Daughter of the Blues
By Kevin Wierzbicki | Photography Courtesy of Shirley King
Shirley King carries on her father’s blues musical tradition, but in her own right and on her own terms.
Sammy Davis Jr. once quipped, “Part of show business is magic. You don’t know how it happens.” Blues singer Shirley King, the daughter of the late legendary blues man B.B. King, knows exactly how the magic happens — with innate talent developed through hard work. King’s famous dad was quick to offer encouragement and proudly nurture her talent, but Shirley in no way was interested in riding anybody’s coattails.
“One thing I learned from the start once I decided to make music my career was that just because I was B.B. King’s daughter, nothing was going to be handed to me,” King says. “I was going to have to work for everything I wanted to achieve, which of course is how it should be. My father was always there with a kind word and I had his full support in pursuing a career in music, and he was always there to help me out if I wanted it. But I think it’s always more gratifying to succeed in life on your own terms. Throughout my journey, I’ve learned the value of hard work and persistence.”
Born in West Memphis but currently a resident of Chicago, King did not grow up wanting to be a professional blues singer. Recently a septuagenarian, the singer began her career in the 1990s and has released numerous albums over that 30-year span, including the stellar “Blues for a King” that dropped early this summer.
The effort finds King performing blues-ified covers of familiar songs like the Elvis Presley-associated “That’s Alright Mama” and Traffic’s “Feeling Alright” along with an especially eerie interpretation of “Gallows Pole,” a cut also covered by Leadbelly and Led Zeppelin. The album features lots of guest musicians, but since the spotlight is on King’s vocals, all the guests are guitar players.
“I’ve learned to trust my instincts and associate with people who are supportive of what I’m trying to accomplish,” says King. “I’ve never met any of the musicians who guest on my new album but I know they all loved and respected my dad as both a person and a musician, and I think they were also honoring my dad’s memory by performing on my record. I recorded my vocals in a studio in Chicago; the guest artists recorded on their own in whatever studio they chose. I wish I could have met them and recorded with them; it’s great to be able to record remotely but I always prefer getting into a studio with musicians and letting it rip the old-fashioned way.”
King’s guest guitarists on “Blues for a King” include some of the hottest in the business: Harvey Mandel, Robben Ford, Duke Robillard, Elvin Bishop, Pat Travers, Joe Louis Walker, and former Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre.
Considering who her father was it would be unlikely that King would be star struck, in the studio or elsewhere, though she did come close once with one of her idols.
“My son, on tour with dad, called me from the road on one of my birthdays and told me he had a surprise for me,” King recalls. “The next thing I know I’m on the phone speaking with Etta James! I just about fainted. She was very sweet and kind to me on the phone and she told me she was a big fan of my singing and my career. She was probably just kidding with me, but it was still very kind of her to say that. I certainly have always been a fan of Etta and her music. She was one of a kind.”
Always aware to a certain extent of her dad’s gravitas, King remembers the moment that she really realized the heft of B.B.’s star power.
“My dad was performing in Chicago and was feeling really good that day,” says King. “I was in the audience watching him and all of a sudden I hear, ‘Honey, come on up! Come up onstage.’ It was my father inviting me up to sing with him. I was happy about it at first but then when I got up there and saw all the people and saw my dad sitting there on stage, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, so that’s what people mean by being intimidated by being on stage with B.B. King.’
“At that moment I started seeing him as not just my father but also as B.B. King, the beloved music icon. I went up there and made sure to give it my all, but it was initially very intimidating.”
This daughter of the blues also puts her mothering instinct to use with Chicago schoolkids where she’s involved with the Blues in the Schools program. King notes that kids like to sing “I Got my Mojo Working” with her, but she also teaches them about where the subject matter of blues songs comes from.
“If you get bad grades in school, that’s the blues,” she says. “If you don’t have any milk in your refrigerator, that’s the blues. Hopefully my efforts will help keep blues music alive in the schools and in kids’ lives.”