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Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B King. Review by Toby Broom

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B.B King, the consummate bluesman, a bluesman with a guitar named Lucille. Actually a succession of guitars, but the origin of the name comes part way through this autobiography of raw, painful and ultimately uplifting honesty. In December 1949, aged 24, Riley ‘Blues Boy’ King is gigging in a house-turned club in Twist, Arkansas. A rubbish bin half- filled with lighted kerosene is warming the freezing night air but is knocked over as a fight between two men breaks out. A river of fire rages through the room and B.B King joins the stampede to flee the burning building. Realising he has left his instrument inside, King risks his life to run back into the inferno to rescue  his precious guitar. A fight over a girl like Lucille, one punter sighs to another outside, and a music legend was born.

King relates his life story through David Ritz, biographer of Marvin Gaye and others, developing  a compelling narrative for his own blues, born of losing his mother and beloved grandmother as a child and thereafter shuttling between sharecropping relatives in the Mississippi hills and down on the delta. King’s love of music is developed through church, an inspirational school teacher and visits to Indiola, Mississippi where King, too young and too poor to enter Jones Night Spot, is captivated by the likes of Count Basie, Jay McShann and Sonny Boy Williamson witnessed through a crack in the fence, and by Blind Lemon Jeferson and, in particular, T-Bone Walker, heard on the radio.

After honing his chops busking in Indiola, King moved to join a cousin in Memphis, the black music Mecca of the south, recalling vividly the Beale Street of the late 40s and 50s. Breaks onto radio and the chitlin circuit build his name and, later able to put together his own band, King begins the relentless gigging that saw him take just a handful of nights off  a year decade in decade out.

Recognition through the crossover commercial success long since afforded to contemporaries like Ray Charles only comes after being asked to play the Filmore West in the late 1960s, King,  despite two decades on paying his dues is, however, not bitter; his life’s work is to articulate his own blues and entertain paying audiences. The book’s most searing passages of honesty are reserved for King himself; the traumas of his childhood, the impact of a chronic stutter, the brutality of daily life in Jim Crow south and as an army recruit, his womanising, and in later life, complications from a serious gambling habit.

Above all this is in a compulsive and highly educative read, sits King’s personal take on the blues, the foundation stone of most US black music idioms from jazz to R & b and soul.

"Blues All Around Me. The Autobiography of B.B King" with David Ritz is available to order in the new book section. 

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