B.B. King Live In Africa ’74 is a rare – extremely rare – intimate view of B.B. King in concert. At age 49, having “crossed over” to wide popularity with his show at the Fillmore West in 1968 and secured his fame with the 1970 hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” B.B. stands onstage before Muhammad Ali and a crowd of 80,000 on the continent his ancestors left in chains and gives one of the most thrilling performances of his life.
“The King of the Blues” (B.B.), “Soul Brother #1” (James Brown) and other African-American artists on the bill reveled in the return to their cultural motherland for a gala affair that was attended by fans and journalists from all over the world.
The backstory around this performance is rich. Behind B.B. is a large orchestra, made up of core members ofB.B.’s touring band – pianist Ron Levy, drummer Sonny Freeman and saxophonist Bobby Forte – plus studio musicians recruited (mostly) from New York, including renowned session guitarist Larry Carlton. Directed by Hampton Reese, B.B.’s longtime friend and musical tutor (you’ll see him in his plaid sport coat conducting the band), this collection of musicians achieved their amazing performance after a single rehearsal in Kinshasa. Hampton wrote the charts for all the songs in the set, and every musician was playing from those charts.
Of the musicians who played that concert from B.B.’s 1974 touring band, only Ron Levy is still living. Here are some of his recollections of the unforgettable trip to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and their historic performance there: To perform in Africa – the land of his ancestors, at this stadium event before 80,000 – plus crazed, hot, sweaty, dancing and bouncing heads and soulfully pained hearts — must have had a very special personal significance for B.B., as it did for us all. We all realized this was not just another gig. It was history, good history. We were all very proud to be a part of it. As far as the set went, we performed 8.B.’s most famous hits. I have to say, this was probably the first lime this crowd ever heard – or heard of – B.B. King. but as usual, he left them wanting more, as well as an indelible memory of his sincere personal passion and deep-felt blues.
He definitely connected with them like the beloved king he is. If you’re a
B.B. King fan, you are in for a rare treat with B.B, King Live in Africa ’74. If this is your introduction to the King of the Blues, you’ll understand why he has so loved the world over.
Charles Sawyer is the author of the first biography of B.B. King.
The Arrival Of B.B. King (Doubleday 1980, Da Capo 1982),
He teaches “History Of Blues In America” at Harvard Extension School,
and leads his own blues band, 2120 South Michigan Avenue.