B.B. KING – a memorat
B.B. King 1974 Las Vegas
photo by Meda Lerner
How does one go about writing about him when a friend dies? Here goes. I first met B.B. King over fifty years ago backstage at The Apollo Theatre, which was quite a feat for a shy White guy from northern New Jersey (Essex County)! It was early in the autumn of 1964 that I braved the rear alley of the place and nervously approached Spain – a rather large and imposing guy guarding the stage door. I was dry-mouthed (at best) as I approached, and asked if I could see Mr. King, for this was my first attempt at doing such foolishness! Fully expecting a refusal, I tried to explain why I was there and all… Spain thought a bit and then said, “Wait there”. I waited… it seemed like forever! Fully expecting a refusal, I was surprised when he came back after a while and said “Follow me.” So I entered the hallowed (and dark) backstage of The Apollo and followed him up stairs and along corridors to get to the star’s dressing room. For B. was a big star in ’64, at least to African Americans, and I was the odd-man-out.
It didn’t take too much time for him to notice me, being the only Caucasian in the proverbial woodpile, as it were. He asked me what I was there for – I told him nervously about BLUES UNLIMITED and my intentions and interests. B.B. waved his hand at the folks in his dressing room, saying that he had all these people to deal with then and a show to do after that. I expected I was getting a gentle brush off, but then he said, “Go out front for the show – then come back… I’ll be yours for as long as you want.” WOW!! Thus began my long-term “career” as a folklorist/ethnomusicologist/music historian as well as an over half-century relationship with the person I have always styled as the NICEST man in show business.
You can read all sorts of stuff about his career these days in all sorts of media, about his style of playing (guitar magazines galore will have cover stories soonest), as well as about his commercial successes and importance to popular music, so I’m not going to duplicate that. Bruce Elder wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald of great understanding concerning his place in a part of the history of popular musics of all sorts, both in the US and across the world. B was a person who was always musically himself, who knew, like Miles Davis, when NOT to play and to never play it the same way twice*! Davis and Louis Armstrong come to mind as the only other persons from other musical fields with such influence on others on so many different levels. King never really altered his music drastically, though, but adapted it to the times, yet always still sounding like nobody else but B.B. King. He stimulated many who came after him, but nobody has had his sort of musical impact in so many realms of popular music as a player and a singer. Or has quite “gotten” how to do it!
Cutting his first recordings in 1949 and having his first hit in 1950, King had one of the longest and deepest recording careers of any blues artist before or after WW II; more than John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins, in fact. Often he’d “cover” a song done by another artist [“Three O’Clock In The Morning” (Lowell Fulson), “Sweet Little Angel” (Tampa Red), “How Blue Can You Get” (Leonard Feather!), “The Thrill Is Gone” (Roy Hawkins) being good examples], but he would always make them his own. When I first met him in 1964, he had gone about as far as he could go as a Black performer with a Black audience. The Apollo Theatre [NYC], The Royal Theatre [Baltimore], The Regal Theatre [Chicago] (site of one of the best “live” recordings of all time – by King!), The Howard Theatre [DC], plus top Black clubs in cities large and small (sometimes referred to as “The ‘Chitlin’ Circuit”) were where it was at then. He wanted to go further with his music and found a way by hitching up with Sid Seidenberg as manager/accountant ca. 1968. Sid got King on national television (even The Ed Sullivan Show) and later got him signed with a near-major label (ABC-Paramount), moving on to jazz concerts in the US and Europe and large “hippie” venues like the Fillmore auditoria and an expanded audience. It was the likes of Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, a.o. trumpeting B’s talents to the younger White folks of the day that gave him an additional, international push. Basically they all said “If you like what I am doing, then go hear B.B. King… that’s who I got it/stole it from.”
The rest is history, as they say. B.B. King became the name that was conjured up world-wide when “blues” was mentioned, a figure head – he took his new opportunities and ran with them. It was a long way from a Mississippi juke joint to Montreux, though! King was always open to “his” people and remembered them, quietly showing the world that blues wasn’t the province of some broken-down back porch type, but valid at all levels. “Duke Ellington never wore overalls, nor Glenn Miller!” While it was “Black music”, it wasn’t just for African Americans any more, it was for all the people and this was his purpose up to his death.
B.B. was responsible for how most upcoming young guitarists approached that instrument in popular music – for better or worse! While many glommed on to his basic approach, none had his taste or sense of dynamics… no turning up to “11” for this little brown duck! In his latter years he was a living icon of the blues for many and respected across the board. A true gentle man and a gentleman of whom there have been no discouraging words. I was lucky in picking him as my first ever interview subject – there were some later who would have sent me off, tail between my legs, never to try that again! Kind of a “sliding doors” moment in my life that pointed me in the direction my life took thereafter.
Over time we became friends and I’d appear unannounced at gigs and be greeted warmly and familiarly by him (and by many of his band and entourage!). Between 1964 and 1974 I spent much time with him whenever he was in the NY area – first at The Apollo, then at places like The Fillmore East, and Generation, etc – it was hippie time and I was watching! For a while in the ‘70’s, B took a flat in NYC as his personal base of operations and I tagged along. Once B cooked salmon cakes for us as a breakfast in the wee hours after a long gig – I took photos and we debated whether they should go to BLUES UNLIMITED, or JET!! No decision was reached. As a person, he was open and caring, someone truly interested in what was happening in your life. Recently, I got in an e-mail from a mutual friend from Vancouver:
Last October, after B had fallen ill, I was invited to contribute to a project called, “My B.B. King”. This was my offering:
In 1968, a friend brought me the new LP “Blues is King”. Although I had long been a blues fan, that was my introduction to B B King. I was mesmerized by his music, stirred and shaken, and still am.
In 1970 I actually met the man, and we became friends. What most defined BB was his ‘realness’, his lack of self-importance and pretension. I never saw him try to impress anyone or expect any advantage for being who he was. He still called his father Daddy. He enjoyed simple things, like watching old Audie Murphy westerns, getting together with friends or quietly composing music on graph paper, with Lucille unplugged at his side. He was unconditionally in love with his kids.
One of the coolest moments of my life was when B introduced me to his audience in Las Vegas. I was charmed when, after receiving an honorary degree, the first thing he said about it was, “I was with the President!” I love remembering how excited he was to move into his apartment in New York! But what I will always recall best is his heaven-opening smile. And oh, his laugh!
– Meda Lerner Vancouver, BC
photo: courtesy, Meda Lerner
That was the measure of the man – a true gentleman and a truly gentle man of the highest caliber.
He and I had a few other interests in common besides music, although we had many long conversations, even arguments, on musical subjects. Another realm we had in common was flying: I had gotten my private pilot’s license recently, and he was taking flying lessons towards that end. I suppose that I was surprised at that interest of his, but we nattered on for hours! I don’t know if he ever finished, though, since Sid did not take too kindly to that activity and stopped him. I think he had in mind more than merely Single Engine – Land activities in mind, maybe getting to the point of flying he and his band around to gigs. Just a “maybe” here!
I recently read of him saying that he’d help his kids with educational expenses, but not to expect new Air Jordans all the time! In that vein, in the early 90s my partner worked at a shelter for teens in the Kingston, NY region (that included Woodstock). Many of the kids had nowhere safe to go, or had been thrown out by their families. I mentioned this to Sid and he talked to B about it. The net result was that he gave us a stack of tickets for the kids to go to UPAC (the former Broadway Theater) for a show he headlined with Joe Louis Walker in early 1988. Many of the kids had never been in that theatre and many had never heard of B.B. King, but the net effect was so positive… one kid even said that his life had been changed by the experience! And now they knew who B.B. King was! Truly, it was a proverbial win/win situation, for which we all were eternally grateful.
It had to happen sooner or later, of course. I was waiting at a café for my fix (de-caf!) and became conscious of the music playing. It was definitively B. B. King, even though I didn’t recognize the song – his voice, his guitar… all so distinctive and moving. Stopped in my tracks as memories flooded through my brain, I was sad, but also glad that I knew this wonderful man for so long. At the age of 89, he had an amazingly long and productive life for a southern-born African American, making few enemies and pleasing millions along the way. Thank you B. I will close with appropriate comments from Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, a fine musician and a fine person to boot, and now the next best thing to B:
When I worked with him, it was the highlight of all my shows, We all will miss him. but his truth will live on.
‘Nuf said – vale, “The Memphis Blues Boy” Riley B. King. The cliché that the world was a better place for his presence is proven by his life, and ours will be greatly diminished by his passing.
While there will be cover stories in all the guitar-oriented and blues and popular music oriented publications to come, they will mainly deal with what he did and how he did it – names, dates, and technical stuff. I steered away from that here. The measure of the man as a human being and the high regard in which he was held can also be seen/heard by the fact that Mississippi Public Broadcasting did four hours, live, and that included the complete funeral. A state funeral, if you will – they don’t hand those out to just anybody! B. B. King was what the label says… king, in so many ways.
PETER B. LOWRY
Sydney – June 2015
* Miles actually never played the same way once!
Further, I highly recommend “The Life of Riley” a documentary on King. Very fine job story-telling with superior editing, a must-see film.