There have been 45 presidents of the US since King George III was sent packing. The US, though, has had three Kings, who have left a lasting legacy. This year is the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination and last week we followed in his footsteps from Memphis where he made his Mountaintop speech and was assassinated to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the opening of a new chapter in the Civil Rights story. This week we look at B.B. King, the Blues and Beale Street, before finishing in Graceland with Elvis Presley, the King.
Woke up this morning. Well, this is the home of the Blues, Memphis, Tennessee, so there was only one thing for it, I headed down to Beale Street.
Which is, of course, the first place visitors come when they arrive here.
Even this early in the morning, 9am, the Blues is blaring out from the bars and clubs even though they won’t open until early evening.
We were in B.B.’s Blues Bar the night before, dancing to the early hours to the house band, working off the Barbecue chicken, rice and catfish and going back for seconds, rolling down the river to Tina Turner’s Proud Mary.
Riley King first came here from his native Mississippi in his late teens but first started making his mark when the sole black radio station in town, WDIA, championed him in his early 20s and christened him Beale Street Blues Boy, abbreviated to Blues Boy (he was just B to his friends).
B.B. has been intertwined with Beale Street ever since.
His club is at the foot of the pedestrianised stretch where revellers mill every night, spilling out of the clubs, taking the party outside.
W.C. Handy, the ‘Father of the Blues’, looks down the road at us all, from outside the pedestrian cordon further down Beale Street… his boyhood shack has been recreated in exact detail nearby.
It was Band leader Handy, travelling around the Mississippi Delta over the turn of the 20th century who curated the sounds which would become the Blues and developed it and brought it to the mainstream in Memphis, his standard Memphis Blues which was originally called Crump’s Blues, was written for the Mayoral candidate.
Handy, his trumpet in hand, stands across the road from the Robert Church Park, named for the South’s first black millionaire, who along with Handy did most to turn Beale Street into a cultural and commercial hub for black Memphians.
Today it is a tourist hub but is also a living, breathing, musical experience and as is explained to us it provides work for gigging local musicians.
And it has the seal of approval from the Blues specialists in our group.
At the heart of Memphis life then, as now, is the Church and the historic First Baptist Church has special resonance.
They all came here to worship and sing Gospel.
Gospel was B.B.’s first influence when he watched his own pastor play guitar in church back in Mississippi.
Jerry Lee Lewis’s club is down Beale Street, one of many jumping joints, including the highly-recommended Rum Boogie Bar where our own Wolfgang got up to play harmonica and earned a tenner from the band, his first-ever commission.
There’s an Irish bar too, obviously, Silky O’sullivan, with duelling pianos, a Blues museum, numerous soul diners, and also Lansky’s which boasts that it is the clothier to the King.
Elvis, like B.B., was from Mississippi which is where we’ll go next to see where the Blues all started.
The Blues Trail is a 200-marker route through time and Mississippi, chronicling all the great Blues singers, B.B. Muddy Waters, Charley Patton, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker et al, and retelling their stories. If you are an independent traveller you should make use of the Blues Trail app.
I can never trust either my sense of direction regardless of how straight these roads are… much of it is the vertical Highway 61, the Blues Highway… or my command of technology.
But that’s just me, and thankfully our 20-strong party, has laid-back and knowledgeable Southerner Clint driving us and educating us in the Blues, cranking up the CDs on the decks.
Short of sleep… all these Bluesy nights, I drift off into a dream as we pass the open flat brown fields that at one time teemed with black slaves and sharecroppers.
Oh, I wish I was single because my lady is driving me mad.
And suddenly I’m back. It’s the music.
In truth, you could never mistake Modern-Day Man with Bluesman, they were a different species.
No woman nowadays would allow it.
Not that they seemed to then either.
Every Bluesman has his wife leaving them ‘because his woman done them wrong’ though there’s always the assumption that he’ll talk his way back.
All Bluesmen are the same, the same but then different.
And then on top of all that there’s Robert Johnson, ‘the Baddest Man in Blues,’ who legend has it made a deal with the Devil at a crossroads, near to where we stop off at Dockery Plantation after which we returned to town with a new-found guitar style which set him apart from his peers.
Whatever the truth, and who wouldn’t want to believe this story, we do know that Robert was a bit of an oul’ Divil for the women.
He seemed to have one in every port or town, more often than not somebody else’s which ultimately was his undoing when he was poisoned at 27, the wife of a jealous husband lacing his whiskey with Strychnine.
Our own hero B.B. loved, and was much loved by women.
He even named his guitars after women, or one woman in particular, Lucille, a damsel in distress.
Legend has it that two fellas were fighting over her at one of his gigs when a fire broke out interrupting the concert forcing everyone to evacuate the building.
B.B. realising that his favourite guitar was still inside rushed into the building to retrieve it and thereafter named his guitars after her.
I get to caress Lucille later in our trip at the Westin Hotel in Jackson where as a promotion replica guitars of the greats are left in selected rooms.
Women held a special affection for B.B. He married three times and sired 11 children at least, maybe even 15.
When love came to town, B.B. didn’t turn it down.
And that’s definitely is worth singing about,
Jim flew with United Airlines, Dublin to Newark, New Jersey and then onto Mississippi, returning Jackson, Mississippi to Houston, Texas, then onto Newark and onto Dublin. Car hire, three nights Memphis – Peabody, one night Cleveland – Hampton Inn, two nights Natchez – The Burn B&B, two nights Jackson – Westin. Costs may vary. Lead-in cost per person £1655 (€1865). Visit B.B. King’s www:bbkings.com. www.united.com. www.peabodymemphis.com, www.hilton.com/Hampton_Inn/Cleveland, www.theburnbnb.com, www.marriott.com.
This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in January 2018.