Home History 48 Hours That Changed the Course of B.B. King’s Life — And American Music

48 Hours That Changed the Course of B.B. King’s Life — And American Music

by Enochadmin
Excerpted from KING OF THE BLUES © 2021 by Daniel de Visé. Reprinted with the permission of the writer, Atlantic Month-to-month Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

In early 1949, Riley B. King, 23, was residing and dealing as a tractor driver on a plantation exterior Indianola, within the Mississippi Delta, the place he principally had grown up. A sharecropper’s son decided to pursue a profession in music, Riley busked taking part in the blues on the road and had had a gospel group and, as typically as he may, and regardless of his stutter, chatted up working musicians. At Jones’ Evening Spot in Indianola, he had buttonholed Sonny Boy Williamson, famed regionally for his lunchtime radio present, broadcast out of West Memphis, Arkansas. Now Riley was heading to that city, hoping to interrupt into the music enterprise.

Riley bid farewell to planter Johnson Barrett. “I’ll ship for you, quickly as I get settled,” he informed his spouse, Martha. Guitar in hand, he hitched a experience in a Lewis Grocery truck, serving to the motive force make deliveries in alternate for passage to West Memphis, throughout the Mississippi from Memphis, Tennessee. Towards the March chill he wore the sector jacket he’d gotten throughout a quick wartime stint within the U.S. Military.

His vacation spot was 231 East Broadway, the studios of KWEM, which had launched in 1947 on a pay-to-play system. Native performers may guide a time slot by ponying up $15 or $20 or discover a sponsor to cowl the fee. One of many station’s first stars had been Chester Burnett, a large of a person from the Mississippi Hill Nation who carried out as Howlin’ Wolf.

Wolf’s voice, a bone-rattling bass baritone growl, froze listeners of their seats.

KWEM’s different star was Sonny Boy Williamson. Born Alex Ford round 1912 on a Mississippi plantation, he mastered the harmonica and by the Thirties was touring round Mississippi and Arkansas and performing with many singers and guitarists, together with Robert Johnson.

Mentor and Patron. Sonny Boy Williamson II (at mic) throughout a 1942 present at KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. From left: Joe Willie Wilkins, Dudlow, Williamson, announcer James Curtis, Herb Langston, Willie Love.
(Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Photos)

In 1941, Ford landed on the air at KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, taking part in music and touting baking merchandise on a present, “King Biscuit Time,” named for sponsor King Biscuit Flour. Sponsors supposedly rechristened Alex Ford “Sonny Boy Williamson” to take advantage of the model of a Chicago musician already recording beneath that title.

In 1948, Sonny Boy moved to West Memphis and KWEM, arriving shortly after Wolf, a pal he had taught to play harmonica. Sonny Boy’s sponsor was Hadacol, a patent drugs marketed as a vitamin complement for all the household. In reality, the “Fantastic Hadacol Feeling” was truly inebriation; the stuff was 12 % alcohol (American Schemers, April 2018).

For years, Riley and the opposite arms at Barrett’s plantation had been coming in from the fields at lunchtime to calm down listening to Sonny Boy. And there had been that encounter at Jones’ Evening Spot. “I felt I knew him,” he recalled. Nonetheless, Riley couldn’t clarify how he summoned the nerve that Wednesday to stroll into KWEM, clutching his guitar and asking for Sonny Boy. He discovered Williamson within the studio, ending a quantity with guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr. and pianist Willie Love. When he had completed taking part in, Sonny Boy gave his customer a tough look.

“What would you like?”

No Frills. The younger bluesman made his WDIA debut in a stark setting.
(Colin Escott/Getty Photos)

Riley took a deep breath and tried his greatest to recollect these heat reminiscences he treasured of Sonny Boy on the radio.

“I…I…I…I wanna sing a tune in your program,” Riley B. King stammered.

“You do, huh?”

“Sure, sir.”

Sonny Boy and his band members now remembered the evening a couple of years again when a boy with a stutter had peppered them with questions in Indianola.

“Go forward,” Sonny Boy stated. “Lemme hear you.”

Riley swung his guitar round and lit into “Blues at Dawn,” which had been successful for Ivory Joe Hunter. “I sang with all of the soul I may muster,” he recalled. “My guitar hit the correct notes and I sang in tune.” He waited for Sonny Boy’s verdict.

“What do you name your self, son?” the radio host requested with a flicker of heat.

“Riley B. King.”

“All proper, Riley B. King,” Sonny Boy stated. “You possibly can sing your tune on the finish of my program. Simply be certain you sing nearly as good as you probably did simply now.”

Riley stood by till Sonny Boy gave him a nod. On the microphone he performed and sang in addition to he ever had. When he was finished Sonny Boy took again the mic.

“The boy ain’t dangerous, however you inform me what you assume,” Williamson informed his listeners. “Name in in the event you like him.”

As Sonny Boy was wrapping up, Riley waited. A White man got here into the studio and introduced that many listeners had been calling in to reward Riley’s efficiency. Then he whispered in Sonny Boy’s ear.

“Shit,” Sonny Boy Williamson stated. “I finished tousled.”

Riley began to panic, pondering he was one way or the other at fault.

He stuffed Miss Annie’s with the blues, his Gibson guitar working via a tiny amplifier as he sang via a small public tackle system.

“Lookee right here, Riley B. Looks as if I double-booked myself,” Sonny Boy defined. “I’m working down ‘spherical Clarksdale tonight, however I additionally bought me one other date at that Sixteenth Avenue Grill right here in West Memphis. You wanna play the Grill for me?”

“Sure, sir,” Riley replied immediately. He was “thrilled past motive,” he recalled. “Giddy and foolish and screaming hallelujah inside.” Within the house of an hour, he had debuted as a radio bluesman and earned his first paying solo gig.

Sonny Boy picked up the phone and positioned a name. “Did you hear the boy who simply sang?. . .How did you want him?. . .Properly, I’m gonna let him give you the results you want tonight.” He hung up.

“I need you to go down and play for Miss Annie on the Sixteenth Avenue Grill,” Sonny Boy stated, menace in his voice. “And also you higher play.”

“Sure, sir,” Riley replied.

The membership, a block off Broadway in West Memphis, was variously referred to as the Sq. Deal Café, the Sixteenth Avenue Grill, and Miss Annie’s Place, after proprietor Annie Jordan. Miss Annie confirmed Riley round. “The joint was simply a few rooms,” he recalled. “One up entrance for music and sandwiches, one within the again for playing.”

“I bought me a jukebox in right here,” Annie informed Riley. “However I flip it off ‘trigger the women like to bounce to a reside man.”


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A reside man. The phrases danced within the younger musician’s head. And certain sufficient, as showtime approached, a procession of girls filed into the café, some with escorts, some with out. The boys retreated to the playing parlor, leaving their dates up entrance to dine and dance.

Having no higher garments, Riley took the stage sporting his area jacket. The women didn’t appear to thoughts. “For the primary time I performed for dancers, performed for these women who moved so unfastened and limber that I performed higher than I’d ever performed earlier than,” he recalled. “May need tousled my musical measures or screwed up a lyric or two, however, child, the beat was there.”

Riley stuffed Miss Annie’s Place with the blues, his solely accompaniment his Gibson guitar working via a tiny amplifier as he sang via a small public tackle system. He held down the beat, and the dance ground full of sizzling, heaving our bodies.

“I need to rent you,” Miss Annie stated afterwards. “However you possibly can’t assist me get enterprise until you’re on the radio, like Sonny Boy is. If you may get on the radio, I’ll pay you $12 an evening and provide you with room and board.”

“Sure, ma’am,” Riley replied. “I’ll get on the radio.”

The membership proprietor supplied to place him up. “That evening I couldn’t sleep for the photographs working via my head,” he recalled. He imagined ladies in numerous states of undress, “bending over and stretching, grinding and grinning and displaying me stuff I ain’t ever seen earlier than.”

A King and His Court docket. B.B. King, heart rear, together with his band and fellow announcer Nat Williams, proper.
(Pictorial Press Ltd./Alamy Inventory Photograph)

The following day, Miss Annie informed Riley about WDIA hiring Black deejays like native movie star Nat D. Williams. On earlier forays to Memphis, Riley, together with his cousin Bukka White, had performed Nat D.’s newbie nights on the Palace. Guitar in hand, Riley caught a bus for Memphis to seek out WDIA.

WDIA, 1070 AM, Had Commenced operations on Union Avenue in the summertime of 1947. The founders had been White males. John Pepper, the businessman, was a scion of an prosperous Memphis household; WDIA was named for his daughter Diane. Bert Ferguson, the station supervisor, was quick on money however lengthy on expertise. Eight years earlier, Pepper had introduced Ferguson in to run WJPR-AM in Greenville, Mississippi. The 2 had been in search of a distinct segment within the Memphis market, dominated by 5 stations with ties to nationwide networks and movie star disk jockeys.

WDIA began out taking part in country-and-western. When that format failed to draw listeners, the house owners tried pop and even classical music. Now they had been again to nation, airing exhibits like “Cracker Barrel” and “Hillbilly Social gathering.” Nothing was working. Christine Cooper, Ferguson’s programming director, searched in useless for the correct format. Chris Cooper, 23, was a placing girl, taciturn and severe, with soulful brown eyes and a pointy thoughts. Ferguson had lured her from an advert company to turn out to be one of many first ladies in Memphis radio.

Bert Ferguson
(Courtesy of Spindel Household )

In spring 1948, Cooper was questioning if she had made the correct selection. WDIA was hovering close to chapter, and the house owners appeared determined. Cooper and Ferguson and two different station staff, to save lots of on resort payments, had left an business conference in Nashville early and had been driving the 200 miles to Memphis.

Ferguson was on the wheel, with Cooper driving shotgun. As they had been rolling previous moonlit farmhouses on two-lane blacktop roads, Ferguson leaned towards his program director.

“What do you consider programming for Negro folks?” he whispered.

Cooper thought of. Their competitors in Memphis had divvied up the area’s White viewers. No mainstream station was programming for Blacks, a possible viewers as giant as all the White market—“tens of hundreds of individuals with names and faces who had served me at eating places and ridden on the identical bus,” she recalled. Blacks in and round Memphis had their very own golf equipment, their very own festivals, and even a newspaper—the Memphis World—however no radio station. Cooper informed her boss she cherished his concept.

Christine Cooper
(Courtesy of Spindel Household )

“Would you object to working alongside Negro folks on the station?” Ferguson requested, once more talking sotto voce.

No, Cooper replied, she wouldn’t.

After that furtive alternate Ferguson dropped the subject. Cooper thought he had misplaced his nerve or his focus. He was at all times arising with new ideas, typically with Pepper. These days the 2 had been pushing a tonic they’d dreamed as much as compete with Hadacol and had gotten as far as to arrange an organization to promote it. Ferguson had tried to get her to jot down the adverts, however she refused. However Bert had not misplaced concentrate on taking WDIA Black. That October he informed her he had determined “to go forward with it.” Chris knew immediately what “it” was.

African American radio had begun within the Twenties with a visionary named Jack Cooper. Born in Memphis in 1888, Cooper made his title reporting for Black newspapers in Chicago, Illinois. In 1925, on WCAP in Washington, DC, a robust Black market, he launched a range present. Cooper carried out dialect skits; he joked later that he had been “the primary 4 Negroes on radio.” Returning to Chicago, in 1929 he introduced out “The All-Negro Hour” on WSBC, patterning this present on African American vaudeville line-ups.

“Would you object to working with Negro folks on the station?” the WDIA exec requested his programming director. No, Christine Cooper replied, she wouldn’t.

Broadcasters favored reside materials so they might skirt hefty charges the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers charged stations to play and broadcast recorded music. The trendy disc-jockey determine, a record-spinning on-air persona, arrived in 1932, when Jack Cooper invented that function. In a dispute over pay, a musician scheduled to play certainly one of Cooper’s exhibits as a substitute walked out of the studio. By one account, to rescue the second the impresario “bought a barrel and set some little report participant on it and held a mike to it.” Thus, the primary deejay.

By WDIA’s day, African American performers had been popping up on the airwaves everywhere in the South. Bert Ferguson had put Riley King’s gospel quartet on the air in Greenville.

However Black deejays remained uncommon, and no station in the USA had an all-Black format. That turned Ferguson’s aim.

His first option to spin discs at WDIA was Nathaniel D. Williams, a historical past instructor within the Memphis public faculty system who had constructed a sideline in a number of media.

Apart from educating, Williams, as “Nat D. Williams,” wrote a column for the World and hosted the weekly newbie evening competitors on the Palace Theatre, broadcast reside by a WDIA rival. Williams’s compact body and Coke-bottle glasses had been acquainted to all of Black Memphis.

Williams agreed to work at WDIA. His weekday shift would begin after faculty. Now got here the ticklish process of naming his present for promotional functions with out ruffling Jim Crow’s feathers. Even “Negro,” whereas nominally acceptable, was too blunt for the radio program listings within the Memphis Industrial Enchantment, sending Cooper and Ferguson to a thesaurus. They thought of “brown” and “sepia” earlier than deciding on “tan,” which seemed like a day on the seaside. Nat D. Williams can be internet hosting “Tan City Jamboree.”

A Totally different Ax. In a 1949 promotional photograph, B.B. holds a Fender Esquire solid-body electrical guitar.
(Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Photos)

Williams was to debut at 4 p.m. on Monday, October 25, 1948. He arrived on the station breathless, having raced throughout city from Booker T. Washington Excessive. He took a seat on the microphone, amassing himself. On the high of the hour, his White announcer cued him. Williams sat in silence, thoughts a clean. Seconds ticked by. Williams, realizing the absurdity of his predicament, erupted into a protracted peal of laughter. Quickly everybody within the studio was becoming a member of in, and “Tan City Jamboree” was rolling. That large, cathartic snicker turned Nat D.’s trademark.

Not everybody was laughing. Backlash to “Tan City Jamboree” got here swift and fierce.

“For the primary three weeks, we had been simply plagued with calls—‘Get that nigger off the air!’” Cooper recalled. “My boss bought dying threats.” Station personnel fielding complaints politely reminded callers that if they didn’t like what they had been listening to they had been free to show the dial.

Tan City Time. Memphis multimedia determine Nat D. Williams helped make WDIA a favourite amongst Black listeners and did the identical for patent drugs Peptikon.
(Bettmann/Getty Photos)

Complaints from White listeners died down. With essentially the most well-known Black man in Memphis on the air each afternoon, WDIA’s Black listenership exploded throughout Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Because of radio’s unifying energy, the “Jamboree” turned a digital city corridor for each Black group inside 60 miles.

Riley’s final quarter GOT HIM so far as the bus station in downtown Memphis. It was three miles to WDIA. He cinched the cotton-sack strap he used to safe his fatigue jacket in opposition to the nippiness and rain. His guitar nonetheless lacked a case. Transferring at a trot, he hugged the instrument, its f-holes in opposition to his chest to maintain water out.

The station’s places of work vaguely resembled a large brick radio, with the art-deco name letters bolted throughout the constructing façade. Riley later described himself peering via a big plate-glass window and seeing “a black man with super-short hair and super-thick glasses”: Nat D. Williams, within the studio. A crimson mild was on, which means, Riley knew, that the deejay was on the air. When the crimson bulb dimmed and a inexperienced mild went on, Riley tapped the glass. Williams beheld “a brown-skin fellow standing there with water dripping off his battered previous hat, water oozing out of the soles of his footwear. Drenched throughout with a worn and actually battered previous guitar beneath his arm. He stood there wanting wistfully at me via that tumbler partition.”

Chris Cooper remembered the scene in another way. Riley merely appeared on the entrance desk. “He went to the receptionist together with his dripping-wet umbrella and his guitar held tight to his chest,” she recalled.

An commercial for Pep-Ti-Kon that includes WDIA DJ Nat D Williams in a Beale Avenue drug retailer window circa 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee.
(Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Photos)

The receptionist referred to as Bert Ferguson. “He got here down from his workplace,” Cooper stated. “And he or she stated, ‘Someone’s right here who desires to report.’”

A lot later Riley remembered Bert Ferguson as “a brief Jewish man, not a lot hair, with a severe air about him.”

The supervisor regarded his customer. A detailed-cut, ragged pompadour topped Riley’s easily symmetrical clean-shaven options, with wide-set eyebrows above mournful eyes. He was wiry, with highly effective arms that spoke of farm work.

“We don’t make data,” Ferguson stated. Nonetheless, he stated, “We’d be capable to use you. If I put you on the radio, would you be too nervous to speak?”

“I would do some st-st-st-stuttering,” Riley stuttered. “However not more than the typical individual. I feel the typical individual will take to me.”

Station arms reminded sad callers that if they didn’t like what they had been listening to they had been free to show the dial to a different frequency.

Ferguson requested about his background. Riley informed about singing blues on the nook in Indianola and singing gospel on the radio. Ferguson remembered having met him that point in Greenville. Riley defined about singing for Sonny Boy on KWEM and his new gig taking part in on the Sixteenth Avenue Grill. WDIA manufacturing supervisor Don Kern joined them. Riley performed for the radio males, maybe the primary time he had ever performed the blues in entrance of an attentive White viewers. Assuming accurately that his listeners knew little in regards to the blues, he did “Caledonia,” Louis Jordan’s leaping quantity a few girl with “nice large toes.” When Riley completed Kern stated, “You’re all proper.” He and Ferguson smiled.

“And mentioning Sonny Boy offers me an concept,” Ferguson stated. “Sonny Boy’s made fairly a splash promoting Hadacol. Properly, we now have a sponsor referred to as ‘Pep-Ti-Kon.’ Good for no matter ails you. And we’re in search of somebody who can promote it. I’m pondering that one approach to promote it [would be] via a tune. You ever written a jingle?”

“No sir,” Riley replied.

“Keen to strive?”

Riley sat together with his guitar for a couple of minutes, buzzing a melody, then, in opposition to a easy blues development, sang, “Pep-Ti-Kon certain is sweet/And you may get it wherever in your neighborhood…”

Ferguson beamed. He strode off and returned with Cooper. This system director noticed a guitar dripping in opposition to a wall and a slender Black man, head bowed, additionally dripping, like some Delta apparition. Ferguson informed the customer to sing one thing. When the man stepped to the microphone, he appeared to rework. “He simply straightened up,” Cooper recalled. “And he hit his guitar like he knew what he was doing.”

She was anticipating to listen to one of many minstrel songs she knew—“Previous Black Joe,” or “Swanee River,” Stephen Foster chestnuts. Many years later, Cooper, who earlier than that day had by no means heard Delta blues, couldn’t keep in mind what Riley did play however she was sure of her response to listening to him.

“It simply tore me aside,” she stated.

Fame to Come. When B.B. started his profession in Memphis he was some years but from working the present enterprise circuit that might put him on the high of the invoice, as on these Nineteen Fifties live performance posters.
(Gab Archive/Getty Photos )

Riley recalled his selection of tune as having been one other Louis Jordan quantity, “Somebody Done Changed the Lock on My Door,” an train in wordplay alongside the strains of “Caledonia.” However the “key” and the “lock” had been a double entendre, and Riley performed the tune for each little bit of its carnal which means, uncooked and sexual and coarse, voice burning with menace and lust, sodden guitar buzzing with an indignant twang. The music and the lyrics made the younger program director need to rip open the studio door and run into the road. She felt shaken, upset, unnerved. After which she thought that perhaps this tough, sensual music was precisely what WDIA’s new listeners needed. Riley completed singing.

“Let’s put him on the air,” Cooper gasped.

Boldness earned Riley B. King a daily 15-minute slot on WDIA following station mainstay Nat Williams. Per Bert Ferguson’s decree, the station billed him as “BB King.” Although not paying him—on the air, he may promote his exhibits at Miss Annie’s, which paid a number of occasions what he had been making on the wheel of a tractor—station administration welcomed him right into a familial office the place everybody was “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss” no matter pores and skin coloration. Riley despatched for Martha and so they moved right into a boardinghouse in Memphis. By autumn 1949, WDIA’s programming had shifted to all-Black, and B.B. King had begun a protracted march to international musical stardom.

This text appeared within the Winter 2023 concern of American Historical past journal.

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