Cover Image: King of the Blues

King of the Blues

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King of the Blues is a thoroughly researched biography of the greatest of the Blues legends, B.B. king, who could make make his guitar (they were all named Lucille) sing like a human voice. The Thrill may be gone, but De Vise’ book brings him back to life, detailing every step from his early years in the segregated Jim Crow Mississippi to his later years when he was awarded a star on Hollywood Boulevard and acknowledged as the forerunner to so many later musicians in rock, soul, and the Blues. This biography tells therefore not just King’s personal story, but also the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the history of modern music, all three stories deeply intertwined. It is indeed hard to fathom how much change took place throughout King’s long life from a time his band was not welcome in hotels and restaurants and he couldn’t get play on radio stations to the time he found acclaim and recognition. It is thus a story of how far not just a King traveled but how long and painful a road this country traveled in just one lifetime.

De Vise’s book does not focus solely on social progress though, but is steeped in musical history from the husking on street corners to the birth of rock and roll. Later, the story traces the Blues in England from the skiffle craze to a band named after a song by another American Bluesman brought the Blues back to the States (The Rolling Stones).

Though King toured relentlessly 200-300 gigs a year, his money disappeared as quickly as it came and he was eternally hunted by the IRS and by his gambling addiction. As the book makes clear, he didn’t make real money until late in his career with new management. And, oddly, with the itch to gamble, he settled in Las Vegas.

Though King was rumored to be infertile and did not father children with his wives, he acknowledged at least fifteen children, many of whom later fought over his estate.

A fascinating read no matter if you read for the music history, the social history, or the nitty gritty details of King’s life.
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KING OF THE BLUES: THE RISE AND REIGN OF B.B. KING by author Daniel de Vise is a full length biography of the entire lifetime of the legendary blues guitarist and vocalist who has quite possibly been the most influential electric blues guitarist in the history of recorded music.

B.B.’s early years are sketchy at best, and the author does his best to fill in this part of his life with incomplete and inaccurate information available from that time period, also including differing accounts to enable the reader to try to decide which account is most believable.

Success was definitely not overnight for the hard working bluesman, and well known obstacles placed in the path of black recording artists from his early (and unfortunately later) days denied him the world wide success he eventually attained, and not surprisingly took place when the focus on him as an artist made him a guitarist first and foremost, along with albums involving producers and musicians who helped to create his best recordings of his lengthy career.

Author de Vise also does well at giving the details of the unfortunate events in the artist’s final years, illustrating how B.B. much like an aging athlete was unable to know when to retire, eventually reaching the decision with no time left to enjoy retirement or to spend time with family and friends.

Excellent discography section includes the author’s recommendations (that I find myself in agreement with for the most part) only adds to the quality of this book, making it an essential addition to the library of any blues aficionado.

5 stars.
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I received a free electronic ARC of this excellent biography of B. B. King from Netgalley, Daniel de Vise, and Grove Press.  This is a fully scripted biography of B. B. - and of the Blues, a strictly American musical genre as it spread to encompass the world, gathering fervent enthusiasts by the millions.  Over his many years of touring and encouraging others, B. B. had a major role in introducing the blues to the masses, American and otherwise. 

My husband and I were grateful to see B.B.'s show live in concert a couple of times over our various lifetimes.  Southwesterners, it was many years before he made it into our bailiwick, but it was certainly worth the wait.  In his concert in El Paso Texas, the power dropped out midway through a song at the Plaza Theatre of Performing Arts Center, and BB just grabbed another gear and kept on singing.  Seated in the balcony of the huge El Paso, Texas art center, we couldn't tell the difference. 

We were very lucky to have had him with us for so long. And he was willing to get out there and spread the blues long after most of us would had retired into lazy old age.  For that, I am most grateful.  The singers and guitarists he influenced over those many years of spreading the news have in turn scattered the blues into an international audience, and a genre that will survive long after many popular styles of music are forgotten.  Almost 500 pages - 7388 kb - this is not a fast read, but it is certainly an important and un-put-downable reading marathon.  I absorbed most of it while listening to the master. It was a very good week!
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Well written and well researched biography of the blues legend. The author hit the sweet spot between devoted tribute and even handed objectivity, leaving us with a clear picture of B.B. King's musical legacy as well as his personal foibles.  Very readable, blending  documentation B.B. King's influences, the world around him and his personal ambitions. I highly recommend this biography to any blues fans, or anyone interested in the African American struggles from the 1940's to the present.
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My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Grove Press for an advanced copy of this music biography. 

There seems to be two traps that most music biographies fall into. Either the person or band are venerated as people who can do no wrong, whose every failing is because of others and not the musical genius, or the severe lack of momentum in the narrative that comes when the band has "made it", and the struggles to reach it just becomes a tale of excess or stodgy lifestyle choices. Daniel de Visé eludes these traps and has written not only a biography fit for a KIng, but one that will be considered the book on the life of the man, Riley B.B. King. 

King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King covers not just the life, loves and music of B. B. King, but the society that shaped him, and in many ways trapped him. Mr. de Visé writes of the plight of the sharecroppers, Jim Crow and southern living, as well as about early radio, musical inspirations for the blues and the popularity the blues and folk had on America. Well White America, I should say. Just as a study rural life and the music formed by it, this would be a insightful read. 

However it is B. B. King we have come to learn about, and we do. Losing his mother, his distant relationship with his father, his stutter, his wanting to be a part of a family so much that anyone who had even the slightest chance of claiming lineage from him would be accepted, though his ability to truly have children was in doubt. And the music. Every page vibrates with the music, church, acoustic and electric blues. Mr. de Visé covers the music, writing, arranging and the sessions without going to audiophile, while not compromising on what tracks were good, great or better forgotten. An incredible amount of research has gone into this book, I'm not sure how he did it.

B.B. King was a complicated man, as Mr. de Visé shows. A gambler, a lover, a self taught bibliophile, a father to many but at the end disappointed by those he surrounded himself with. A fascinating book, one of the best biographies I have read about anybody in quite a while. So much sadness, so much beautiful music. Highly recommended for blues fans, or any music fans really, and anyone who enjoys well written interesting biographies about gifted people.
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As a musician for eleven years, I can't miss the opportunity to read more about THE KING of blues!
I was surprised to see that the balance between the music information and his personal life was perfect in comparison with other biographies about musicians that are the two opposites(Relentless from Malmsteen was really intimate and personal and Joe Satriani's memoir felt like a studio logbook — more about the recording equipment than about his personal life).
All that he went through in his life and how he get to the life of a professional musician was inspiring, soulfull and confirms the truth….blues is not just music….it's a way of life, feel and always comes from the soul!
Wonderful book!
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King of the Blues by Daniel de Vise is a comprehensive and very readable biography of a phenomenal musician and person, BB King.

This is a true biography, not just an overview of King's career. So many biographies pay little attention to the subject's youth and family, the society that surrounded the person, then tries to present the person as if they arrived ex nihilo at the beginning of their career. If you want to understand an artist you need to understand his background and family as much as how he advanced his career. This book gives the reader that type of background into who BB King was and how he became that person.

I found a good bit of new information here that helped me to appreciate him even more than I already did. Even things I had already read about gained nuance here because everything is placed within the bigger picture. From the arc of his life and career to the racism and ignorance of the society around him. 

I was also brokenhearted again when revisiting the controversy surrounding his estate. Greed knows no bounds and family is usually the greediest of all. His family was no different and what he wanted made no difference to his children, who claimed to respect him but refused to respect his wishes. It is all about the money, that is what they respect.

I would recommend this to not only music lovers but also those who just enjoy reading a good biography. 

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Mr de Vise obviously put a ton of effort & research into this book. This is quite likely the only B.B. King book most fans will need. Extremely detailed, from childhood to death, & doesn't seek to cover up the artist's personal shortcomings. Has a pretty detailed discography of all but the public domain stuff. The author makes an excellent case for why Mr. King matters. I also appreciate the somewhat explicit descriptions of Racism that the once known as "greatest blues guitarist in the world" had to deal with.

It's past time for the American public to truly know how inappropriately African Americans were (and are) treated, especially in the South. While I tend to find the childhood sections of biographies the least interesting, the author successfully builds a case for how "Jim Crow" America shaped B.B.'s personality; & most of the time not to Mr King's benefit; including but not at all limited to financially.

The author both discusses the artists who influenced Mr King (T-Bone Walker, Bukka White, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Christian), & the artists (many of whom were British Rock guitarists) that Mr King influenced: Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and many more.

The author also discusses how the USA major labels really didn't know how to market BB's music, & how that resulted in some sub par albums & poor sales at times. The Bihari Brothers at Modern probably produced BB's finest work in the 50's, but due to both the Bihari's lack of marketing skills & racism, Mr King made little money from hit after hit in days of 45 RPM singles.

Tons of information for fans. 

There were 2 things I didn't like as much:

1. There was more information about his grandparents & his childhood that I would have preferred. The 1st 15% or so of the book took me longer to read than the rest of it combined.

2. I never felt like I emotionally connected with Mr. King, despite a huge amount of information; some of which was personal. 

In general, I would recommend this book for fans, or those deciding whether to become fans. Many 50's blues fans think mainly of the Chess artists: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. Willie Dixon, etc; but Mr de Vise makes a case for Mr. King having equal importance (& some British Guitar heroes are quoted as agreeing).
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