B.B. King, Ben E. King and Calvin Peete have taken their leave…
“We all stand on somebody else’s shoulders.” That quote swims in the deep waters of my memory like a nearly forgotten creature pushed aside by the relentless advances of time and change. But it was a boilerplate axiom in the black community when I was growing up. Too bad you rarely — if ever — hear it these days.
Perhaps the solid sense of community it invokes is not as much a part of our lives in the “It’s your thing; do what you wanna do” attitude and culture that have seemed to rule us since, at least, the latter third of the twentieth century.
But the recent deaths of B.B. King, Ben E. King and Calvin Peete got me thinking about it again. They were three black men, outstanding in their fields, whose broad shoulders helped a whole lot of us have the courage and the belief we could rise above meager circumstances and low expectations to live accomplished and meaningful lives.
And it was not something they preached, but just how they lived. How they lived in the face of all that challenged them as black men in the scorching cauldron of white America.
They were not perfect, by any means. They didn’t have to be. They were talented, determined, and not afraid to blaze new trails, even at times when they weren’t fully conscious of their own significance. They were great examples of another old saw: “You can accomplish anything, if you put your mind to it.”
B.B. King emerged from the cotton fields near Itta Bena, Kilmichael and Indianola, Miss., where he was “a regular hand” picking cotton from the time he was seven, and where he would hear the blues played on the radio during the noon breaks the field workers would take.
When the weather was bad, and he couldn’t work the fields, he once said, he’d walk ten miles to a one-room school, before he finally dropped out in the 10th grade. It is said he got his first guitar around the age of 12, and knew right away that he wanted to play and sing like the blues performers he heard regularly on the local radio station: Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
With his steadfast devotion to learning the guitar and making it talk, he soon wound up playing on the local station. He later moved to Memphis and played wherever he could, including every juke joint on the Chitlin’ Circuit. His career took off, with him playing more than 250 dates a year around the world, and at the same time, re-defining the blues. His career lasted nearly 70 years, in which he recorded more than 50 albums; won 15 Grammy Awards; received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush; gave one of his guitars to Pope John Paul II; and once had President Barack Obama join him in singing “Sweet Home Chicago.”
He died recently, at the age of 89, from complications of diabetes. He was the undisputed king of the blues and a mentor to countless renowned guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton.
Another music legend, who took leave of us in the last few weeks, is Ben E. King. He first existed in my mind as “Ben E. King and The Drifters.” His passionate, but smooth baritone voice was all over the radio when I was a youngster. He was popular as the frontman for the Drifters and as a solo performer. His “Stand By Me,” to my mind, is one of the best singles of all time. And there was “Spanish Harlem,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “There Goes My Baby.”
He had the right pedigree and the street-corner cred to step right into R&B stardom. Before he was one of The Drifters, he was a member of a doo-wop group known as the Five Crowns, whose members later replaced the original Drifters and recorded a string of memorable hits.
According to Wikipedia, King’s single, “Stand By Me,” written by King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was voted one of the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. In addition, “Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Babby,” and “Spanish Harlem,” were named as three of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
King was born to humble surroundings in Henderson, N.C., in 1938 and moved to Harlem, in 1947, when he was nine. Like so many others, who achieve despite the odds, King didn’t let humble beginnings deter him, and he didn’t forget from whence he had come: For years, he was actively involved in his charitable foundation, The Stand By Me Foundation, which assists young people with their educational needs. He died April 30, at the Hackensack University Medical Center (New Jersey), at the age of 76.
And then there is Calvin Peete. When you talk about rising from meager beginnings, Peete — who grew up on the streets of Detroit before moving to rural Florida to live with his father, a vegetable picker — became the most successful and celebrated African-American golfer in the world: Before Tiger Woods took the golfing world by storm years later.
Peete, who — as a youth — suffered a fall that left him with a “crooked left arm,” and who did not take up golf until he was 23, and didn’t join the pro tour until he was in his 30s — eventually won 12 PGA Tour events, had two Ryder Cup appearances and, according to a New York Times obituary, was consistently one of the tour leaders in driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation.
All this from a man who never had a golf lesson before he turned pro, and only a short time earlier was scraping a living from selling clothes and jewelry to migrant workers from the back of his car.
“I get my accuracy from my tempo and rhythm,” he once told the New York Times. “I never really worked for it. It is just something that happened. I just seem to have a good tempo and good control as far as knowing just when to release the club.”
Calvin Peete was not the first black man to play on the pro golf tour. There were Pete Brown, a sharecropper’s son out of Port Gipson, Miss., Charlie Sifford, Jim Dent and Lee Elder before him. Elder was the first African American to play the Masters in Augusta, Ga., which is among the most hallowed — and the most “exclusive” playgrounds in the world.
But no black man — before Tiger Woods — excelled at the sport the way Calvin Peeete did. Also, according to the New York Times: Peete was once asked, by a reporter, his opinion of the traditions of the Masters. “Until Lee Elder, ” he said, “the only blacks at the Masters were caddies and waiters. To ask a black man what he feels about the traditions of the Masters is like asking him how he feels about his forefathers who were slaves.”
Peete died at the end of April, his body ravaged by cancer. He was 71. His broad shoulders had been a steady springboard for Tiger Woods’ emergence on the scene. Yet speaking of the notion of standing on others’ shoulders, and how it is an idea that is rarely mentioned these days, I think back to a conversation I had with Ed Dwight, who was one of the first African Americans in the U.S. Space Program.
Ed never got a mission into the reaches of outer space, but he soared anyway. He is the sculptor who was commissioned to create the statue of baseball legend Hank Aaron that now stands proudly at the ballpark in Atlanta.
Our conversation must have been thirty years ago. In trying to explain how he became an artist, Ed gave credit to others who had gone before him: “We all stand on somebody else’s shoulders,” he said.
Years later, while talking to James Alan McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, scholar and long-time teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, Big Mac said it, too: “We all stand on somebody else’s shoulders.”
They were right, and it’s still true now, even though nobody talks about it much anymore. And there are many shoulders. Thousands of them. The shoulders of women and men who did what they did because that was who they were. Most of them never saw their names in headlines, or in the bright lights of theater marquees.
But they stand, nevertheless, as part of that enduring human foundation upon which we continue to build.