On the Bus with B.B. King

Fifty years, 250 gigs in 1998, fifteen children by fifteen different women - B.B. is the almighty rollingest stone.

B.B. King performs in The Hague, Netherlands.
Frans Schellekens/Redferns
December 24, 1998

The trucker is squinting hard through the downpour of a sudden tempest, steering his load of appliances along the slick Connecticut four-lane. He's nattering on the CB radio as the mammoth motor coach pulls alongside. The lights are on in the bus's private lounge, and despite the rain, the windows have been pushed open. Looking out at the trucker is a seventyish black man popping a Diet Coke and a smile. Bwwaaaaaaaaa. The trucker leans on his horn in a delighted blast of recognition. There's an American vision sweeping past, and the driver is hollering the news into his mouthpiece: It's B.B. King!

B.B. grins at the honking salute. Even when he was in his early twenties, plying the rural juke joints and eye-blink towns outside Memphis, he says, he loved to hear his imminent arrival announced on local radio, to have excitable women trill the news as he sauntered past with his guitar: B.B. King's in town!

At seventy-three, he is King of the Blues Worldwide, according to the custom tour jacket tossed on the seat; a national treasure by virtue of his Presidential Medal of the Arts – and a real gone daddy if you count his fifteen children by as many women. Shanghaied by a fatal attraction to one Gibson guitar, now speeding headlong into his fiftieth year on the road, B.B. King has to be the hardiest, the most mythic, the almighty rollingest stone.

B.B. King Is Friends With Everybody

Tonight, ours is a procession befitting the elder statesman of blues highways. Our "chase" vehicle is B.B.'s band bus, with his name and the likeness of his guitar, Lucille, painted on the side. B.B. leads the way in his private Fortress of Solitude, a custom-configured, Belgian-built VanHool motor coach rigged with a 120-channel satellite dish, a kitchen, a shower, six TVs and a 500-horse engine smart enough to diagnose its own ailments via computer printout. "This is home," says B.B., waving at the stacks of his beloved electronic gizmos, the milk crate full of video-cassettes, the sound system playing Dexter Gordon.

He leans back into the buttery leather of the horseshoe-shape banquette, looking relaxed in his traveling clothes. As usual, B.B.'s cool will frost your eyeballs: burgundy silk shirt, knife-pleated black slacks and soft, boaty loafers with woven black-and-burgundy leather insets. He's conjuring road stories, shaking his head as he recalls some of the wheezy highway schooners that brought him so far: "We were in Louisiana one morning. I had a big bus, my name on it. We broke down in this small town . . . . "

B.B. is off, reaching into his bottomless sack of anecdotes and B'isms. Painted from life with the broad strokes of a Mississippi Delta impressionist, these are the twelve-bar picture stories that have made his blues believable for so long:

He's trudging down a dusty two-lane, a lone, worried black man in too-fine clothes. Dawn is breaking as he comes to a whites-only cafe and walks around, instinctively, to the back door. The owner is just opening up when B.B. identifies himself and explains his problem: a breakdown, a busload of hungry musicians. Sure would help if they could come in and sit down. The man says OK and sets up a table. As the band wolfs biscuits and gravy, the jumpy owner stands at the front door, greeting his white regulars. To each he blurts apologetically: "That's B.B. King and his band. The bus broke down and . . . . "

B.B. laughs at the vision of the nervous but kindly man who dared serve him a square meal beneath the menacing wings of Jim Crow. "I'm glad that's changed," he says. "Thank God for the change."

We're bumping over a dark, grassy area on a rain-swept peninsula in southern Connecticut, toward an outdoor gig made possible by a last-minute letup in the rain. Summer is almost gone, but the B.B. King Blues Festival, barnstorming tents and amphitheaters from Toronto to Tulsa, still has another month to go. For the headliner, that's the briefest moment in time.

Fifty years – really?" a fan is squeaking.

B.B. is doing his ritual meet-and-greet after the show. Tonight's dressing room is a cramped RV behind the tented stage. Outside, the fitful strobe of heat lightning reveals a line of autograph seekers about a hundred feet long.

"Feels like I just got here sometimes," B.B. says. "But, yeah, I got serious about things in '48."

He was twenty-three then and had been doing farm work since he was six. B.B. has great recall for the significant numbers in his life. He likes to roll them off:

$22.50: his salary driving a tractor on a Mississippi plantation six days a week, in 1946;

Twelve percent: the alcohol content of the Pep-Ti-Kon "family" tonic that sponsored his first ten-minute spots on Memphis' legendary black radio station, WDIA, in 1948;

A penny a pound: The '48 rate for picking cotton across the river in Arkansas every afternoon after B.B.'s Pep-Ti-Kon gig (this, he notes, was triple the rate in his native Indianola, Mississippi);

$12: the cash a certain Miss Annie gave him for his first paying gig, a couple of hours at her West Memphis juke joint. She'd happily turn off the box, she told B.B., "'cause the ladies like to dance to a live man."

Which Miss Annie saw he was.

"So you go ahead and do the math," B.B. says by way of explaining his career choice. But even he falters trying to calculate his lifetime one-nighters. The miles traveled between them would bankrupt any latter-day frequent-flier program. Riley B. King, billed as the Beale Street Blues Boy in post-World War II Memphis, then Blues Boy King, then Bee Bee, then B.B. (and now, to his nearest and dearest, just B), has carried his blues to eighty-eight countries. Most years he averaged 340 shows until recently, when he "cut back" to 250. He has released seventy-six albums (the latest, Blues on the Bayou, came out in October).

Volumes have been written lining B.B.'s legend. But it takes a serious road trip – submersion in B.B.'s diesel-scented, day-for-night existence – to appreciate his astonishing lust for the Life. B.B.'s story is the road, as American as Woody Guthrie's in its tuneful observations, hipper than Kerouac's in its outsider wisdom. And in a nation known for producing wanderers of distinction, no one – save perhaps Lewis and Clark – can match B.B. for sheer endurance.

Having held the floor for maybe 15,000-plus smoky, hip-twitching nights, he has allowed himself a total of three months' scheduled vacation time. In half a century, he says, he's missed only eighteen gigs. Most of them, he points out, were promoter mix-ups or "acts of God – you know, the weather and such."

Though he is in most ways a modest man, B.B. is very proud of his golden anniversary. Traveling with him through New England, Manhattan, Maryland, Texas and Oklahoma, I've seen him celebrate it on-stage every night, fists raised, eyes closed, with a mighty bellow: "You've kept me out here for FIFTY YEARS! THANKYEW!"

In quieter moments, B.B. admits he's been married more to the road than to the two fine women who tried to be his wife – and to the many others who bore his children. He'll tell you that Lucille, his darkly gorgeous Gibson guitar, has always been the home wrecker, that only one woman has ever come close to bringing him out of himself the way Lucille can every night. Named for the vixen who ignited a brawl and a roaring house fire at one of B.B.'s early gigs, the current Lucille (the sixteenth) is waiting for him now in the bus. She drew her own applause as she was escorted back there, gently, via golf cart. Watching Lucille's stately departure, some boys just stared, slack-jawed and silent, as the lightning flashed Excalibur-like off her gleaming gold frets and pickups.

The kids always come around: lanky Hanson look-a-likes, dreadlocked tenth-graders in surfer jams – the "guitar kids," B.B. calls them. They understand that whatever fills arenas nowadays can be traced directly to the big flat fingers now curled around an autograph pen. Theirs is a global tribe; they show up in Moscow, Kyoto, Rio. B.B.'s kids are virtually all male, downylipped dreamers who lie in their childhood beds and practice the most urgent fingerings in the dark. Tonight, once they reach his plastic-slipcovered inner sanctum, they stare unabashedly at his hands. Across the blase "whatever" faces of the Info Age's first spawn, I detect the refreshing bloom of awe.

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