Tuesday, August 29, 2006

B.B. King: World's Greatest Entertainer

Originally posted June 4, 2005

Riverfest rivals Memphis in May, while Handy’s honors artists

When it came to musical variety, last weekend’s Riverfest rivaled the much bigger Memphis in May a month ago. The crowds are much better behaved here — the overpriced Memphis in May attracts mostly adolescents drawn to adolescent music — and when you have B.B. King as your headliner, Riverfest was bound to succeed, even with some rain.

King, voted blues entertainer of the year at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards ceremony in Memphis, performed his hits for an hour and paid tribute to his favorite president. Instead of “Every Day I have the Blues,” usually his first song, he opened with “Why I Sing the Blues,” continued with “Bad Case of Love,” “Early in the Morning,” “Rock Me, Baby,” “Key to the Highway,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” and even included the politically incorrect “Ain’t It Just Like a Woman” (popularized by Brinkley’s Louis Jordan, one of B.B.’s favorites) and we even heard U-2’s “When Love Comes to Town.”

Backed by a rousing band, the king of the blues was in fine form, although he’s showing his age: King, who is a diabetic, will be 80 in September and performs sitting down. Even so, he’s still the world’s greatest entertainer.

As for Memphis in May, it was muddy and claustrophobic, as usual, but it was nice to see Ike Turner, who is in his 70s, is still putting on a good show, although he’ll never find another Tina, although many have auditioned for the job.

The Handy awards ceremony in downtown Memphis, a few days after Memphis in May, saw many of our favorites makes an appearance, although not all of them performed, often because the show ran too long and the artists left.

Kenny Neal and Billy Branch, who won best acoustic album for their Alligator CD “Double Take,” came onstage around 1 a.m. and were soon told to stop, which upset Branch, who went into a tirade. Who can blame him?

The great Sam Lay, drummer for Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, waited backstage, but he never got the call to perform. Lay, who is from Alabama, stormed off with his wife and drove to Augusta (Woodruff County) to visit his in-laws.

A Handy nominee, Lay has a new CD out called “I Get Evil” (Random Chance Records), and he sings and play drums, too.

Several winners and nominees did perform, including Mavis Staples, who won for best blues and soul album (“Have a Little Faith”) was named best soul blues artist; Charlie Musselwhite, who won for best contemporary blues album (“Sanctuary”) and was named best contemporary blues artist and blues harmonica player; Pinetop Perkins, who won for best traditional blues album (“Ladies Man”) and was named best traditional blues artist.

Perkins, who is 92, played a little piano, while Honeyboy Edwards, who’ll be 90 this month and was named best acoustic blues artist, played a few minutes onstage before he had his portrait taken backstage and headed back to Chicago that night in his manager’s car.

Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones, the firebrand poet and critic, seemed lost at the proceedings. Baraka, who had written an anti-Semitic poem about 9/11, was supposed to receive an award for his book “Blues People,” but apparently no one recognized him except for this reporter.

Still wearing winter tweeds, Baraka, who must be in his 70s, seemed much smaller since his black power days in the 60s and was largely forgotten until his appalling poem on 9/11. He should have received his award the night before, but he didn’t know that, so he may have left Memphis empty-handed.

The great soul-blues singer Little Milton Campbell has his own take on 9/11. Standing back stage, he told us, “When 9/11 happened, that was the only time we were one. There was no black and white. We were all Ameri-cans. Then we went right back to where we were.”

Koko Taylor, who won for best traditional blues artist, wasn’t well enough to perform. But after accepting her award, she defined blues for us.

“The blues is having a hard time,” she said. “I know what I’m singing about. I experienced everything I sing about.”

Other winners and their categories: John Lee Hooker, Jr., new artist debut for “Blues with a Vengeance;” Holmes Brothers, blues band; Willie Kent, bass; Willie (Big Eyes) Smith, drums; Bob Margolin, guitar; Roomful of Blues, blues horns; Robert Randolph (who played at Riverfest and Memphis in May) blues instrument; Jim Tullio and Jim Welder, “Have a Little Faith,” blues song; Gary U.S. Bonds, “Back in 20,” comeback blues album; Shemeika Copeland, contemporary blues artist; Hound Dog Taylor, “Release the Hound,” historical blues album, and Bobby Rush, soul blues artist.


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