Sometimes being a music journalist is a privilege. Talking to a legend like Shirley King is one of those times. Shirley is quite simply one of the most interesting figures in blues you could meet. Daughter of the late, great, BB King, she has well-received albums in her own right, Blues for a King (2020) on Cleopatra Records https://open.spotify.com/artist/7tHq9f6HuSqjR4I4ppTigb
Daughter of the Blues (1999) and the older Jump through my Keyhole (1992). This is the first of two features on Shirley, as she has so many great stories from tales of Elvis and BB in Memphis to the struggles of her youth and finding the blues again in later life. I hope you enjoy reading this every bit as much as I enjoyed talking to her.
The last time I spoke to Shirley was in 2020 when she regaled me with talk of her childhood, a childhood spent looking after younger siblings (a baby under each arm) and caring (if that is the right word) for the world’s meanest turkey that would take spite on her every time they met! It is so funny hearing about that turkey, it is a tale to be heard rather than read!
“That fighting turkey? I need to write a song about that fighting turkey!”
So as she is so lovely to talk to, here she is again!
Shirley, you must write an autobiography one day.
I have one out, but it was not about Shirley King, it was about fighting for my Daddy’s legacy, which was released in 2017. Everyone was interviewing different family members, but my father trained me how to talk to the media. My father told me good information on what to say or not to say, I’m so glad I used it as some of my family members went to the media and started saying things… mean things about the family. But the media, they love BB King, but they don’t know the family, but if you say things trying to get your 15 minutes of fame it backfires on you…I’m blessed that my father always tried to tell me to be like he was. My father trained me how to be in the business, and I use all his advice now…
We spoke about your childhood last time, but what was Shirley King doing in her 20s and 30s, you had left the blues. What were you doing?
Well, that is where the book is going to come in! I’ll feed you a little bit, but the book will take Shirley from 2 till 72. But in my 20s I went to Chicago, supposedly to get married to a childhood sweetheart, but he reversed and married my girlfriend. My very best girlfriend, but he broke up and he called me to Chicago to make her jealous, not that I knew that. So I come along and expect to get married, you know the dream of two kids and all that. But I was misused and embarrassed…I found a remedy after getting hurt, which was the first case of my real blues. I went out and began to hang out with my Dad and figures in entertainment. One of the girls was dealing with Carl Wright, an MC and comedian in Chicago, now he helped introduce me to the next big thing that happened to me, I was invited to be on stage as a dancer in a Go-Go Club. The called it a strip club back in the day and that got comical and funny as I was a good dancer, I had the right shape and everything! I had everything bar the outfits! All the other girls has these outfits, but in I came with these panties on, and these ruffles and everyone loved how I danced but hated the way I was dressed on stage! So I had to work my way up. I eventually became the top dancer here in Chicago….I became a classy, high profile dancer here in Chicago.
My Daddy came to a show and once he gave me approval…you know I danced for 21
years and I had two kids by then. I didn’t want to do to them what happened to me. I wanted to stay close to them, for them not to be anywhere unsafe. I danced but only in Chicago for high profile clubs, no seedy strip clubs. I did nothing but class shows, and my father gave his permission for me to do this as long as I never did two things. Never be involved with drugs or prostitution.
In showbiz, if you look like I did, all things in the right place, you came into offers, but my father he made me promise, and I am so happy when people like and remember my dancing. In fact I was in a movie dancing (Rudy Ray Moore’s 1976 Action Comedy The Human Tornado). My father was overjoyed I got in that movie dancing, because when he saw me I was embarrassed, you know do you want to entertain your father, you look through your legs and there’s your father sitting looking at you! But he always said he believed in my talent as a performer, but he wasn’t around me all the time.
Watching you on stage Shirley, you have such confidence today when performing. The way you move on stage, you can tell you had a dancing background.
Well, that’s what I tell people…there is so much more to me than being the daughter of BB King. My father told me not to coat-tail his name, so I’m Shirley King, BB King’s daughter, NOT BB King’s daughter, what’s her name? Look at interviews of me live, they talk
of my showmanship, they always mention my voice, but less about my singing, they call me an entertainer. That makes me feel better than anything…
The interaction with the audience is clear. An all-round entertainer, you enjoy the audience.
That’s the biggest credit I get in interviews, or when I do shows, that is the thing that lifts me up. I engage people; I know how to do that. You know my Dad he engaged, but he was famous so he didn’t have to work as hard to engage. But I was un-famous. Yes, they knew me as BB King’s daughter, but I had to have more. The fact was it got me through the door, but once inside, to stay there is what they say about me when I leave. Why do they come back to BB King’s daughter’s show?
And Gospel music Shirley, how did that enter your life?
Okay, let’s get this straightened out! The blues was the thing that took my father away from me; I had no time to spend with my father because he was out doing the blues thing. And a lot of Afro-American people don’t like the blues, they feel the blues is depressing, they would listen when they want to smoke and drink and be sad. So growing up around that, and taking my father away, it gave me a double reason to hate the blues. Never in a lifetime would I feel I would sing the blues. I mean I really got the blues when my boyfriend married my best friend. He came back looking for me later at a blues club, but you know if I’d chosen something to sing at that time it would have been gospel or R & B…
But in Chicago, I went to school for acting, and comedians…for so many of those years I seemed to be dating a comedian. And being a comedian’s girlfriend you end up listening to their jokes, so I ended up getting into comedy. And my Daddy, he always had mixed shows, never just one person playing the guitar and being sad. My father would be on shows with dancers and comedians, variety….In those days maybe I would have entered show business as a comedian, but it would have taken longer. In those days there were not so many women comedians….But why not? When you find it’s a competitive man’s world, the woman will say ‘I’m not in the kitchen no more.’
Blues for a King; was an Interesting album! And your music has so much light and shade. There is no way you have only sad songs. You do a great version of a Nina Simone track for example. I love that song.
Oh, Blues for a King … Oh that album I had such a short time to do this album. None of those songs I knew well and I had to depend on the person walking into the studio with me to help me out, you know if you are singing from a sheet it kind of comes out that way. Those were songs I was less than familiar with, I had less than a month to record and I never got with a live band and the other part was I was singing from a regular track…I would love to go back in and do that one again, because after the CD was released I didn’t like it. I am so much better, but they all liked it and I wondered if they were listening to the same thing. They may be legendary songs, but I was less than familiar with them.
And Daughter of the Blues?
Oh, that was my project, my vision. I wanted to do these great songs my way, the Shirley King way. I was able to do that as I had someone behind me with money…those were songs I grew up on, that was the kind of blues I grew up on, more R & B players that I knew. I did Last Two Dollars and Love of Mine and I loved those songs. Tell Mama that was an Ella James song that she let me do, Ella James was still living then when I recorded that. I did three of my Daddy’s songs with like a High School Jazz band that I’d never been introduced to before, they didn’t know the blues. They did three songs on the CD, The Thrill is Gone (a BB King track) was one; those songs were organized by a young group in the High School… I take time with young people, they are the future of the blues and the blues needs them.
And in 2022, what happens for Shirley King in 2022?
There’s a lot of things around my father’s passing. I’m not out to compete with anyone, they knew BB King when he became famous, I knew him before he became famous. I want to work on a musical stage play about how it was to be BB King from the perspective of his daughter. I think singing, talking and performing, it might be a one woman play, or with a few musicians. I’d like to tour with that and I’d like to bring that to life in a live performance as well
as a book. I’d like a holograph of my father with me on the stage, I hear him, and I see myself as well in him…I want to respect my father’s legacy now.
That is great Shirley. And I so hope the autobiography comes out. But I hope you find space for the turkey in there too!
Oh, turkey’s they don’t like me okay! You know, I remember myself on the phone, scared to go out of the door because that old mean turkey, it would be waiting for me. All of those cousins, they would go out the door and do what they want, and no turkey messes with them. Soon as he sees me his wings go all over the place and my grandfather he’s pushing me out, and that turkey he knocked me down all the time. I can’t understand to this day why that turkey hated me.
Was it a strict upbringing with your grandfather Shirley?
Oh it was strict. Even my Daddy, my Dad understood that his father was a no nonsense man. But my Dad only wanted the world to think well of his Dad…My grandfather, there was only one person in the world who could control my grandfather and that was my grandmother, my father’s step mother…My grandfather met his match with this woman, she never raised her voice and she kept him under control!
And that ends part 1 of our interview with the great Shirley King. Next part covers the blues today and some of the BB King Back story! All great stuff, see you there!
Mark C. Chambers.