Charles Shaar Murray reviews
BLUES ALL AROUND ME: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
BB King with David Ritz
Hodder & Stoughton, 1994
Somehow, this extraordinary memoir slipped through my net on original publication, back when BB was a mere 70 years old. Indeed, when I found it on Charity Shop Row (or a single solitary squid!), I almost passed it by under the impression that I already had it. (Yep, I AM slow on the uptake sometimes: I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how long it took me to figure out why Bill Haley’s band were called The Comets.)
BB King was second only to Louis Armstrong for the ability to combine the roles of Beloved Entertainer and game-changing, globally influential virtuoso: of the ’60s-and-after Rock Guys, only Paul McCartney really came close. Since this book was published, much of his back-story was eloquently depicted in the recent biodoc Life Of Riley, but here on the page — coaxed from him via the alchemy of confidant/confessor David Ritz — the Big B’s narrative takes you further behind that genial, self-deprecating façade than most could possibly have predicted. Until this book was written, B very rarely spoke about the pain in his life: he channelled it via his voice and his guitar. Then he’d smile and thank the ladies and gentlemen.
So here it is: an upbringing (or shall we say ‘non-upbringing’? ‘Semi-upbringing’?) gruelling even by the standards of those born black and poor in the rural Mississippi Delta during the 1920s. The struggle to acquire and master his chosen craft and then turn it first into a means of making a living, and then into a career. No drugging and not that much drinking, but a near-lifelong battle with sex addiction and a massive gambling habit. A cosy-schmoozy showbiz autobiog this most certainly isn’t, but neither does it drip with self-pity or lapse into therapese. Even at his most scarifyingly self-revelatory, B retains both his dignity and his charm.
If, gentle reader, BB King’s work has any significance for you, then try and be smarter than yr correspondent. In another words, don’t leave it 18 years before you read it.