Blues For a King: Why Shirley King’s time is now

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While Shirley King admits that being the daughter of a blues legend has had certain advantages, the amount of time, energy, and hip shaking that she has put into establishing her own career can’t be denied. She turned to the blues in 1990 after spending 21 years as a dancer, and, three decades later, finally feels poised to get the individual recognition that she deserves.

Her latest album, “Blues For a King,” is set to drop on June 19 and King’s excitement was palpable when I spoke to her via telephone this week. Her husky wail has never sounded better and each track further propels her out from under B.B.’s intimidating shadow.

At a time when America can use more people with an uplifting artistic presence, Shirley King has answered the call yet again.

MNOD: You’re closing in on 30 years as a blues singer, but it feels as if you’re finally on the verge of being appreciated for your career. How did this new record come about?

SK: Cleopatra Records actually came to me with this batch of songs and it’s something I never really thought would happen. I can’t tell you the feeling that I have when I think about how excited I was by this offer. I was amazed, because I’ve been fighting to break out of my father’s legacy for my whole career and I think this is my chance to establish myself as my own person. I think about how my father was 69 when he reached a new level of fame and now, at 70, I feel blessed that my time is finally coming. I had no idea that Cleopatra would present me with such a phenomenal lineup to play on this record. I’m just so happy with the way things worked out.

MNOD: Did you have any input as to what songs would be included or was the selection random?

SK: They were all chosen by Cleopatra. A lot of these songs were tracks that I had heard before and was quite familiar with, but I made a conscious effort to sing them in my own way. I sang them and the label sent them to LA for the instrumental portion to be laid down by a list of wonderful guitar players.

MNOD: Growing up, singing the blues was never something that you envisioned for yourself. What inspired you to finally launch your own music career? 

SK: I kinda hated it as a kid, because it was responsible for keeping my dad away from me. It was often believed that you had to live the blues to be able to sing it convincingly, but I later learned that it wasn’t all depressing. I had danced for 21 years and knew how to entertain, so I wanted my presentation of the blues to be happier and more uplifting than what people were used to. Living in Chicago exposed me to a lot. I hung out with Willie Dixon’s daughter and I started going to clubs where anybody who was anybody would play. I didn’t want to ride my dad’s coattails, because I wanted people to see me as separate from what he did.

MNOD: What were your early days on stage like?

SK: I was honored to be a woman in the blues and I was sitting like a dog waiting on a bone during one of my first nights on stage. I didn’t know the words to every song at first, but I knew how to work the crowd by shaking and dancing. I got a standing ovation that night and realized that I was meant to sing the blues. I admit that I was able to get into certain clubs based on who my father was, because people wanted to use B.B. King at a cheaper price. Once they heard me, though, I was able to prove that I could make it on the strength of my own voice. I had an album released in Japan called “Jump Through My Keyhole” in 1992 featuring Jimmy Dawkins on guitar, but I’m even more excited about this new CD.

MNOD: Because most people only know your dad from his music, I’m curious as to what he was like as a father when you were growing up.

SK: Since he died, I haven’t been able stop thinking about him and what people knew about him. Of the 15 children that he claimed on paperwork, I was the only one that was actually raised by him, so he taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I wanted to be just like him. It’s clear why I chose this pathway, because, before I never had to do anything but be B.B.’s daughter. By carving my own path in the blues, I’ve been able to get out from his shadow and do it my way. I remember asking him once if he wanted me to be a boy and he said ‘No, I want you to be who you are and only get into music because you want to.’ People used to ask me during interviews if I played Lucille on stage and I would tell them that I don’t play Lucille, but I shake a mean hip. I developed my own unique presence on stage and he was always encouraging me to be myself. When I would go teach kids in schools, kids who didn’t even like the blues would be trying to sneak back into the assembly after they saw what I did on stage. Some of them were hoping that my dad would eventually show up at some point, but they admired what I did.

MNOD: I really enjoy your take on “At Last” from the new record. What role did the legacy of Etta James play in your career?

SK: I was scared to death to sing that song, because I saw Etta when I was 13 and she’s had a tremendous impact on me. It makes me happy when people say that they like my version, because it was a challenge and I sang it the way that I could do it. She was my idol as a kid and my dad knew how much I admired her, so he had her call me on my birthday one year. It’s one of my most memorable moments of being B.B. King’s daughter and she made me feel good by just being on the phone with her.

MNOD: Has the shutdown of the touring industry left you disappointed to not be able to share this CD on the road right away?

SK: Not at all, because it’s given me time to really acquainted with these songs and study the words. I’m proud of the opportunity that Cleopatra has given me with this CD and I want to work on putting together the best tour possible. I’m focused on becoming a better artist all the time as well as getting my podcast up and running. I’m hoping to get some of the musicians that played on this album to come out on tour with me when the time is right.

Shirley King: Blues For a King will be released on June 19.

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