J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

American Master B.B. King

Even for squares, B.B. King’s name is synonymous with the blues. He was once one of the so-called “Three Kings,” along with Freddie King and Albert King (no relations), but eventually just became “the King,” as crowned by Eric Clapton with their Riding with the King album. His name also graces the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, where they sometime even book blues musicians. The life and music of Indianola’s favorite son are celebrated in Jon Brewer’s B.B. King: the Life of Riley (trailer here), which airs this Friday on PBS, as part of the current season of American Masters.

B.B. stood for “Blues Boy” or “Beale Street Boy” and it stuck for Riley B. King. King was already working in the cotton fields as a young lad, but he had the unusual good fortune of working for the fair and decent Flake Cartledge, who employed an African American manager for his plantation. He also happened to buy King his first guitar. King started out playing in a gospel harmony ensemble, but the blues were his destiny.

King’s distant relative Bukka White taught him a few licks and a good deal survival skills for the music business. For a while he built his name recognition and earned some bread as a DJ on the trailblazing African American radio station, WDIA, but when “3 O’Clock Blues” hit, King became a full time road warrior.

In the broadcast edit, Brewer covers must of his career highlights, including collaborations with the Rolling Stones, U2, and Clapton. He revisits the famous London Live sessions as well as the making of King’s greatest hit, “The Thrill is Gone.” Although Brewer wrapped shooting shortly before King’s death, the legendary was still sharp and reflective during his final interview segments. It is also a kick to hear King’s classic sidemen banter and reminisce about the old days, both good and bad.

If some of the transitions in Life of Riley seem a bit abrupt, viewers should understand over an hour was snipped from the film’s theatrical cut for its American Masters broadcast. You can see the full version at Fandor. Although editing B.B. King is always problematic, there are very good reasons for at least one chop. The original film begins with Bill Cosby making an extraordinarily unfortunate analogy in light of what we now know. It is hard to object to losing that, but it also makes it harder to object to other cuts. It is actually a shame, because the broadcast version lacks some really nice sequences in which King pays tribute to Cartledge and his first grade school teacher Luther Henson of the Elkhorn School.

There is still plenty of music in Life of Riley, which is really what King was all about. There are also plenty of anecdotes from legit colleagues and admirers, like Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Edgar Winter, Leon Russell, Aaron Neville, and George Benson (however, you will have to go to Fandor or the DVD to hear the eternally cool Bernard “Pretty” Purdie).

There is a lot of good stuff in the full version, but the broadcast edition is a decent Reader’s Digest treatment. It should definitely leave viewers wanting more, which is probably a good. Recommended in whatever cut best fits your schedule, the fifty-some minute edit of B.B. King: Life of Riley airs this Friday (2/12) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

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