King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B. B. King

Grove. Oct. 2021. 496p. ISBN 9780802158055. $30. MUSIC
Author and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist de Visé (Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show) has written the definitive biography of blues master Riley “B. B.” King (1925–2015). Drawing material from King’s autobiography, Blues All Around Me; Charles Sawyer’s The Arrival of B. B. King: The Authorized Biography; and dozens of interviews, he begins with his subject’s impoverished childhood in Mississippi and his backbreaking work as a young tenant farmer. The author identifies King’s musical influences (blues guitarists Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker; French guitarist Django Reinhardt) and details his stint at the Memphis radio station WDIA and his signing with Modern Records, which catapulted him onto the R&B charts. The book covers King’s crossover popularity with white audiences, his rise to international fame during the late 1960s, his decline a decade later, and his subsequent resurgence. Though de Visé ploughs through a seemingly endless series of King’s records, performances, love affairs, and gambling-induced IRS troubles, the narrative remains engaging. The book expertly interweaves King’s music career into the U.S. social fabric, especially the civil rights movement.
VERDICT With this fast-moving, informative, evenhanded, and exhaustive biography, de Visé vividly captures King’s life.
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