In 1964 I made my first unsteady steps into the realm of blues historical documentation (back door folklore studies) after a few years of collecting records [see O&S #28] and I got lucky the first time out of the blocks… I settled on B.B. King as my first interview subject. Pure, dumb luck it was! I couldn’t have picked a better or nicer subject as my initial foray into the wilds that was (to W.E. such as I) blues music and its place in what was then still referred to as Negro life (at least in my upper-class WASP culture). Serendipity (as the late Kenneth S Goldstein would have said) covers it, I’d say! And it all took place one autumn afternoon and evening at the fabled Apollo Theatre on 125th Street in Harlem.
For one of my background for whom “Negroes” tended to be “the help”, it was a big stretch. I already had had some experience on Harlem’s main drag (Rainbow Records [where Mr. Bear worked behind the counter], Bobby’s [Robinson] Happy House of Hits, The Celebrity Club, Danny’s [Robinson] Record Room) where I often pulled out interesting 45s and the occasional LP, and heard some good “live” music at The Celebrity Club (usually Buddy Tate’s band)… mainly jazz-based. Blues was a minor genre in NYC compared to jazz, or R’n’B… later soul, then rap… or even gospel. But The Apollo surprisingly did a blues package show once or twice a year in the 60s that usually was worth going to – not as big a draw as James Brown, or Ike & Tina, but there was usually a reasonable and attentive older crowd in attendance. Internationally renowned since the 1930’s for variety shows with talent both old and new, there was nothing quite like an Apollo audience. If they liked what you had on offer – wow ; if not, a different direction of “wow” could take place.
I went to a couple of Amateur Nights on Wednesdays as well – THAT was an experience. If an act was bombing, first Porto Rico would razz the performer(s) with a trombone from one of the stage left boxes all clad in blinking Xmas lights. If that didn’t do the trick, then a guy in old-fashioned drag was chased (towards stage left) by a guy in old fashioned formal attire across the stage who would fire a fake pistol and then proceed to haul “her” (after “she” had fallen down dramatically) across the rest of the stage. If that STILL didn’t get the message across, then the stand microphone used by the performer was slowly retracted into the stage floor. One singer who STILL didn’t get the message even tried to keep singing as the mic descended, following it all the way down to the floor as the crowd booed their heads off, and laughed. A tough crowd – and talk about audience participation!
In a typical Apollo show, each lower-billed act did a couple of songs (2-3), and about half way through there was a comedian… single or duo: one week they even had a White comedian with a Southern drawl whose name I’ve forgotten. [While there were rumblings in the audience when his accent was heard, he eventually “got through” and was positively appreciated… this in the late 60s. He left the stage saying, “Thank you, and when y’all get in power, please remember me kindly and let me be Ralph Bunche’s slave”!] Then the two or three top billed acts would do half a dozen songs or so – all acts backed by the FINE house band lead by Reuben Phillips. I had attended a few shows as an audience member by then and was moderately comfortable being often the Lone Honky… usually at an afternoon show: where else could one readily see/hear Big Maybelle, Jr. Parker, The Soul Sisters, Jimmy Reed, Mr. Lee & the Cherokees, Jimmy Witherspoon, Muddy Waters, O.V. Wright, Joe Hinton, or Wynonie Harris! You don’t appreciate it until it’s all gone.
B.B. King was my first attempt at going backstage there or trying to do a serious interview. First I had to work up the courage to go around the corner of the building to the alley behind to access the rear stage door. Then there was the local Charon at the door, known as “Spain”, to be negotiated with… no easy task, I figured. He was VERY imposing, but seemed approachable – with shaking knees I told him about BU and why I’d like to meet Mr. King: He said, “Wait here” and closed the door. I was not overly optimistic about my chances, but nothing ventured… . After a while, he came back and said, “Follow me”, leading me up and around to B.B.s dressing room (not quite like the Spinal Tap sequence!). It was fair sized and in bad need of a paint job – King and his audience were strewn about the room’s sofas and chairs, or leaning against the walls… needless to say, I was the only White guy and my presence was soon noticed! I ran through my bona fides once more and bravely asked if I might have a bit of his time. He said, “Well, I have all these people here to deal with and then I have a show to do.” Expecting a brush-off, I was surprised when he then said, “Why don’t you go out front and watch the show – then come on back here and I’m yours for as long as you need me”! Wow – it doesn’t get any better than that, does it?! (Being a mid-week afternoon probably helped, too.)
This is how it all began for me as an interviewer and all, and it was the beginning of a long friendship with one of the major Black performers of all time – it’s all a matter of timing, isn’t it! B. was kind, courteous, supportive, and truthful at all times; I did have to later disabuse him of his idea that I was responsible for his eventual success in Europe! But the stuff I did for BU probably didn’t hurt. I was strictly an amateur – my only camera at that time was a Polaroid (just like his) – which certainly made me even less threatening than most White folks. King was and is a complete gentleman, and, as I’ve indicated, he became a good friend, one with whom I had serious contact with for well over a decade. I went to his apartment in NYC when he had one… we had a chuckle over whether or not the photos I took of him making salmon cakes should go to BU…, or Jet! Going to the club Generation in NYC when he had a week there (it later became Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studio) and seeing all the musicians come after their gigs so that they could play for and/or with him – Blood, Sweat & Tears was one whole group who set up after their NYC gig was over for the night; Hendrix and Janis Ian jammed after hours. Janis Joplin was in the audience… she tried to hip me to Clifton Chenier and was surprised that I’d heard of him! I asked her if she’d heard of L.C. Donatto! It was a lovely time to be me with my interests.
B.B. was and is a serious scholar regarding his music, taking in blues and jazz without distinction – for him the Ellingtonian “there’s two kinds of music; good music and the other kind”. We had long conversations regarding various blues and jazz guitarists and singers… at his apartment he had brought his collection of 78s that he referred to constantly. Besides the music, there was one other area of tangency – I had recently gotten my Private Pilot’s license/Single Engine Land and he was working on his, which he later attained. So we talked about music and we talked about flying. He later dropped the flying (as I did even later) because his new management (Sid) was wary of the supposed inherent dangers – c’est la bloody guerre, then.
My trips to The Apollo didn’t just involve B. – I met Jr. Parker, Bobby Bland, Muddy, Jimmy Reed, Wynonie Harris, Joe Hinton, Big Maybelle, Hampton Reese, Sonny Freeman, Sid Seidenberg, a.o. I was not able to interview or photograph every one I saw and heard, sad to say, but that’s how it goes as an interloper into the world of African American music. I actually met B. before Sid did, and recommended he go with him after B. told me what he had promised, and how it would all be null and void if he didn’t do certain things in the first year. It was the beginning of a great relationship that lasted until Sid died a few years ago, and it really “created” the brand of B.B. King in the eyes of the public both in The States and also the world at large. He was the best person to take an interest in B. and did well by him over the decades.
My connection continued whenever King was in the NYC area… I’d just show up, be seen by him, or Caleb Emphry, Sr., Sonny Freman, or Frank Brown – all of whom knew me by sight then as an acceptable person to be let in (usually for free). Eventually my southern jaunts became all encompassing and I saw less and less of B. in that time. But from time to time I’d show up – usually by then checking in with Sid’s office and letting them know I’d be there… usually got me on the door. Worked even at Lennox Hill in Massachusetts in the late 80s/early90s! Another time was just north of my home at a theatre in Kingston, NY (w. Joe Louis Walker as opener) – must have been late ’88 or early ’89 as my son was there as a small baby. My partner was working at a home for troubled/displaced teens (Family House) and Sid gave us a fistful of tickets to take some of them to the show. They were excited and appreciative.
The last time I saw either B.B. or Sid was here in Sydney around 1996 or so, his last trip out this far from home. [He told me how much he liked Sydney. It seems that while on tour with U2, Bono lost his voice and they postponed so that he could recover. That put B. in a city with nothing to do professionally, so he explored… and liked what he could see. Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges would agree with him there.] I showed up at The Hordern Pavilion for the show (after getting the usual [long distance, now!] office clearances) with partner and son (and friend Jim Conway, then of The Backsliders) in tow. Surprised him as usual – we had a lovely reunion by the stage… I have the photo to prove it, too!
He was and is the loveliest man in a business world full of sharks (and those are the nice guys in the biz… see John Broven’s latest book (RECORD MAKERS AND BREAKERS: Voices of the Independent Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers – University of Illinois Press  Urbana/Chicago) for more edification… and who has survived, winning friends for himself and the music the world ove into the 21st Century. It all couldn’t have happened to a nicer and more deserving fellow; I feel honored to call him “friend’ all these years, even though we may not see each other again. Sometimes nice guys do finish first.
Peter B. Lowry