B.B. King, who passed away in 2015, earned the title “The King of the Blues” over more than 6 decades as a guitarist and singer. But being the eldest of B.B. King’s 15 children did not make Shirley King aspire to become a blues singer, as King performed as an exotic dancer for 21 years before making her professional singing debut in 1989.
King’s new album on Cleopatra Records, Blues for a King, is available today, which is Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery. “That’s a very special day for all of us, not just African Americans but every race of people have a reason that they should be celebrating together,” says King. “God didn’t create just one race. He created all of us. And we all belong in the pot together.”
Blues for a King pairs King’s vocals with an all-star cast of guitarists steeped in blues and rock, a list including Junior Wells, Elvin Bishop, Steve Cropper, Joe Louis Walker, Martin Barre and Pat Travers. The tracks mix blues standards “That’s All Right Mama” and “Gallows Pole” with rock classics including “Feelin’ Alright” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
King is anxious to get back on the road and hopes to perform live with the guitar icons who played on her new record. While on tour, King performs at local schools as part of her Blues in the Schools program. “We have to keep the younger generation appreciating the blues so they can take the blues and do things with it. Every generation is going to do the blues their way. So I’m working on that with all my heart and soul.”
Despite her father’s fame, Shirley King was not a blues fan as a teenager. “Blues was the music of my parents,” King wrote in Love Is King: B.B. King’s Daughter Fights to Preserve Her Father’s Legacy. “I took to more of a gospel sound, some soul tunes, and even country and western, as they liked to call it. I was open to all kinds of sounds, as I tried to find my own way.”
Rock Cellar: People might think that as B.B. King’s daughter you would have started performing music early.
Shirley King: I did start singing young, but I didn’t try to do it professionally until 1989 because I was able to do really well as a dancer from ’69–’89. I was making money, I was doing a lot of shows. I was at the top of my game as a dancer. I could be famous doing it without being B.B. King’s daughter. But when I started singing the blues, being B.B. King’s daughter helped me make my money and my career.
Rock Cellar: Describe the Chicago music scene of the 1970s when you were a dancer.
Shirley King: Living in Chicago, everybody that was anybody would come here. And I’ve been here since 1967. I met a lot of people growing up seeing my dad, but they weren’t really blues people because they would always put my dad on shows with people like James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke. I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of blues people until I moved to Chicago.
Shows back then, you had a comedian, like Pigmeat Markham, a dancer, an MC and you would have the opening act and the star. So I was able to perform on shows with people like James Brown, Al Green, those types of artists. When the Jackson 5 were becoming famous, they were the opening act and I was the dancer for the show. That’s how shows used to be.
I had a four or five-year relationship with Al Green. Then from being a dancer I met Teddy Pendergrass. Jackie Wilson came up on me a little while. The only reason I didn’t get to James Brown was because I knew how crazy he was, I wasn’t trying to do that with him. It was wonderful being a dancer because I met all the famous soul and R&B people.
I probably made more money dancing than I did singing when I first came in to the blues because blues people don’t make a lot of money — they just work a lot. By the time they get ready to die, they don’t even have enough money to be buried with. They made everybody else money, but they didn’t make money for themselves.
So I’m glad I didn’t jump right into blues.
Rock Cellar: You made your singing debut at the famous Chicago blues club Kingston Mines.
Shirley King: I went up in Kingston Mines after I stopped dancing in ’89. I knew I didn’t want to get a day job, so now I’m ready to sing the blues. It seemed that you can do that and you can be old and not have an album and you can work every night. So I went at it that way. I went up in there and I was sitting around watching the blues artists perform and I had a girlfriend working there named Barbara LaShore. She was a great performer and a phenomenal singer and I’d just go in there and study and watch her.
One night I asked her if I could sit in and she wouldn’t let me sit in. And after a while I kept going there like a little dog lookin’ for a bone, just sitting there in front of the stage: “Can I get up there? Please let me get up there with you.” And one night, I don’t know what happened, she just saw me, “Come on,” and let me up on that stage. And what did she do that for? Oh my God. I jumped up there and I bust out and the place was standing room packed, everybody knew this was going to be the night for Shirley King.
I jumped up there and looked out there and saw all those people looking at me. I forgot every lyric, every word to the song “Got My Mojo Working.” I didn’t know the key to tell the band to play in, I couldn’t remember nothing but I was on the stage and the owner was sitting right in front, staring up there. And I’m like, Uh-huh, I’m gettin’ this job. And all I could say was, “I got my mojo working.” I kept saying it over and over.
But something just told me, Hey, add your dancing to it. And I tore out. I started shaking my hips, talkin’ about, “If it just won’t work on you, look at this mojo action.” Oh, I don’t know what I did, I was doing comedian stuff, I was singing, I was dancing and after a while I looked at the owner and I said, Oh, maybe he ain’t understanding it. I ran and jumped in his lap. The audience went crazy, a standing ovation, and the owner sat there, his face was red as everything because I jumped in his lap and started shaking on it like I was a shake dancer.
Three weeks later I had a job at Kingston Mines. I was working at Kingston Mines five days a week. So I had to learn blues songs, I had to learn what I needed to do while I was working. Because I didn’t get a chance to say OK, I’m going to get the job in three or four months. Nope, I had to learn on the stage. And I was around a lot of great local musicians that really tried to help me along the way.
I would get up there and take somebody’s song and by the time I got through with the words it would be my song. The musicians didn’t like that because they wanted to play the song like the song. Shirley King didn’t know the songs like the songs. I went through a lot but it was a great learning thing and it helped me today to be an original.
I don’t sing nobody’s songs, not even B.B. King’s songs, like the original. I try to put Shirley King all the way in somebody’s songs and do it the way I can do it.
Rock Cellar: How did the idea for an album that paired you with famous guitarists come about?
Shirley King: I didn’t know who was going to be on this record when they told me they were going to add different blues guitarists. I’m still trying to wake up and realize, Is this really happening to me? Yes it is.
Maybe Cleopatra Records was looking back on how B.B. King made it big because my dad worked all his life making money but didn’t really get worldwide famous until he started doing stuff with Eric Clapton and U2.
Rock Cellar: What was the recording process like?
Shirley King: I went in the studio here in Chicago, did my vocals on the tracks they sent me and they took it from there. They’re not a blues label so they didn’t strike out to make me a blues artist. They struck out to make me an artist. A female vocalist. I can only sing the way I sing. I can’t sing a rock song like a rock song but I can use my voice to do it the way I can do it.
Rock Cellar: How did you prepare for the recording session?
Shirley King: I had to listen to these people because I wasn’t familiar with the way they sang those songs. Cleopatra pulled the tracks together the way they wanted them to sound but to me, it was like finding a karaoke track and singing to it.
And one time I would be at the studio and bust outside crying because that’s how frustrated I felt trying to sing some songs that I wasn’t familiar with. I felt very intimidated.
It’s really helping to have the guitar players that they have on there. If I go on stage with any of those guys and do the songs that I’m doing with them on the album, I think we’re both gonna be happy. They’re gonna be happy because they’re much older and did stuff with my dad and lived long enough to come on the stage and now do something with B.B. King’s daughter.
Rock Cellar: As Etta James was your major influence, was it intimidating to record “At Last”?
Shirley King: I’m still intimidated. Because at 13 years old I saw Etta James perform. I watched this woman and I always said I wanted to be like her. Not be her, be like her. And after that I went to few more concerts, running behind her and trying to shake her hand. She wasn’t a people person and even my dad told me, “I have her on the show with me and she doesn’t want speak to me and she was one of my girlfriends!”
Rock Cellar: Were you able to perform with your father?
Shirley King: My father didn’t do anything to hurt anybody, especially to me, because I’ve always been, as he would say, one of his most sensitive kids. He’d look at me the wrong way and I started crying. I always wanted my daddy to be happy with me. I never wanted him to be upset.
But what had happened was that other people were opening acts on his show and I was complaining about that. Because his management didn’t want him to let people come on stage and jam with him while he was paid to do a show, he had to be very leery about letting me get up on stage with him.
My daddy told me, “Make a name for yourself so you don’t have to coattail on my name.” He said, “I made a name for myself. I went out there and worked and earned this title. Nobody gave me a chance or nobody had me on their shows. I wasn’t an opening act.” But after a while he got to a place where he had heard so many good things about me, he allowed me about 10 times to come on stage and jam with him.
He was here in Chicago out in Joliet at a place playing and he felt really good that day. “Honey, come on up! Come on out!” I was happy at first but then when I got out there and saw the people and saw him sitting there on the stage, I go, Oh, that’s what people mean by being intimidated by being on stage with B.B. King. I started seeing him not as Daddy but he became B.B. King that night. So I’m going to get up there and make sure people walk away liking what I did.
I forgot it wasn’t my show. So I went out there being Shirley King the Showman: “Hey, y’all clap your hands! Come on, get up!” Every time I looked up there he was like, Are you serious? I was going off. I was up there trying to show him, Hey, I can do what you’re doing.
When he got off that stage and put me on that bus he told me, “Honey, Lesson One. Coming on the stage with somebody, don’t come out there and try to take over. Come out there and mellow in. Mellow in with them. Don’t come out there and overdo them because they’re not going to call you up on the stage with them anymore.”
The next time, it might have been a month later, he tried it again to see if I learned anything. And you better believe I walked out on that stage, I sat down, I didn’t stand up and he had to tell me, “OK baby, you can go on and sing a little bit now.” I learned from him how disrespectful that was to come out there and engage his audience into seeing how great I was. I think a lot of things we take for granted because we don’t know.
But my father was so classy, and if I didn’t do things the classy way I had to do ’em by myself because he would not let anybody come out there and bomb his show out. He just didn’t tolerate that, not even if it was his own daughter.
Rock Cellar: What was your favorite performance with your father?
Shirley King: In 2012, he was supposed to walk off the stage after he got through jamming with Buddy Guy and George Benson at Buddy Guy’s club but guess what he did? He went back after they walked off the stage, sat in a chair and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have my beautiful daughter with me and she’s a blues singer here in Chicago. Can I get her up and do a song with her?” The guys that were up on stage, you could see the look on their faces, like “What?” And when he said “The Thrill Is Gone,” he didn’t play no guitar, he just had the mic and sat there. And the guy that was playing guitar, Jimmy Johnson, started playing “The Thrill Is Gone.”
And when my dad handed me that mic to sing and I was sitting there singing, he had the smile of the proudest father in the world. From Buddy Guy to George Benson to every entertainer that was in that room, they were just sitting there, seeing my daddy passing the torch on to me.