The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new biography depicts B.B. King as ‘the first guitar hero.’ But does it truly see him?

By 1978, B.B. King seldom played to Black crowds unless he revisited old “chitlin’ circuit” spots, such as Chicago’s Burning Spear, pictured here. (Courtesy of Charles Sawyer)

New Englanders flipping through the Boston Evening Post on Oct. 24, 1743, might’ve come across the following “fugitive slave” advertisement: “Whereas Cambridge, a Negro Man belonging to James Oliver. . .doth absent himself sometimes from his Master: Said Negro plays well upon the flute and not so well on a violin.” These notices served as some of the first American forms of music criticism: An enslaved Black person performed, and a White listener evaluated their talents.

Metaphorically, this dynamic persists. White people can no longer possess Black people as property, but they can own their creative work as stakeholders in the Industrial Song Complex. White observers are also still the dominant voices when it comes to evaluating Black music. The latter observation has been made numerous times throughout the years.

In “Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues,” from 1960, British critic Paul Oliver noted that “regrettably,” most of the writing about the blues, “whether historical or discographical, empirical, or theoretical, has been done by white writers outside the culture.” African American writer/activist Amiri Baraka, then-writing under his birth name LeRoi Jones, began his 1968 collection “Black Music” with the words: “Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been.”

For some Black critics, this dynamic caused a mix of anger and pain. A.B. Spellman once asked in the 1960s, when young White audiences were “discovering” older Black artists: “Who are these ofays who’ve appointed themselves guardians of last year’s blues?” But in a 2009 interview with Open Sky Jazz, he explained the frustration behind his feelings: “This is music that came out of us; this is our synthesis and exposition of our American . . . presence, but except for some extremely valuable autobiographies, for the most part intermediated by whites, the people who have lived closest to the experiences of the major makers [of jazz] have been silent.”

Daniel de Visé’s new biography “King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King” exists in the long tradition of White writers documenting the lives of Black musicians who they admire and deem important. This does not always correspond to artists that Black people revere to the same degree. King earned his regal designation after years of playing to African Americans at jook joints and on the “chitlin’ circuit,” but was later jeered by Black audiences because of his retro sound and embrace of race-baiting political strategist Lee Atwater and Republican President George H.W. Bush, whom he called “the nearest thing to God, for me.”

How the church gave B.B. King the blues

De Visé — a journalist, formerly for The Washington Post, who has shared a Pulitzer Prize for his work and wrote three books, including a dual portrait of Don Knotts and Andy Griffith — depicts King as the “first guitar hero,” leading the way for Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many, mostly White others. He writes that “B.B.’s technique of playing a guitar like a human voice” became “so ubiquitous, so universal, that the notion of this sound originating with a single man sounded absurd.” De Visé bemoans that the pop charts are now filled with “an endless parade of songs by rappers featuring other rappers, pop divas featuring other pop divas, pop divas featuring rappers.” He laments — in a striking show of sexism — that “bands of boys’’ are gone and “sadly, the guitars [have] gone with them.”

This is the frame for how de Visé presents the life of King, whose journey took him from picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta to becoming an international ambassador for the blues and racking up inescapable hits like “The Thrill Is Gone.” In the words of Black British theorist, Paul Gilroy, these songs are part of a tradition of Black musical expression, composed mostly of “love and loss stories” that reverberate with the “yearning and mourning associated with histories of dispersal and exile and the remembrance of unspeakable terror.”

King certainly experienced this type of mortal fear while growing up. One Saturday afternoon in Lexington, Miss., when he was about 15, he watched — from a distance — as a cheering White crowd dragged a Black man up the steps of the courthouse, tied a rope around his neck and let his body drop from a wooden platform crafted for the occasion. “I feel disgust and disgrace and rage and every emotion that makes me cry without tears and scream without a sound,” King recalled.

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But de Visé doesn’t explore the implications of this experience. He largely dismisses that it had any influence at all by quoting David Ritz, the White co-author of King’s memoir “Blues All Around Me”: “For a guy who grew up in a period of American history where there was so much horror . . . [King] came out almost unscarred.” This lack of awareness about how Black people process pain, especially in front of White people, reflects an irredeemable flaw of de Visé’s book. He only sees King as other White people see him. Although de Visé uses Black sources to flesh out King’s experiences, he relies on White writers — Peter Guralnick, Robert Palmer, Ted Gioia and Charles Keil, among others — to provide historical context for the blues and to make connections between King’s life and work.

De Visé frames the arc of King’s career wholly in terms of gaining White acceptance. In de Visé’s view, King doesn’t become a “major artist” until he’s exposed to “a vast new audience of young, white Americans.”

I read books by only minority authors for a year. It showed me just how White our reading world is.

Also troubling are the ways the book downplays racism. When four African Americans are attacked at a Woolworth’s sit-in, de Visé uses the almost quaint descriptor “hooligans” in reference to the perpetrators. In one particularly harmful passage, de Visé shows his ignorance of racial stereotypes, specifically the idea of Black male hypersexuality and White female vulnerability that fueled hundreds of lynchings throughout the South. In the scene, King has just come in from the rain to audition for a White woman, Chris Cooper, at the Memphis radio station WDIA: “Cooper saw a guitar leaning against a wall, still dripping, and a slender man standing with his head bowed, also dripping . . . Cooper had never heard Delta Blues. The song [King] played was raw and sexual and coarse. His voice burned with menace and lust. . .The music and the words made [her] want to rip open the studio door and run out into the street. She felt shaken, upset, unnerved.”

This thoroughly researched but flawed biography is yet more evidence that there needs to be a serious reckoning at publishing houses regarding who gets significant, career-sustaining deals to write about African American music. Until this occurs, retailers, librarians, educators, consumers and the press have to ask whether they want to support a system that does not provide significant opportunities for Black people to write about their own music. The situation is too political to be the subject of a traditional blues song, but there’s at least one hip-hop anthem that perfectly captures this urgent need for change: “Fight the Power.”

Craig Seymour is a writer whose work has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Vibe and Spin. His books include “Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross.”

King of the Blues

The Rise and Reign of B.B. King

By Daniel de Visé

Grove Atlantic. 496 pp. $30

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