The documentary opens with several celebrities speaking about B.B. King. Bill Cosby notes that the story of Riley B. King is one of survival. Other celebrities and musical greats including Bruce Willis Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton provide opening commentary about the blues legend. They speak to the distinct sound of his music that he is recognizable by only one note and the ever present vibrato.
Narrator Morgan Freedman takes over the piece to recount the main elements of B.B. Kings early years starting with his 1925 birth in a sharecropper's plantation along the Mississippi Delta. During this period we meet B.B.'s relatives who's parents helped in his upbringing after the premature death of his mother. King himself tells the story of his early years referring to himself, as just a blues singer he sits on is tour bus headed to his birthplace for the annual B.B. King Homecoming Festival. One of his great aunts had a phonograph which was the focus of his visits to her residence. School was important to King. He had to travel a long way to attend Elkhorn School the area one room schoolhouse. He also leaned a lot musically and personally from attending church influenced by the reverend Archie Farms. King was not immune to the realities of the era. The KKK was very active in his community and was witness to a lynching an event that had a very large impact on the young King and stayed with him to this day. His grandmother died when he was 14 and his dad brought him to Liberty Mississippi to live with his half brothers and sisters. King did not like the new surroundings and road his bike back to the Delta to stay with family friends. Back in the Delta King damaged a plantation tractor and left for Memphis for 8 month before retuning to pay off the damage to the vehicle. It was from this plantation owner that he received his first guitar.
He eventually did leave for Memphis for good at age 23 spending 5 years at WDIA records as a DJ. He went by the nick name Beale Street Blues Boy which evolved to Blues Boy then eventually shortened to B.B. King. He played in the clubs at night, sang on the radio and cut 4 sides for Bullet Records. It was also in this period where he came up with the name for his guitar. It stemmed from a fight in a night club that caught fire during a ruckus. King ran out with the guests but retuned to get his guitar which almost caused the death. The original cause of the fight between the two combatants a girl named Lucille.
The real start of his career was in 1955 when he started out on a bus tour with his band the B.B. King Review playing the black clubs on what was known at the chitlin circuit. This also began his reputation as a tireless tourer sometimes playing up to 360 days a year.
The director switches back to commentaries from music legends all speaking about the quintessential B.B. King's 1964 album Live at the Regal in Chicago. Many legendary mostly British guitar players from Paul Rogers to Carlos Santana to Peter Green comment on how this recording was the greatest bit of guitar work ever put on vinyl.
His manager Sid Sidenberg saw more potential and wanted B.B. to Branch out. He booked king on the 1969 tour with the Rolling Stones the tour brought king a much larger audience now playing stadiums. Billy Wyman interviewed remembering the time and tour did not know what he was doing with the guitar and could not way copy King. Skip forward 20 years Bono speaks of the collaboration with U2 on rattle and hum where once B.B. started singing he felt like an inferior school boy and moved to the side of the stage to give B.B. his due pivotal moments in the film that point to the fact that King had to go abroad to expand his audience before he could be appreciated by the majority of the citizens back home.
A highlight of the film is an interview where B.B. speaks about his music, his peers Albert & Fred King and influences such as T- Bone Walker. The interview is cut from three different discussion from the early middle and late part of his career. Another key moment featured the 2011 concert at the White House, playing along Mick Jagger with President Obama joining him in a rendition of Sweet Home Chicago. The director spent two years working on this project and went over 250 plus hours of archival material to complete the film.
B.B. King the Life of Riley is a wonderful tale about a blues titan. It's a piece that has great cross generational appeal. The documentary shows the level of respect that the traditional legends in rock have for a true pioneer. It's a film that I can highly recommend.
*** 1/2 Out of 4.
B.B. King Life of Riley | Jon Brewer | U.K. | 2012 | 123 Minutes.
2013 NXNE Festival.
Tags: Blues, Mississippi, Memphis, Touring, Live Performance, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chitlin Circuit, Live at the Regal in Chicagio, Rolling Stones, U2, Three Kings, U.S. President Barack Obama , Sweet Home Chicago.