Last week I attended a screening of B.B. King: The Life of Riley over at the British Film Institute. It’s not only a beautifully shot film, but an insightful look at the life and history of one of the most important and influential guitarists of all time: B.B. King. Director, Jon Brewer, worked closely with B.B. for over two years, amassing 250 hours of footage.
With heartfelt tributes from Eric Clapton, Bono, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Santana and President Obama, this is an access all areas, powerful documentary feature, exploring how a black kid born in Mississippi in 1925, turned his life around.
Riley B. King was born in a small cotton cabin just outside of Berclair, Mississippi. When King was four years-old, his father abandoned the family and he was raised by his maternal grandmother. He grew up singing in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael, later working as a tractor driver and cotton-picker out in the fields. The musician/songwriter’s lucid recollection of these moments is genuinely moving, including his memories of the Ku Klux Klan and the time he witnessed the hanging of a black man (punishment for a reputed indiscretion with a white girl).
In 1948, he headed to West Memphis, Arkansas, where he sang and played guitar on local radio stations, and began to develop a local audience for his sound. He worked at the local R&B radio station WDIA as a singer and disc jockey, where he gained the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to Blues Boy and finally to B.B. He then moved to LA, assembling his own band: the B.B. King Review and by the 1950s, became one of the most important names in R&B music.
One of the hardest working men in music, he has been known to play 365 dates per year. He conducted a farewell tour in 2006 aged 80, but now at 86, is still very much performing! Last year, he played the pyramid stage at Glastonbury and earlier this year, was invited to perform at the White House, where Barack Obama joined him in a rousing rendition of ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’
Grammy winner B.B. king has sold more than 400 million records worldwide, performed more than 15,000 gigs, and is regularly courted by the likes of U2, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. But it’s clear that this sweet, self-deprecating man, has never forgotten his constant battle against the odds, and the unrelenting racism he has faced on his astonishing journey to become the undisputed King of the Blues.
There are some wonderful anecdotes from contributors, but a couple of my favourites are from Bono, who likens B.B.’s voice to “a 747 taking off” and concedes the fact that whenever he sings alongside B.B., his voice in comparison, always “sounds like a girl”.
B.B. King: The Life of Riley will be released by G2 Pictures in cinemas in September. Certificate and release date to be confirmed.