Thursday, September 11, 2014

B.B. King: The Life of Riley

B.B. King: The Life of Riley (Emperor Media/MVDVisual) is a documentary film by John Brewer that traces the King of the Blues career from his days growing up as a poor Black in Mississippi to his present iconic musical stature reflected by the countless awards he has received including the Kennedy Center Honors and the Polar Music Prize. The film is narrated by Morgan Freeman and incorporates interview clips from King, childhood acquaintances, music peers, and contemporary rock artists who have been influenced by King’s music, particularly his guitar playing.

The documentary traces Riley King from his very humble beginnings growing up in a plantation economy to his emergence as a major rhythm and blues artist to the period of crossing over and his current status as a musical icon. There are interviews which those who knew B.B. when he was growing up along with folks who played a part in his emerging career including Rufus Thomas, Joe Bihari (who produced so many of B.B.’s greatest recordings for the Modern group of labels) and Robert Lockwood as we get the picture of the plantation youngster who develops his musical skills, becomes a music personality and becomes a consistent recording star while starting a grind of hundreds of touring dates a year that he only is starting to slow down from today.

The film takes us from these humble beginnings to his iconic status today as his crossover from the Chitlin Circuit to the mass market is detailed with discussions of his signing to ABC-Paramount; the recording of The Thrill Is Gone; the performance and recording of Live at Cook County Jail: his participation in the legendary concert associated with the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle; other recording sessions including those with Leon Russell and members of the Crusaders; and his collaborations with Eric Clapton and U2. In addition to appreciations from a various pop-rock luminaries including Clapton; Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi; Kenny Wayne Shepard, Carlos Santana, Slash and others, there are a variety of performance clips including some from his appearance on Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual TV show, and some from a recent DVD of a concert at Royal Albert Hall (I cannot recommend the DVD from this performance). Also included is a clip of King receiving the Polar Music Award (the equivalent of a Nobel Prize) from Swedish King Gustav.

There is little, if anything, about King’s very successful collaboration with Bobby Bland in the mid-70s (and a clip from Soul Train of the two would have been quite enjoyable). Also, while some of B.B.’s band members are interviewed, one wishes that they had interviewed folks like Ron Levy (who played piano with B.B. in the 1970s (he was with B.B. King in Africa) and whose stories about playing with King would have been enlightening). Also in lieu of, or in addition to, the rock stars, it would have been illuminating if more performers of color, such as his contemporary Lloyd Price (who would have insights on the African concert that Price helped organize), and contemporary guitarists such as Vernon Reid and James Blood Ulmer, had been asked for their insights with respect to B.B. King’s influence and legacy. Extras in the DVD package include a portion of the  Royal Albert Hall concert and some interviews with some of the rock stars who appear in this documentary. Life of Riley is a well put together documentary that the general audience should enjoy, although long-time King followers will be not fully satisfied with it.

I received a review copy from the MVD Entertainment Group. Here is a trailer for the film.

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