What is known about the incident is that Morgan flagged down Dr.Smith and Broughton, and asked for help. Dr. Smith examined Smith using the headlights of his car.  Her right arm was torn loose at the elbow and the bones in the elbow were shattered.  Her nerves were intact and the artery in her arm was still intact.  A hemorrhage to Smith’s arm did not cause her death. She did not need a tourniquet, so Dr. Smith covered the wound with a handkerchief. However, Smith had severe internal injuries to her chest and abdomen. She was semi-conscious and was having trouble breathing.

Dr. Smith and Broughton were helping Smith when a car travelling at high speed, carrying a white man and a woman crashed into Dr. Smith’s car. The man, who was driving, sustained injuries to his chest from the steering wheel. Two ambulances arrived at the scene within three or four minutes of each other.The first one was called by the truck driver, who left the scene. The second one was called by Broughton, who walked to a nearby house.

Smith was taken by the first ambulance to arrive and was promptly driven directly to a black hospital. In 1937, an ambulance driver would not even think of taking a black patient to a white hospital.  She was most likely in shock, close to death and unconscious, before reaching the hospital. By the time she arrived at the hospital, it was around 11 am. Smith’s arm was amputated and she was pronounced dead at 11:30 am.

Smith was buried near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 4, 1937. Some 7,000 mourners attended her funeral. There is no record of Smith’s exact birth date, but she was about 43 years old.

In the summer of 1970, shortly before her own death from a heroin overdose, the young blues singer Janis Joplin had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave. It reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

Grave Stone bought by Janis Joplin

Grave Stone bought by Janis Joplin

Dr. Smith was an intern at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis at the time of Smith’s accident. When Albertson called the clinic in 1971, Dr. Smith was still there and had long been the head of the clinic. He was tired of reading stories about how Smith bled to death, so he agreed to be interviewed. Albertson sent a list of questions to Dr. Smith and he sent back the answers on a tape.The original audio recording is available in a blog on Alberson’s web site.