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B.B King : The Life Of Riley DVD review

B.B. King : The Life Of Riley DVD


B.B. King: The Life of Riley
The Life of Riley
(MVD Visual)

Bonnie Raitt explains her belief this way: “If you are studying history, you can look at one life that encapsulates the entire history of the African American experience from post slavery to today and the whole history of rock and roll, jazz and blues.” Her claim in the documentary film from Jon Brewer, The Life of Riley, is a perfect summation of this artful and loving examination of a true living legend and music icon, B.B King.

This archeological film is highlighted by rare footage, dozens of interviews with King, his friends, family and music luminaries, along with beautifully shot scenes of the deep American south. Narrator Morgan Freeman explains in the opening sequence that “the progression of American music is from the field holler to the blues to rock & roll,” and this is reflected in the life of Mississippi-born Riley B King. Joe Bonamassa then boldly declares, “He is the only performer of any kind who defines a whole genre.” Eric Clapton puts it simply, “He is the master,” and Aaron Neville says, “You say B.B King, you say The Blues.”

The film traces King’s life from his birthplace in Indianola, Mississippi, growing up in a plantation shack and picking cotton from an early age, later becoming a tractor driver before learning to sing gospel, play the guitar and becoming a radio DJ. Life on the Delta in the 1930s was synonymous with segregation, violence, the KKK, bigotry, hatred and denial. From this culture was born an icon described by George Benson as “if you want to see what love is, go to a B.B King concert.” King reveals how a select group of people influenced his young life, such as Luther Henson who taught him to “care for your one house, your body; it’s the only one you’ll ever get” and Bukka White who inspired his signature vibrato and told him to “dress sharp like you’re going to the bank to borrow money.”

King earned his moniker “blues boy” as a DJ and singer in Memphis and his reputation as a performer by tirelessly working the black section of America known as “The Chitlin Circuit,” making the road his home. The legendary tale of his guitar Lucille is recanted with joyful nostalgia, but the films pulls back the veneer of the era to explore its darker realities and reveal the toll a traveling musician’s life had on King’s marriages.

The film takes a detour when Derrick Trucks explains, “Our generation studied B.B King and his generation studied T Bone Walker,” and then becomes an examination of the development of the electric guitar from Delta to Chicago and British blues, detailing how the British invasion and psychedelic ’60s, along with promoters like Bill Graham at the Fillmore, opened up the blues to white audiences for the first time.

The story arc continues through King’s career, highlighting the groundbreaking tour with The Stones in 1969, the miracle creation of his biggest hit song “The Thrill is Gone,” and collaborations with U2 and Clapton. The film cements his place in history with a review of the accolades King has received from presidents, kings, the Pope and a B.B King museum in his home town. An interview with a young King closes the film as he speaks of his dream: “I’d like the whole world to hear B.B King sing and play the blues,” a dream that most assuredly has come true.

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Originally published at Innocent Words August 2014 :

Rick J Bowen

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