TV Review: American Masters: B.B. King: The Life of Riley

The documentary examines the blues legend's life and music.
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The latest installment of the PBS series, American Masters, documents the life and music of blues maestro Riley “B.B.” King. A sharecropper’s son who first played guitar in church, he also worked as a DJ before becoming the undisputed king of American blues (and an inspiration to countless rock musicians).  

This documentary features interviews with Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Ringo Starr, John Mayer, and other musicians. There are plenty of original and archival interviews with B.B., including one conducted on a trip back to his birthplace in Mississippi.  It follows King’s story from his early life working in the cotton fields of Mississippi to his decades long career touring and recording. Also interviewed are one of his ex-wives, his office manager, relatives, and ex-bandmates, who portray him as not only a dedicated musician, but a warm and gracious friend.

Raised by his maternal grandmother near Indianola, Mississippi, King moved to Memphis after she died. He talks about being fascinated by a guitar a preacher friend of the family brought over to the house when he was a child, and how his musical influences, including his cousin, Delta bluesman Bukka White, and Django Reinhardt, helped him form his own distinctive style. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, he toured nationally with his band, playing every venue imaginable, from cafes to concert halls.

 In 1968, King and his band played in front of a rock audience for the first time at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The response was so overwhelming, it brought him to tears. This led to his mainstream breakthrough. He toured with the Rolling Stones, released “The Thrill is Gone,” (which reached #15 on the Billboard charts), and recorded tracks with Leon Russell, Joe Walsh, and other rock musicians. In 1988, he recorded and performed “When Love Comes to Town” with U2, and it brought B.B. and his work to another generation of music fans. King rarely took a sabbatical from touring, and this led to the dissolution of both his marriages.  He lived for the music and toured 365 days one year, and close to it most years.   

“When you say 'blues and B.B. King,' you’ve said it all. That’s the top of the line”, George Benson says in one of the interview clips that begin the documentary. B.B. King’s name is synonymous with American blues, and B.B King: The Life of Riley covers his amazing journey from the Mississippi Delta to playing at the White House.  It’s a good primer on the man’s life and legacy, but lacks full musical performances - there are only a few soundbites of him playing on stage, and the documentary consists mostly of interviews from peers, managers and friends.  

B.B. King: The Life of Riley was produced and directed by Jon Brewer, and narrated by Morgan Freeman.  It premieres on American Masters on February 12th.

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