Legendary blues guitarist B.B. King told Nieman Fellows about his hardscrabble beginnings and played for them one afternoon at Lippmann House back in the fall of 1980. That visit came about through the efforts of Bulgarian journalist and Nieman Fellow Bistra Lankova and her soon-to-be husband, King biographer Charles Sawyer. King, who died at his home in Las Vegas on May 14, gave a performance to remember …
It was fall, 1980. The Bulgarian dramaturge and film producer, Bistra Lankova, was just finishing her year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. I was a new author, Doubleday having just published my book, “The Arrival of B.B. King.” Bistra and I were falling in love, and B.B. King was about to make a swing through the Northeast.
Bistra saw that conditions were just right, and came up with the idea of inviting B.B. and me to Lippmann House for a luncheon and talk. She put the idea to Lois Fiore, assistant to Nieman curator Jim Thomson, who went for it in a flash. Jim did too, in equal time.
Things moved quickly. I gave B.B.’s itinerary to Jim and he selected a date that would fit B.B.’s schedule and not disrupt the Nieman speakers’ calendar. Then I phoned B.B.’s manager, Sidney Seidenberg, about the invitation. We both knew getting B.B. to agree to a speaking engagement at Harvard would be a challenge. He was a fearless performer on stage, had no trouble opening for the Rolling Stones, or playing for Queen Elizabeth at Royal Albert Hall in London, but the prospect of giving a luncheon talk at an Ivy League university struck terror in his heart.
Riley King (Riley is his given name) grew up in the Mississippi Delta, the son of sharecroppers who mortgaged their sole possessions, their very selves, to keep body and soul together. He received his entire formal education at Elkhorn School in Kilmichael, Mississippi, a one-room, one-teacher schoolhouse for all grades. He grew up to be an avid reader, but worried constantly that his manner of speaking would betray his lack of higher education and what he saw as his abysmal ignorance.
I reassured him, told him the audience at Lippmann House would be thrilled to hear what he had to say; but he balked. He would not be comfortable speaking to these people. Yet the prospect of being a guest at Harvard intrigued him and he came up with a way to cope with his fear. I’ll do it, provided it’s understood that I won’t speak until I have my guitar in my hand. Guitar? He’s bringing his guitar? Not only that, but he would bring some sidemen from his band and they would make some music. But I would have to give the luncheon talk.
On the appointed day B.B. and his entourage arrived on time in a few cars. His manager, Sid Seidenberg, always present at these events, led the way. The Nieman Fellows greeted B.B. individually as he came in, and the musicians were shown upstairs to set up their instruments in the library.
Charles Sawyer introduces B.B. King
At lunch B.B. was charming and sociable. I spoke for about 30 minutes about my hero and the writing of my book. Of special interest to the journalists was the 1940 farm record for sharecropper Riley King, age 14, raising cotton on one acre and living on $2.50 a month.
Then it was time to move upstairs to the library.
In those days the library was a living-room-sized space lined with bookshelves. There were couches, easy chairs, a coffee table, and two metal folding chairs for B.B. and his drummer. The drummer had a single snare and brushes. The bassist plugged in to a tiny practice amp and sat on an easy chair. The keyboard player had a small electric keyboard plugged into his own little amp.
B.B. sat down on a folding chair, plugged in this Gibson 335S and strummed a chord. I pushed the record button on my portable Panasonic cassette player and set it on the rug in front of B.B. He began speaking about his musical education, which started with instructional manuals purchased through the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
What followed was a unique and purely magical performance. He played five songs, singing without a microphone while his audience listened, in complete thrall to the greatest blues singer and guitarist of all time, who was sitting across the room from them, giving them a private concert. The power of B.B.’s voice was enhanced, not diminished, by the absence of a sound system because of the intimacy he achieved in the confines of a small, acoustically dampened space.
B.B. King performs at Lippmann House
Between songs he spoke about the blues, about his life, and how the events of his time affected him. When he was done, we socialized and he signed autographs. Bistra gave him a tour of a photo exhibition on display.
On the way to his car I told him he would get a small honorarium, $100 or so, for his visit. “Keep it for yourself, Charles, and use it to buy a ring for the lady.”
That last remark took me completely by surprise. Bistra and I had discussed our future, but marriages between Americans and citizens from Iron Curtain countries were fraught with difficulties and we had not made up our minds. We wondered, “Does B.B. know something we don’t know?” He did, indeed. Bistra and I were married six weeks later in White River Junction, Vermont.