May 22, 2024

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Book review: Charles Sawyer – B.B. King: From Indianola To Icon – 2023: Video, Cover

This book documents a great American story, that of B.B. King, the “King of the Blues,” and one of America’s most important popular musicians. With fascinating images and history—most published for the first time—it traces his migration from the Chitlin’ Circuit (the national network of Black theaters and roadhouses), to Club Ebony in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, and eventually to Carnegie Hall. What was it about Riley B. King that enabled him to become the “King of the Blues”?

Want to take a trip with the king of the Blues? As B.B. King’s photographer and original biographer, Charlie Sawyer was along for the ride. In B.B. King from Indianola to Icon: A Personal Odyssey with the King of the Blues (Schiffer, 2022), journalist and photographer Charles Sawyer discusses his many years working with and near the greatest of Blues icons, from the early years as King was transitioning to the “Chitlin Circuit” to mainstream audiences to the founding of the B. B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center, Sawyer was there for it all, and shares it with us—along with more than 100 photographs.

Given his prominence as a true legend of the blues, it is strange to realize that there are more books about learning B.B. King’s guitar style and licks than there are about the man himself. Author Charles Sawyer became the first writer to chronicle the guitarist’s life with his book released in 1980, The Arrival Of B.B. King. This second volume is billed as “A Personal Odyssey With The “King Of The Blues”,” focusing on a friendship that spanned more than 45 years.

The book is a treasure trove of photographs that the author took over the decades, many of them stunning close ups of King on stage or in moments of relaxation. Divided into two sections, the first details the start of their friendship while simultaneously documenting King’s steady climb that eventually brings him international fame. It began one night in 1968 at Lennie’s On The Turnpike, a club in Peabody, Massachusetts, where King was booked for a nine night run.

The star-struck Sawyer approached King on a break, and found the musician to be warm and friendly. The author returned each night, and quickly learned to deal with some of the challenges of photographing live performances. His photos of King in action show that he was a quick study. Sawyer also took advantage of every opportunity to sit and visit with King, taking notes and even recording some of their conversations, never thinking that he would one day put that material to good use.

Two year later, Sawyer caught up with King at the famous High Chaparral, a club on Chicago’s South Side. Sitting near the stage, the author had a clear view of the guitarist. The black & white images from that night leap off the page. One iconic shot, known as Redemption, serves as the book’s cover, with King on stage, arms outstretched, basking in the adulation of his fans. Also included are several photos of the clubs patrons.

Other chapters cover a night at Carnegie Hall with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, captured in a beautiful photo in the midst of his performance, and a truly magical jam at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, where Sawyer’s lens found King sitting in with the James Cotton’s band, along with Paul Butterfield. Other highlights include performances at the Fillmore Auditorium in New York, followed by a performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, as King’s hit single, “The Thrill Is Gone,” was climbing the charts.

Whether giving readers a taste of life on the road, visiting with King’s father, or documenting King’s early years in Kilmichael, Mississippi, Sawyer’s notes and heartfelt descriptions in each chapter bring B.B. King, the person, into sharper detail, while his photos never fail to impress. Readers get a glimpse inside King’s Las Vegas home, and learn about his fascination with all things electronic. Another memorable event happens in 1978 at the Bottom Line club in New York City, where George Benson joined King on stage for a true summit meeting.

The second section of the book documents efforts by the author to get King’s life story captured in a screen play for a motion picture. He also delves into a misunderstanding that briefly soured their friendship. The “Playing With The King” chapter covers a time when Sawyer was teaching a course entitled, “History Of Blues In America,” at the Harvard Extension School. He arranged to have his friend attend a class, which grew the attendance to over 300 people. Since the author was leading the discussion with King on stage, the color photos of the event were taken by Don Mackey. It was a career highlight for the author.

Another key chapter provides readers with an account of the efforts to create and build a museum dedicated to King in Indianola, MS. Sawyer highlights key people in the process, and the challenges they faced, particularly securing funding to turn the dream into reality. He also recounts efforts by filmmaker Jim Dollarhide to create a moving documentary about King’s life as told by his family and friends that would be a centerpiece in the museum, which opened in 2008 and added additional exhibition space in 2021. And Sawyer was there to say goodbye to his friend at King’s funeral procession down Beale Street in Memphis on May 27, 2015.

More than a biography, this book opens the door on a friendship for the ages. Sawyer paints a vivid picture of B.B. King, the man and the famous musician, through his outstanding photos mixed with his telling reminisces that sprang from their close friendship. Printed on high quality stock paper, it is a volume to treasure for years to come.

B.B. King brought the music of America—the blues—to the world. Never-before-seen images of King on stage, on the tour bus, with fans, and at home. King gave an estimated 18,000 concerts in 90 countries, including a legendary performance in Zaire in 1974, prior to the Muhammed Ali–George Foreman heavyweight title bout.

The author tells the story of the once-impossible friendship between someone who grew up poor and Black in Mississippi and the white middle-class New Englander who fell in love with the blues and was determined to tell the story of his musical hero. This is the ultimate book for blues fans!

Charles Sawyer – B.B. King: From Indianola To Icon | Book Review – Blues  Blast Magazine

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