When Young Elvis Met the Legendary B.B. King
"B.B. couldn’t help but like Elvis."
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She aimed to challenge one of her state’s separate-but-equal policies. City rules required that Black bus passengers exit the front door after paying their fare and then reenter the vehicle through a rear door. Whites sat in front, Blacks in back, behind an invisible color line that shifted when more white people boarded. No Black person could sit while a white passenger stood.
Parks found a seat that Thursday evening. But then the bus filled, and its driver asked Parks to yield her seat to a white man. She refused. Police arrested her. Organizers printed up thirty-five thousand handbills instructing the city’s Black community to honor a citywide boycott of public buses on December 5, the date of Rosa Parks’s trial. Most of the Black community opted in, and city buses sat largely empty on the day a court found Parks guilty of violating segregation laws. For leadership, boycott organizers tapped a 26-year-old church minister named Martin Luther King Jr.
That night, King gave his first big speech to an audience of nearly five thousand protesters at the Holt Street Baptist Church. “My friends,” he said, “there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July, and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.” Deafening cheers finally drowned him out.
The Montgomery bus boycott dragged on for months. Membership soared in the local white Citizens’ Council. On January 30, 1956, segregationists bombed King’s Montgomery home. He and his family escaped injury. Local prosecutors indicted King and other Black leaders for conspiring in the boycott. King was convicted and fined $500. In November 1956, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively outlawed segregated buses. On December 21, Blacks returned to Montgomery buses. White segregationists fought on, firing guns at the buses and bombing African American churches and pastors’ homes. A grand jury later indicted four white men in the bombings. Two confessed to their crimes, but a sympathetic jury acquitted them. Prosecutors dropped charges against the others.
Throughout the nascent civil rights struggle, white segregationists had variously portrayed the Black activists as radicals, outside agitators, or communists. Much of their ire focused on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group formed in 1909 to combat lynchings and racial disenfranchisement. The NAACP’s agenda was hardly radical and certainly not communist, and Dr. King himself was a Montgomery resident. To counter the segregationist propaganda, local organizers formed a new group called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with King at its head and the church at its back.
The Platters had lifted Black rhythm-and-blues to the top of the white pop charts in February 1956 with “The Great Pretender.” Seven months later, on September 5, a white recording artist appeared atop the R&B charts, and the crossover was complete.
Sam Phillips had proceeded from his work with B.B. and Howlin’ Wolf to record a succession of other Memphis rhythm-and-blues talents, releasing many sides but failing to score a breakthrough hit. It was perhaps his commercial failure with Black artists that drove Phillips to focus increasingly on white artists. Phillips had discovered, and B.B. was fast learning, that the R&B charts could take an artist only so far. “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel,” Phillips said, “I could make a billion dollars.”The iconic image of Elvis and B.B., arm in arm at the peak of each man’s youthful fame, would become the stuff of legend.
The producer’s hopes alighted on Elvis Presley, a white, working-class teenager from northeastern Mississippi, one of many young singers prowling around downtown Memphis looking for work. Something about Elvis—an odd blend of deep humility, painful insecurity, and iron resolve—reminded Phillips of B.B. King. The producer indulged Elvis and tried out one song after another until something clicked: an old Arthur Crudup blues titled “That’s All Right,” which Elvis and his little combo sang almost as a goof, jumping around the studio, hamming it up. Phillips finally had the sound he wanted. When the recording hit the radio in the summer of 1954, listeners couldn’t tell if Elvis was white or Black. The single sold to patrons of both races.
Elvis moved to RCA Victor before scoring his first number 1 pop hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” in 1956. Elvis remained every bit the ham, singing with exaggerated vibrato, gasps, and yelps, sounding as intimate and unguarded as someone caught crooning in the shower. His vocal delivery was as over-the-top as Little Richard’s, and African American listeners loved it. “Heartbreak Hotel” hit number 3 on the Black charts, a rarity in the prior history of the Billboard “race” market. Elvis then topped both the Black and white charts with a searing cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” perhaps the most powerful song he would ever cut, released in tandem with a masterpiece of restrained lust titled “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Years later, B.B. recalled meeting Elvis in the Sam Phillips studios, where B.B. had cut sides in 1950 and 1951. “When I’d go over there, several times Elvis was there,” B.B. told an interviewer. But Elvis first entered Sun Studios in 1953, two years after B.B.’s last session there. Thus, B.B. probably met Elvis on a return visit to the studios, as a celebrity guest. He met the rest of the vaunted Million Dollar Quartet: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. “I saw all of them, but they didn’t have much to say. It wasn’t anything personal, but I might feel a little chill between them and me,” B.B. recalled, never elaborating on whether their silence signaled rivalry, racism, or something else.
“But Elvis was different. He was friendly. I remember Elvis distinctly,” B.B. recalled, “because he was handsome and quiet and polite to a fault”—not unlike B.B. himself. “Spoke with this thick molasses Southern accent and always called me ‘sir.’ I liked that. In the early days, I heard him strictly as a country singer,” which is how most people regarded Elvis in the early years. Elvis made his first television appearance on a program titled Louisiana Hayride. “I liked his voice, though I had no idea he was getting ready to conquer the world.”
On December 7, 1956, B.B. returned to Memphis for the Goodwill Revue, WDIA’s annual benefit concert to help the city’s poor Black children. B.B. was a headliner that Friday night, along with Ray Charles, whose career and B.B.’s were rising apace. Organizers wondered if they could get Elvis, now a bigger star than either B.B. or Uncle Ray, to make a guest appearance. It was a big ask: the Goodwill Revue was an all-Black show, and Elvis would be very nearly the only white person in the Ellis Auditorium if he turned up. Elvis gave his enthusiastic assent, though he could not perform: his contract with RCA forbade it. So Elvis stood quietly in the wings and watched his heroes. Near the end of the show, Rufus Thomas led Elvis to the stage. Elvis greeted the throngs with one of the leg gyrations the television networks would not show. The audience screamed and rushed the stage. Police whisked Elvis off.
Elvis found B.B. backstage. They posed for pictures, Elvis in a striped jacket and tie, B.B. in a white tuxedo, both men wearing easy, crooked smiles. B.B. had watched Presley’s rise with a mix of fascination and envy. “The new stuff was R&B sung by a good-looking white boy,” he recalled, with a measure of irony. Still, B.B. couldn’t help but like Elvis, and his presence at the Revue spoke volumes: “I believe he was showing his roots. And he seemed proud of those roots.”
The iconic image of Elvis and B.B., arm in arm at the peak of each man’s youthful fame, would become the stuff of legend, particularly among Elvis fans seeking proof that the King had honored his rhythm-and-blues forebears. It was no act. Elvis treated B.B. “like royalty” that night, the bluesman recalled, recounting how B.B. had inspired his career.
Black teens remained smitten with Elvis, buoying “All Shook Up,” “Teddy Bear,” and “Jailhouse Rock” in turn to the top of the R&B charts at a time when B.B. was scrapping for hits. That stoked resentment. Nat Williams mused in his syndicated column, “How come cullud girls would take on so over a Memphis white boy . . . when they hardly let out a squeak over B.B. King, a Memphis cullud boy?”
B.B. spoke diplomatically of the rock ’n’ roll revolution as it unfolded. Decades later, in a moment of candor, he would dismiss the genre as “just more white people doing blues that used different progressions”: “Elvis was doing Big Boy Crudup’s tunes, and they were calling that rock and roll. And I thought it was a way of saying, ‘He’s not black.’”
At the close of 1956, Evelyn Johnson and her Buffalo Booking Agency honored B.B. for playing 342 gigs that year, nearly one a day. His earnings for the year topped $100,000. He now owned one hundred suits. At Christmas, generous to a fault, B.B. presented a Cadillac to every member of his seven-piece band. He rewarded himself by taking off the entire month of February, the first real vacation of his working life.
Yet, B.B. was not entirely pleased. “Can’t knock the money, but it’s a tough way to live,” he told an interviewer in 1957. “The hours are terrible and the traveling is worse.” B.B. was king of the chitlin’ circuit but virtually unknown to white America. “Records are funny,” he observed. “You aim them for the colored market, then suddenly the white folks like them and, Wham!, you’ve got both markets, plus whites at your dances. That’s what happened to Fats Domino.”
Fats had released his first long-playing album, Rock and Rollin’ with Fats Domino, in the spring of 1956 on the independent Imperial label. The LP format, introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, marked a gradual shift from brittle shellac 78s to slower-turning records pressed from more durable vinyl. By the late 1950s, LPs accounted for roughly one-quarter of all records sold and more than half of the money spent. Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry all issued their first long-players in 1957.
B.B.’s bold foray into the LP market appeared in the spring of 1957 as Singin’ the Blues, at a rock-bottom price of $1.49. Even discount records of that era generally fetched twice that sum. Like many early LPs, Singin’ the Blues merely repackaged B.B.’s greatest hits. Each of the dozen tracks had been a single, and most were obvious choices: the number 1 hits “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Please Love Me,” “You Upset Me Baby,” and “You Know I Love You,” along with top-ten entries “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Ten Long Years,” “Sweet Little Angel,” and “Bad Luck.” The Biharis rounded out the collection with “Crying Won’t Help You,” a lower-charting song, and two numbers that hadn’t charted at all: “Blind Love” and “Did You Ever Love a Woman.” The back-cover liner notes, evidently compiled without B.B.’s participation, described him as a former dockworker who had started out “plunking his father’s battered old guitar.”
Singin’ the Blues emerged on Crown Records, a new Bihari imprint. While most of the music industry moved in one direction, the Bihari brothers lumbered off in another. Major labels seized on the profit potential in high-quality long-playing records, packaging albums in dust jackets tucked within thick cardboard sleeves adorned with lavish cover art, liner notes, production credits, and dire warnings about stylus wear, even as they hiked the retail price by a full dollar to $4.98. The Biharis, by contrast, priced Crown releases at $1.98 or less and dispatched them to budget bins in general stores and service stations, to be sold alongside discount fare from the Pickwick and Camden labels. As a rule, the Crown factory pressed records on vinyl of such inferior quality that they sounded scratchy on the first play and packaged them without dust covers inside sleeves that lacked production credits. Customers who purchased Singin’ the Blues might even find an entirely different record inside.
As an African American and a bluesman, B.B. already felt consigned to the music industry’s bargain basement, an inferiority he would later liken to being Black twice. The discount-bin stigma haunted him. “I thought I was being undervalued and undersold,” he recalled.
But B.B. continued to release fine singles at a steady pace. He opened “I Want to Get Married,” a minor hit from the spring of 1957, with a pair of jazz chords in descending chromatic sequence, a gentle reminder that B.B. played three-chord blues by choice, not because he knew no other chords. When B.B. sang that he had known true love “three times” in his life, perhaps he alluded to Angel, his childhood love; Martha, his first wife; and Sue, the girl he intended to wed—although subsequent references to one paramour as a “juicehead” and a second as “another man’s wife” frustrate such analysis.
Sue surprised B.B. in his New Orleans hotel room one day in May 1957, walking in unannounced. She faced a grim task: to tell him that she had just given birth to a son named Timothy and that he was not the father. Sue had continued to date other men. She sat on the bed, broke the news, and braced for B.B.’s wrath. Instead, his face cleaved into a smile. He took her hands. “Now you’re an adult,” he beamed. “Now we can get married.” Sue was a mother, which meant she was a woman, even if she was not yet eighteen. “Do you want to get married?” B.B. asked, uncertainly. “Yes!” Sue replied, terror melting to joy. B.B. had no ring to offer his new fiancée, but he promised they would wed after her next birthday.
B.B. soon had another cause for celebration. His next single, “Be Careful with a Fool,” became his first hit on Billboard’s Top 100 Sides chart, later renamed the Hot 100, which ranked the best-performing singles across all musical genres. It peaked at number 95. Nearly all of B.B.’s singles now featured guitar solos. On this one, he squeezed a flatted “blue” third until the underlying tone was gone and only the harmonic overtone remained—a technique, later named “pinch harmonics,” that legions of rock guitarists would exploit in decades to come.
Excerpted from King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King. © 2021 Daniel de Visé. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.