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JACK WEATHERLY — Riding with B.B.

Jack Weatherly


My big sister would tune the brown tabletop radio to WDIA, the pioneering black-music format station in Memphis.

She listened when my father wasn’t around.

If he caught her listening to that station, he’d say:

“Turn off that music!”

Except he would add an adjective or two that I won’t use here. One of the disc jockeys on that first-of-its-kind station was young Riley King.

Professional name, B.B.— for Blues Boy, short for Beale Street Blues Boy.

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That era was the gestation period for rock ‘n’ roll. Its progenitors — blues and country.

And Daddy didn’t want his daughter, who was at her full height of 5 feet 7 when she was 12, to hear the wrong kind of music and the wrong kind of lyrics. Not that his language was pristine in those days.

It would be a few years before the night she and a girl friend came to our house and were breathlessly trying to tell us about this Elvis Presley they’d heard perform at the Overton Park Shell.

That was coming soon enough, thanks to the Phillips cousins, Sam, the music-producing genius, and his wild cousin, Dewey.

Dewey, by the way, was the miscast inspiration for the lead role in the musical “Memphis,” which tries and fails to rewrite history. Dewey is portrayed as a racial pioneer in a social sense.

No. But he was in a music promotions sense.

The musical played for nearly three years on Broadway and currently is being staged in London.

But what do those people know?

His radio show on WHBQ (AM — FM was 10 years or more into the future), “Red, Hot and Blue,” was a mix of black and white music.

His manic, redneck chatter was from another world.

It is engrained in my memory, whether it was a pitch:

Git yourself a wheel barrow full of goober dust and run it through the front door of Poplar Tunes and tell Papa Joe-Joe Cuoghi that Daddy-o-Dewey sent you from ‘Red, Hot and Blue.”  (Store owner Joe Cuoghi was also a record producer in a town that was a cauldron of creativity.)

Or something beyond translation:

Dey-gaw, anybody wanna buy a fur-lined duck?!

As famed Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick would write, the new music was “something that had never previously existed on this earth.”

When Dewey latched onto something, he wouldn’t let go. Like Elvis’ first commercial release, “That’s All Right,” which Daddy-o played over and over and over.

The birth of rock through Elvis, Sam Phillips and others is undisputed.

But it seems that one of the foundations of the new music has always been on this earth.

Blues has that old sound. That eternal life-or-death cry.

I didn’t get it. I was a kid and couldn’t begin to appreciate suffering of that depth.

B.B. King was to the sharecropper shack born in “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” the Mississippi Delta, as historian James C. Cobb titled his book.

But as you know, citizen, B.B. transcended the region’s limitations and became a musical ambassador and leading proponent of its indigenous music.

Long ago, when I was at the Arkansas Gazette, he was in town for a performance. I sold an idea to the editor of Arkansas Times, then a monthly magazine. I would ride across the Arkansas Delta and interview the King of the Blues.

Yes, Mr. King agreed to let me do that. I’d be his chauffeur in my bouncy, old orange Volvo. We’d chat about music and life as my microcassette tape machine captured it, a recording session you might say.

But it wasn’t to be. Schedules got tangled up, and I never had the privilege.

After he passed away on May 14, the wave of his demise swept over me just as it did everyone, a tsunami of awe at his body of work.

Nothing like a satellite radio to take it in ’round the clock.

I found myself, foolishly perhaps, rolling my windows down and, as I pulled up to a red light and next to a car with young black men, saying to them over the high volume:

“B.B. King. B.B. King.”

They smiled and acknowledged.

I got to ride with B.B. after all.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1015.



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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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