Editorial: A Da Capo Paperback.
His reign as King of the Blues has been as long as that of any monarch on earth. Yet B.B. King continues to wear his crown well. At age 76, he is still light on his feet, singing and playing the blues with relentless passion. Time has no apparent effect on B.B., other than to make him more popular, more cherished, more relevant than ever. Don’t look for him in some kind of semi-retirement; look for him out on the road, playing for people, popping up in a myriad of T.V. commercials, or laying down tracks for his next album. B.B. King is as alive as the music he plays, and a grateful world can’t get enough of him.
For more than half a century, Riley B. King – better known as B.B. King – has defined the blues for a worldwide audience. Since he started recording in the 1940s, he has released over fifty albums, many of them classics. He was born September 16, 1925, on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, near Indianola. In his youth, he played on street corners for dimes, and would sometimes play in as many as four towns a night. In 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, TN, to pursue his music career. Memphis was where every important musician of the South gravitated, and which supported a large musical community where every style of African American music could be found. B.B. stayed with his cousin Bukka White, one of the most celebrated blues performers of his time, who schooled B.B. further in the art of the blues.
B.B.’s first big break came in 1948 when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio program on KWEM out of West Memphis. This led to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis, and later to a ten-minute spot on black-staffed and managed Memphis radio station WDIA. “King’s Spot,” became so popular, it was expanded and became the “Sepia Swing Club.” Soon B.B. needed a catchy radio name. What started out as Beale Street Blues Boy was shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually B.B. King.
In the mid-1950s, while B.B. was performing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, a few fans became unruly. Two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting fire to the hall. B.B. raced outdoors to safety with everyone else, then realized that he left his beloved $30 acoustic guitar inside, so he rushed back inside the burning building to retrieve it, narrowly escaping death. When he later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to give the name to his guitar to remind him never to do a crazy thing like fight over a woman. Ever since, each one of B.B.’s trademark Gibson guitars has been called Lucille.
Soon after his number one hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” B.B. began touring nationally. In 1956, B.B. and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night stands. From the chitlin circuit with its small-town cafes, juke joints, and country dance halls to rock palaces, symphony concert halls, universities, resort hotels and amphitheaters, nationally and internationally, B.B. has become the most renowned blues musician of the past 40 years.
Over the years, B.B. has developed one of the world’s most identifiable guitar styles. He borrowed from Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and others, integrating his precise and complex vocal-like string bends and his left hand vibrato, both of which have become indispensable components of rock guitarist’s vocabulary. His economy, his every-note-counts phrasing, has been a model for thousands of players, from Eric Clapton and George Harrison to Jeff Beck. B.B. has mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop and jump into a unique sound. In B.B.’s words, “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.”
In 1968, B.B. played at the Newport Folk Festival and at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West on bills with the hottest contemporary rock artists of the day who idolized B.B. and helped to introduce him to a young white audience. In “69, B.B. was chosen by the Rolling Stones to open 18 American concerts for them; Ike and Tina Turner also played on 18 shows.
B.B. was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He received NARAS’ Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1987, and has received honorary doctorates from Tougaloo(MS) College in 1973; Yale University in 1977; Berklee College of Music in 1982; Rhodes College of Memphis in 1990; Mississippi Valley State University in 2002 and Brown University in 2007. In 1992, he received the National Award of Distinction from the University of Mississippi.
In 1991, B.B. King’s Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis, and in 1994, a second club was launched at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles. A third club in New York City’s Times Square opened in June 2000 and most recently two clubs opened at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut in January 2002. In 1996, the CD-Rom On The Road With B.B. King: An Interactive Autobiography was released to rave reviews. Also in 1996, B.B.’s autobiography, “Blues All Around Me” (written with David Ritz for Avon Books) was published. In a similar vein, Doubleday published “The Arrival of B.B. King” by Charles Sawyer, in 1980.
B.B. continues to tour extensively, averaging over 250 concerts per year around the world. Classics such as “Payin’ The Cost To Be The Boss,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” How Blue Can You Get,” “Everyday I Have The Blues,” and “Why I Sing The Blues” are concert (and fan) staples. Over the years, the Grammy Award-winner has had two #1 R&B hits, 1951′s “Three O’Clock Blues,” and 1952′s “You Don’t Know Me,” and four #2 R&B hits, 1953′s “Please Love Me,” 1954′s “You Upset Me Baby,” 1960′s “Sweet Sixteen, Part I,” and 1966′s “Don’t Answer The Door, Part I.” B.B.’s most popular crossover hit, 1970′s “The Thrill Is Gone,” went to #15 pop.
An Author’s Odyssey
How The Arrival Of B.B. King Was Published
Copyright, © Charles Sawyer, 1997
For anyone seriously interested in a career as a writer the story of how my biography of B.B. King eventually found a publisher may be of interest: it provides a catalogue of aspiring author woes. It all started in 1970, when, with the help of the great blues scholar Paul Oliver, I was invited by a small English publisher to write a book on B.B. King. It was to be a very low cost production—small run, no author’s advance, no budget for photographs. After several months of hard work I submitted a manuscript, my first attempt to write a book, and waited patiently for a response. I got none, but heard through the grapevine that the publishing company had gone bankrupt. This left me with a loose manuscript. I began offering it to American publishers.
As editors’ rejections began arriving I started to keep a list of those who honored me with a rejection and those I might plan to contact after the next one. I was determined not to allow the manuscript to languish on my desk. Once, when I claimed the parcel containing my proposal at the post office I repackaged it with a new cover letter to yet another publisher and returned it to the U.S. Mail without leaving the post office. Along the way I was advised not to submit my sloppy, poorly researched manuscript (rather poorly written, I should admit, which is why I used the word “honored”), but rather to offer publishers a proposal instead, with selections of the best parts of what I had already written.
In 1978 I got lucky. An editor at Schirmer Books, a division of MacMillan, offered me a contract to write a proper biography. Schirmer Books was the 35th publisher to consider my proposal. The $4,000 advance was small but enough to support me while I dogged B.B. on the road and dug into his past. First I spent about five months on the road, then I completely rewrote the book, saving only a few pages from my earlier version.
I submitted the manuscript to my editor at Schirmer in the fall of 1978. It had gone through several revisions—some of them were painful, all of them came from my pen (I used a legal pad in those days)—before the editor pronounced it ready for copy editing. I waited eagerly for the final result, unaware that, under the persistent nagging of an assitant editor, my editor had lost confidence in the finished manuscript, and that they had settled on a plan to reorganize the book.
When I opened the package containing my “copied edited” manuscript I was shocked. A large X was drawn through my Table of Contents and the word “Superseded” was written across the top. A new Table Of Contents replaced it, one conceived by the new, anonymous author. The first page of the first chapter was page 480-something of my original manuscript. I flipped through the pages and found frequent additions, a paragraph here, a page there, and many deletions. I was livid. When I reached the editor by phone he explained that they (he and his assistant editor) had done me a favor because they were absolutely certain that my biography was so unconventional, that had they published it as it stood, it would be devastated by the critics. “You have two options,” the editor told me, “either cooperate with us and we may let you reinstate some things we cut, or stand aside and we’ll publish the book as is, whether you like it or not.”
That phone conversation was followed by a battle that was among the most unpleasant experiences of my working life. I had to decide if I was ready to risk never seeing my book in print, or let go of a book that was really not mine and let it appear with my name on its title page. When the dust settled I had MacMillan’s permission to hawk my manuscript to other publishers on condition that I repay the advance if I found one ready to publish it. While the battle was on I found an agent, Jacques de Spoelberg, who kindly expressed confidence in his ability to find a publisher for the book as I had written it. Once I had come to terms with the Vice President at MacMillan whose signature appeared beside mine on my contract, I gave the job to Jacques.
Jacques launched a broad campaign of simultaneous submissions, running the tally of rejections from 35 to 53. One publisher, Doubleday, had expressed genuine interest in the book but found the asking price ($18,000 advance) too high. Jacques suggested lowering the price. “Take whatever they’re ready to offer,” I told him and a contract was drawn up for an advance of $10,000. The hardback finally appeared. It was The Arrival of B.B. King, Doubleday, 1980. Two years later the paperback rights were sold to Da Capo, which issued the book in paperback two years later.
Painful as the battle was, the decision not to let my book be run through a literary blender was not difficult. When you hold out for the value of your work you may prevail. In this case I also had some moments of vindication. One was provided by Leonard Feather, a revered historian and critic of jazz and blues who wrote The Encyclopedia of Jazz and also composed such great blues classic lyrics as “How Blue Can You Get,” a signature song of B.B. King for many years, and “Blow Top Blues,” made famous by Dinah Washington’s recording. For many years Feather was the music critic of the L.A. Times. When his end-of-the-year column appeared in 1980 he chose my biography of B.B. King as Book Of The Year. I resisted the impulse to send it to the people at MacMillan.
In the Spring of 1995 I received another heart warming surprise. Out of the blue an email message came from a writer in Germany reporting that he had passed up an offer to write a follow-up chapter to my book for the German translation. This was the first I knew of the plans—of an Austrian publisher, as it happens—to bring out a new edition of the book in German. When I contacted Doubleday I learned that Doubleday had sold the German language rights to that publisher and that no one knew how to contact me. [I had ceased to get royalties from Doubleday by the mid-1980’s and I had moved a few time since then.] I contacted the publisher, Hannibal Verlag, in Vienna, Austria. We agreed I would write a new forward and final chapter for the German edition. The final chapter was to account for the developments in B.B. King’s career during the 15 years since my book first appeared. In the fall of 1995 the book appeared with my new chapter Keep The Hammer Down. [“Mit Beiden Fussen Auf Dem Gazpedal” in German.]
Perhaps the greatest irony in all this came from the publication in 1997 of a book called The B.B. King Companion, Five Decades of Commentary. It was compilation of interview with and articles about BB. The closing contribution in there is a reprint of the final chapter of the German edition of my book. Ironically, the publisher was Schimer Books, the one who had tried to cow me into re-architecting my manuscript because the editor was sure the book would be ridiculed. I learned from the author/editor of this book that the Schirmer editor who had savage my manuscript has since left the trade.
Why did my first editor at Schirmer Books treat it so nastily? Perhaps because he lost his nerve. Why did he lose his nerve? What is it about that manuscript that gave him such nightmares that he was determined to force me to make changes? The obvious answer is that my manuscript did not follow the convention of writing a musical biography. If he got so nervous, it was about its unconventional design. So he gave the manuscript to a frequent reviewer for Rolling Stone Magazine. There was nothing surprising in the opinion the reviewer gave as he was asked to assess the manuscript before publication. Commentators on unpublished manuscripts, even good ones, tend to lean on the conservative side; the bad ones identify with the authors and then find themselves lacking the courage exhibited by authors. My book was unorthodox in several ways; let me count them:
1) It did not assume that the reader was a B.B. King fan, or a blues fan; not even a music fan. The story of B.B. King’s life has much to reward any biography devotee. The struggle of the individual to overcome adversity and succeed has a universal appeal. Moreover, the adversity B.B. faced was deeply rooted in our culture and goes straight to the fundamental question: Can we have a just society in this country?
2) The book was not addressed to one hypothetical reader. [The principle of directing your book to one typical reader is among the most cherished rules of publishing. It has a long and venerable history, but it is not obligatory.] Given the diversity of prospective readers—B.B.’s fans, blues fans, musicologist, students of race relations in America, pop culture enthusiasts—I tried to address the different audiences separately and give clear cues that would to allow each reader to navigate my book according to his or her interests. I was proud to see the different aspects tie together as well as they did.
3) The book kept repeating essentials that might be missed by readers who skipped certain parts that did not speak to their interests.
It’s no wonder I had the troubles I had. That it was published at all is quit remarkable. I owe the eventual publication to two lucky breaks: it came onto the desk of an open-minded editor, and his deputy editor was a guitar player who told his chief “Whatever you do, don’t let this book go by: B.B. King deserved to have his story told.”
There were other troubles, too. One deserved mention: the designation of the book as The Authorized Biography. The people at Doubleday decided that this was important for the success of the book and so they made it a condition of my contract that I get written permission from B.B. King to cite this on my title page. As an author I wanted him to see the manuscript and have a chance to suggest corrections; as a friend I wanted him to feel free to voice any discomfort he might feel with any passage. But this raised the stakes. B.B. and his manager, Sid Seidenberg, said I would get the permission when they were satisfied with the manuscript. In the summer of 1979 B.B. received a copy. After some weeks he phoned me and requested two changes. One change was to remove a ribald and unflattering story I attributed to him about himself. He denied having ever told the story. I did not quibble and deleted it. The other change was over three words in a sentence about the mothers of his children. Although I thought the words were significant I knew he was very sensitive on the matter and I agreed to delete the three words. These very were small changes and they put his mind at ease. There was still the matter of the release to be signed.
Quite by chance the next time I saw B.B. was in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was visiting friends in the fall of 1979. I saw an ad for a B.B. King concert and I went to the concert hall. After the show I talked my way backstage.
“Charles, you did your part by writing the book,” he said to me, a little ceremonially, “I read the book and now it’s my turn to do my part. Here,” he said producing an envelop and handing it to me. “That’s the release.”
I reached for the envelop, but not fast enough.
“I’ll take that,” said his manager, Sid Seidenberg, taking the envolop. “There are some details to consider. Call me when you get back to the States, Charlie.”
When I called his Manhattan office he asked me to meet with his lawyer. We set a time and place. Jacques, my agent, agreed to come with me.
The meeting took place in the office of Jacob Rabinowitz in mid-Manhattan. Jack, as Sid called him, sat at his desk, the rest of us sat in chairs. Rabinowitz opened the discussion.
“Why don’t we do this nice and neat? You get half the royalties and B.B. gets half. Isn’t that fair?”
This began a conversation between the lawyer, the manager and the agent which went on for 45 minutes without any effort to involve me. I began to feel like Rod Serling would step out of the shadows and say something like, Although he doesn’t yet know it, Charles Sawyer is already dead and these men are discussing his estate. A bizarre prop in the corner, a turn-of-the-century dentist’s chair, drew my attention. I was tempted to walk over and sit in it, but I watched, fascinated and incredulous. Eventually, one of them turned to me and asked my opinion.
I told them that the book was not a ghosted autobiography. I was the sole author. Money couldn’t buy a better, more flattering book on their artist. Furthermore, writing the book had cost me roughly $15,000 (in 1970’s dollars!) and I wouldn’t consider sharing royalties until I had at least recouped the expenses. I granted that since the commercial prospects of the book were enhanced by B.B.’s stature, I wouldn’t object to his getting some share of royalites after I had made a reasonable profit. We worked out a royalty sharing arrangement that would kick in after I had made some money. An agreement was drawn up, I signed it, I got the release. It was signed by Sid Seidenberg, under power of attorney from B.B. King.
On our way out Rabinowitz said something that it would make any script writer blush:
“I’m glad you didn’t take it personally.”
I wish that were the end of it, but no. One of the people whom I approached to write a forward for the book was Nat Hentoff, a celebrated commentator associated most closely withThe Village Voice. He had written much music criticism, and some liner notes for jazz albums. He said he was definitely interested and I sent him a copy of the manuscript. After he had seen the manuscript he declined to write the forward, saying he wasn’t really qualified to write about blues or a blues artist. I took this explanation as disingenuous, since it could just as well have been offered before seeing the manuscript. Perhaps he got the same jitters as the people at MacMillan had had. As if it wasn’t enough to decline on transparently insincere grounds Hentoff volunteered to tell my publisher that calling it an authorized biography would compromise the book’s credibility and kill the book’s chances of success. Now the editor at Doubleday got a bit jittery. He asked if I would mind taking the “authorized” clause out of the title. “Damn right I’d mind,” I said. It stayed.
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