An award-winning yet mysteriously modest musical whirlwind, Bill King is one lucky dude. He has photographed, jammed and jazzed it up with a galaxy of superstars, from Aretha Franklin to Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall to Dave Brubeck, from the Rolling Stones to Willie Nelson. These stars and a constellation more are the subjects of his new book, called In Concert! Essays, Images, and Interviews. ( Blurb Pub., 2014)
As a talented youngster, he had the good fortune to study piano with Eva Smith, keyboardist for the legendary W.C. Handy. At 16, this lanky teen from Indiana won a scholarship to Oscar Peterson's prestigious School of Contemporary Music in Canada. After his jazz baptism that summer, he began to compose songs, arrange music, and transcribe hits for his first band, one he put together -- all while still a minor.
As he grew up, Bill also became the mentor and creative instigator for a dizzying number of bands and vocalists in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, all while adding photographer, broadcaster, and music producer to his own resume. In fact, King seems to have spent much of the last 50 years making other musicians look and sound good.
With the release of In Concert! his visceral prose lets us feel the gritty reality of the music world he knows so well -- and its addictive hold on performers. Here's his take on Willie Nelson:
Beyond the rough stuff of aging, Nelson is purity. The voice of Texas. The sunbelt. There are chunks of crushed gravel in his throat from years of inhaling the dust and broken rocks from the side roads of forgotten America. There is plenty of sorrow in there. Drinks that stink and boil in the stomach. One-nighters, most of them forgettable.
If you've ever hitchhiked the southwest, you too remember the close association with the ground beneath your feet, the air that stings and cools, the once-living things that rot in the road, and those that run alongside the endless highways, dodging death. Occasionally, you spot the pumping arm of a distant oil rig, a black tool working to its own regulated beat.
This is Willie's world. And it's transparent. My lens brings him closer, the snap of the shutter freezing June 20, 2013, for me. From the first grinding chords and splintered blue strains, Nelson is pure Nelson: "You Were Always on My Mind." Then a succession of short takes, hits housed in medley form: three songs and seven mini-reminders of the tunes that brought him fame and lasting employment.
Much like B.B. King, the tour bus will be home for him until time puts an end to the long drive. You may wonder why players of this acclaim still sequester themselves into a minimal space of square feet. Why they still sleep to the soundtrack of wheels a-spinning. Then you realize that the Willie Nelsons were born in a time of six-nighters, of back-slapping music lovers at every small stopover, of real people who love you for just singing about them. For just being. It's a human narcotic, more addictive than the jam-packed stadiums. It's a sensation that never lies or lingers past reality.
In his image-studded collection of essays and interviews, King's frank and powerful writing gives us a wealth of poignant insights like these.