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.

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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.

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Who is Henry Sloan? and was he the real “Father of the Delta Blues”?

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One of the earliest figures in Delta Blues history is Henry Sloan, an African-American musician who lived on the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. Sloan could be the real “Father of the Delta Blues,” because he was an original innovator of this style and taught Charley Patton and many others to play.

Henry Sloan would entertain workers on the Dockery plantation and local Juke Joints

Henry Sloan would entertain workers on the Dockery plantation and local Juke Joints

Researcher David Evans said Sloan was born in Mississippi in 1870 and by 1900 was living in the same community as Patton near Bolton, Mississippi. Sloan moved to the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, between 1901 and 1904. This is the same time as the Patton family moved there.

Very little is known about Sloan or his life. What is known is that he taught Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House and many others. Most of Sloan’s music students recognize him as the originator of what became the Delta blues style.

In a previous blog I wrote that W.C. Handy said the essence of blues music was revealed to him in 1903, when he was working as a band leader in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was passing through the little town of Tutwiler and ran into an itinerant street guitarist at the train station.

“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages,” said Handy in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”

It’s quite possible that Sloan was the musician W.C. Handy heard playing guitar at the train station near Dockery Farms in 1903. The song referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south. The railway was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.” Handy composed his “Yellow Dog Rag” in 1914 which later became “The Yellow Dog Blues”.

Sloan was a labourer who worked part time as musician. He was probably at least twenty years older than Patton. Sloan taught Patton and they played together for a while until Patton became so popular that he went on the road to perform for a wider audience.

Several musicians, including Tommy Johnson, said some of Patton’s songs such as “Pony Blues” were Sloan’s songs. Patton played these songs with very few changes.

Some reports indicate that Sloan also left the plantation, possibly moving to Chicago, although this cannot be confirmed and there were no further reports of what happened to him.

Evans research found that Census records suggested Sloan and his family were living around West Memphis, Arkansas in 1920. He may have been the Henry Sloan whose death, aged 78, occurred in Crittenden County on March 13, 1948.

Charlie Patton wrote songs about his impending death: Who was he living with when he died?

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Common belief has it that Charlie Patton died at his home in Holly Ridge, Mississippi while being attended to by his common-law wife Bertha Lee. However, some researchers now dispute this version of events.

Lee and Patton death

Lee and Patton made the long train trip to New York to make their last recording session at Paramount on Jan. 31, 1934. The songs Patton and Lee produced during this session reveal that they were concerned about his heart trouble and worried about his impending death.

The duo created a balanced female-male sound on these recordings, especially the gospel recordings such as “Oh Death.”  In this song Patton joins Bertha Lee in singing:

Just look, just look, just look, see what the Lord done, done

Just look, just look, just look, what the Lord done, done

Just look, well, Lordy, just look, just look what the Lord done done

Lord, I know, Lord, I know my time ain’t long

It was soon one morning, oh, Lordy, when death come in the room (x3)

Lord, I know, Lord, I know my time ain’t long

Another song recorded by Patton, “Poor Me” captures his masterful guitar technique, unique vocal style and sublime lyrics which foreshadow his death. Patton creates a strange melancholy mood, which is combined in a tender love song. He mentions Bertha Lee by name.

Yes on me, it’s poor me, you must take pity on poor me

I ain’t got nobody, take pity on poor me

You may go, you may stay,

but she’ll come back some sweet day

By and by, sweet mama, by and by

Don’t the moon look pretty shinin’ down through the tree?

Oh, I can see Bertha Lee,

Lord, but she can’t see me

It is hard to say exactly what Patton means to say in this song. One interpretation could be that he is looking forward to them being together again forever in heaven. Until that time, he is watching over her. But, a more literal meaning seems to hint at a break up and reconciliation. Given, the volatile nature of the relationship, this was probably an ever-present possibility.

An interview of Lee in 1965 by Sam Charters in The Bluesmen (Oak 1967, page 56) said Charlie died while lying across her lap. Lee moved to Chicago in 1949 and remarried. She was widowed again when her second husband died. It is unknown what became of her singing career. It seems possible that she was moved by Patton’s death to rededicate herself to gospel music, and spiritual life. She died on May 10, 1975.

Patton’s death certificate shows that he died in Indianola on April 28th 1934, and not in Holly Ridge, where his grave is located. The informant listed on the certificate is WIllie Calvin, which some researchers say was Patton’s current wife. This contradicts Bertha Lee’s version of events. Some researchers now claim Patton left Bertha Lee, or she left him, after returning from New York. As a result, he started a relationship with Willie Calvin.  Given, the time that has passed since Patton’s death it is hard to determine which version of events is true.

Charlie Patton Father of the Delta Blues: One of the most important American musicians in the Twentieth Century

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Charley Patton, also known as Charlie Patton, was the first and finest blues musician to emerge from the Mississippi Delta region. Patton influenced many blues musicians from the Delta, including Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. The Delta Blues eventually branched into Memphis Blues, Chicago Blues and rock music. As the “Father of the Delta Blues”, Patton is one the most important American musicians in the twentieth century.

Father of the Blues Charlie Patton

Father of the Blues Charlie Patton

Patton was not the first Delta blues musician to make a record, but he earned a reputation by creating a large body of music and inspiring his fellow musicians. He made his first recording in June 1929 and cut fourteen songs for the Paramount label.

Pattons’s first and biggest hit was “Pony Blues,” which showcases Patton’s characteristic trademarks: powerful vocals, heavily accented guitar rhythms and unusual vocal phrasing. The song was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2006. The board selects songs in an annual basis that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The initial session was so successful that Patton was invited four months later to Paramount’s new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he recorded twenty-eight additional tunes. However, the original plates used to produce these records did not survive when paramount went out of business. The sound of these recordings are poor quality, because they are made from played out records. Many of Patton’s recordings have been lost forever.

Another interesting recording by Patton is “Down the Dirt Road,” which showcases the rhythmic complexity of his music. Patton sings one rhythm, taps another on the top his guitar, and plays a third on the strings. He was truly a master musician who played slide guitar either on his lap like a Hawaiian guitar and fretted with a pocket knife, or in a conventional manner with a brass pipe for a bottleneck. He also popped his bass strings like modern funk bass players.

Born in Hinds County, Mississippi in 1891, Charley was one the son of sharecroppers Bill and Annie Patton. His family of seven moved 100 miles north to the Will Dockery Plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi in 1900. The plantation supported more than 2,000 workers, who were paid in the plantation’s own coins. As well as a railroad terminal, it had its own general store, post office, school, doctor, and churches. The workers’ quarters included boardinghouses, where they lived, socialized and played music. The plantation became a hub for informal musical entertainment, because of its central location in relation to Sunflower County’s black population of some 35,000 in 1920.

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Henry Sloan gave Patton guitar lessons on the plantation. Sloan had a new, unusual style of playing music which is considered to be very early blues. Never working much on the farm, Patton decided to pursue a life in music. By the time Patton was about 19, he had become an accomplished performer and songwriter. Patton showmanship made him a popular performer in the region among both whites and blacks. He often played with the guitar down on his knees, behind his head, or behind his back.

Although Patton was a small man at about 5 foot 5 and 130 pounds his gravelly voice could be heard over long distances without amplification. Patton played scheduled engagements at plantations and taverns. He played the full range of music required of a popular rural entertainer. Only half of his fifty-seven records can be considered blues. The others are a mix of gospel and religious music, ballads and ragtime. He lived a hard-drinking rough and tumble life, marrying several times, and had many affairs.

Patton settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi with his common-law wife and recording partner Bertha Lee in 1933. Patton’s last recording session was in New York City in February 1934. He died two months later of heart failure on April 28, 1934. A memorial headstone was erected on Patton’s grave at Holly Ridge in July 1990 and paid for by musician John Fogerty through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.

Charlie Patton Grave 2

The Delta Blues was created by African-American musicians who lived and worked on the plantations in north Mississippi. The music evolved from church songs, prison songs, African rhythms, and early American folk traditions.  It incorporates complex vocal rhythms and syncopation and is spoken, sung, and “hollered.” Songs were about life, love and the hardships of being black in the early twentieth century in the Southern United States.