Charles Sawyer Cherie Hoyt photo

Sometimes stories pop up in the darnedest of places. For example: today’s interview with Mr. Charles Sawyer — photographer, writer, musician, blues history and software engineering teacher at Harvard Extension School (from 1990 to 2017), software engineer at Google (retired 2015) and consultant for the B.B. King Museum. His wife, Cherie Hoyt, sent me an email commending me for an interview I did with Tim Sample when he was to appear at the Waterville Opera House recently and through our shared e-dialogue, I discovered her husband had written a couple of books on the King of the Blues: “The Arrival of B.B. King” in 1980 and the newly released “B.B. King: From Indianola to Icon” in 2022. Having interviewed the late blues master a couple of times over the years, I was intrigued by Sawyer’s personal odyssey with the “King of the Blues” and asked if he would be willing to chat with me about his relationship with Riley B. King. He was more than happy to, and we talked for over an hour.

Q: Well, I’ll start off by asking you if this new book dove-tailed in with your first book about B.B. King?
Sawyer: Yes. The book I wrote in the late ’70s, published in 1980 by Doubleday, is a proper biography with a lot of photographs to illustrate the text. The book production was very good, but it’s an ordinary-sized book and the pictures are modest in size. Then, in recent years, when I had my full attention devoted back onto the archive of 15 years, one of the subcategories was my B.B. King stuff. I found that every photograph in the 1980 book was the best of a series and that there was this repository of great photography and that I could make a book that is a photo album with text to support it. So the ratio is inverted: 1980 was a proper text biography illustrated with photographs, and the 2022 “B.B. King: From Indianola to Icon” is predominately a photo album which is accompanied by a supporting text. Now I thought that if you could have these two compelling volumes integrated, you’d have something extraordinary and that’s what I set out to achieve. And what you are telling me, as we began talking about it, is confirming that I pulled it off!

Q: In setting up this interview, you mentioned that the idea for this integration of photography and text came from two separate sources, correct?
Sawyer: Yes, I had two heroes from each of these two forms of expression. For photography is the great French photographer named Henri Cartier-Bresson, who many credit as the father of street photography. He was a great photojournalist. And my hero for written narrative was George Orwell, who is known for two novels that are not his best novels, but his greatest achievement was his nonfiction writing. I would read Orwell and I would think, “Oh, God, if only he was paired up with Cartier-Bresson, what an amazing thing that would be!” And I’d look at Cartier-Bresson’s work and I’d say, “If only George Orwell was there!”

Q: I’ll repeat what I said the first time this came up — you definitely succeeded, sir, no doubt about it! Now we were talking about, as well, the traveling you did with B.B. King to get the photos of him in concert, especially the cover shot of him and the crowd’s response to his show.
Sawyer: Well, I know once I had in my sites doing a book about him that I had to see him with a black audience. I know that there was this whole life in which he was a shadowy figure at best in general white culture, pop culture, middle-class culture, and a huge celebrity in black America. So I asked his manager, “Where can I see him?” and he said, “Next month in Chicago at the High Chaparral.” I think it was a three-day engagement, and you might say I was immersed.

Q: How was it between you and King, if I may ask?
Sawyer: B.B. was such an easy friend, it was so easy to become friends with him. I eventually discovered his secret: He had this capacity to establish intimacy anywhere, anytime with anybody. And the best illustration of this is in my book where I photographed him with teenage boys in a record store in Boston. And this is part of my photographic craft — the use of a still camera to capture transactions where it becomes something more than the individual image and something less than a video. I was very consciously working on this, and it’s a whole chapter in my book. B.B. King’s magic was applied on the stage mostly. But the same magic, this spontaneous intimacy, could be created anywhere and here is B.B. working his magic without his band, without singing, without his guitar.

Q: Do you foresee yourself doing anything else along this line in the future?
Sawyer: There’s my memoir I’m working on now, yeah. I can send you some pieces of it.

Q: So, the culmination of all this will be this memoir that you’re doing.
Sawyer: That’s the idea, so on this general subject, I’m a compulsive storyteller and I would tell a story — sometimes involving myself — and people would say, “You ought to write a memoir!” and my standard answer for years was, “A life that is interesting to live may not be interesting to read about.” I’m not sure if I have anything unusual to say except, “Yeah, it’s been one helluva ride!” but I’m not convinced I should write about it.

Q: I, for one, would beg to differ about that!

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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