The documentary opens with Bill Cosby speaking about how the story of Riley B. King (more famously known as B.B. King) is one of survival. Other celebrities and musical greats including Bruce Willis, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton also chime in with their commentary about the blues legend. They speak to the distinct sound of his music recognizable by only one note and the ever present vibrato.
Narrator Morgan Freedman eventually takes over to recount the main elements of B.B. King’s early years starting with his 1925 birth on a sharecropper’s plantation along the Mississippi Delta. King reflects on his early years, referring to himself as just a blues singer, while sitting on his tour bus headed back to his birthplace for the annual B.B. King Homecoming Festival. It is clear that the early period in his life is what shaped the man he would become. Influenced by the reverend Archie Farms, King learned a lot about both music and himself from attending church regularly. This was important because King was not immune to the realities of the era. The KKK was very active in his community and he was witness to a lynching that still haunts him to this day.
It was also in these early years where King received that he received his first guitar from a plantation owner he once worked for. Pushed by his love of music, King eventually left the Delta headed for Memphis at age 23 spending 5 years at WDIA Records as a DJ. He went by the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy which evolved to Blues Boy then eventually shortened to B.B. King. He played in the clubs at night, sang on the radio and cut 4 sides for Bullet Records. It was also in this period where he came up with the name for his guitar, stemming from a night club fight over a girl named “Lucille”. King’s professional musical career started to take shape in 1955 when he toured with his band the B.B. King Review playing the black clubs on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. This is also where got the reputation for tirelessly touring; sometimes playing up to 360 days a year.
Director Jon Brewer touches on many of the important moments in B.B. King’s career including the influence that his 1964 quintessential album “Live at the Regal” had on guitar players ranging from Paul Rogers to Bono. The film even highlights how King ended up touring with groups like The Rolling Stones and U2 later in his career. This helped to introduce King to a whole new fan base abroad while offering additional legitimacy to all those who had doubted him back home.
Brewer spent two years working on this project and went over 250 plus hours of archival material to complete the film. The results payoff though as B.B. King: The Life of Riley is a wonderful tale about a blues titan. It is a piece that has great cross generational appeal. The documentary shows the level of respect that traditional legends in rock have for a true pioneer. It is a film that I can highly recommend.