On the Bus with B.B. King

Page 3 of 6

"As a tractor driver, sex was always on my mind. It didn't take much to get me going. If I drove past a girl picking cotton, I'd notice the way she bent down. The way her buttocks outlined the back of her dress could fire me up for hours. On a scorching summer day, the sight of beads of perspiration on a soft feminine neck would arouse my imagination."

In his 1996 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, B.B. often admits to his runaway lusts, complete with a description of his senior-citizen circumcision ("and my penis, thank you very much, has been in good working condition ever since"). There have been so very many women to bounce him headlong between desperation and divine inspiration. "It took me a long time to realize that you can't have all of the women," he says now. "I've always loved the girls."

B.B. pronounces the word more like gulls. And by grammar school, he had figured out how to get to them. He was shy. He stuttered. He was no Romeo. So: "I played my harmonica. And the girl that I was crazy about she was crazy about one of my cousins. But when I would play the harmonica, she would listen, seem to soften up a little bit. Others would say, 'Oh, Riley can really play, can't he?' Well, that's like you pat a little dog on the head if he bring you the paper. He's ready to go back and get you another one."

Petting – the female kind – was what B.B. figures he was after. Losing at an early age the only people who loved him truly and unconditionally (his mother, then his grandmother) might have marked young Riley as a needy young man. His parents divorced when he was five, and his father would not find him for some years. An aunt and uncle would have taken him in, but he was steadfast in his intent to live alone at ten.

"Everybody cared about me," he says. "But how much? The house where we lived – my room, my grandmother and I – I wanted to stay there. I felt that it was nobody but me. I just felt it was me against the world. So there was something about the place – the way they left it. And I can have that now. This is mine. If nothing else."

He says he still craves the comforts of some imagined domestic hearth. Despite his two divorces, he insists that "the times I was married were the happiest times of my life." He likes the idea of a woman waiting for him at the end of the day, looking down the road for him. And when he was a teenager, the beauty of that vision threw him full force at Miss Martha Lee. She was the most enticing of the women he noticed as he jounced along high above the cotton rows, one of nine big-shot tractor drivers on Mr. Johnson Barnett's mammoth plantation. Theirs was a spare, quiet Delta wedding of seventeen-year-olds, in 1942.

"I guess I was looking for love, because I'd never had anybody I believed truly loved me," he says. "More than to tolerate and put up with me – to truly love me. So when I did get married, young, I was crazy about the girl. It seemed to me that I finally had love."

Things were fine for a few years. Lucille wasn't in the picture; B.B. had a series of raggedy, cheap guitars and a nettlesome little itch: "For some reason, my mind was not settled at being a husband like a husband should be. Now I wanted to play an instrument. Now I'm thinking that there's something out there for me. I don't know what to do, but I'm seeking. I'm looking for it. She'd fight me on it."

He remembers the night he saw the end coming.

The house supper sounds common enough by Delta standards – hamburgers in the kitchen, bed taken out for dancing, some live music courtesy of Riley B. King. B.B. doesn't know the people or the place. It could be rough, but Martha is hardheaded about coming along: "It don't make no difference. You go and I go." But he sneaks off alone. He's at the house supper an hour when the woman, a stranger, starts to flirt, sits in his lap, just talking. Now, a man can't be ungentlemanly and toss the girl off . . . boom! The door opens. Martha.

"I swear to you, I didn't know the lady," B.B. says now. "And that's when my wife looked at me differently. We lived together four or five more years, and she never believed I was telling the truth."

After their divorce, he was on the road nearly a decade and saw that look plenty of times. "I kept searching, searching. Seemed to be me alone. I'd run into ladies, thought we had a thing going real good. Then we'd start to talk about my music." His voice rises to the descant timbre of Female Complaint: "Get another job." Then, one night in a club back home, Sue Hall hit him like a wrecking ball. She was lovely, he says, bright enough to go to business college and to help manage his affairs, light-skinned enough to get arrested in Ocala, Florida, for being with a man as dark as B.B.

In 1958, Sue married him on the condition that she could come with him, at least part of the time. They tried it, but after nearly a decade they came apart, too. And it's clear when he talks about his second wife that she is his great regret. He says she was the one who came closest to giving him what Lucille is so generous with: release. He figures he's still looking for the feeling: "Since my early childhood, I have had a problem trying to open up. Please open me up. Look inside! 'Cause I can't. I don't know how to."

It's no surprise, then, that B.B. is such an accomplished poet of Yearning. Longing and regret pepper his lyrics like birdshot. "The Thrill Is Gone," his signature piece, was written in the wake of his divorce from Sue. The melody, like the woman, confounded him for eight years. "I think I understand women better than a lot of men do," he says. "But no man, I believe – even King David – really understands ladies. And maybe that's the way it should be. Because ladies are verrrrry mysterious as far as I'm concerned."

These days, he says, he's getting to appreciate his conversations with women. In fact, he'd rather talk or go to a movie. For so many years, talk – if it came at all – was but a dinner mint after the real feast. "I haven't been no angel," he says. "Haven't had a halo around my head. I've always liked girls. I don't throw 'em out in the street, I don't treat them badly. I do see a person, and I'd like to be married again. But I'm not ready. l can't even open up to her, not like I would like to. I think I'm starting to see the problem."

"When I was five and my daddy was coming to Gainesville, my mother dressed me in this beautiful crinoline dress. She would allow me to stand in front of the big picture window. And I would wait and wait. And then I would hear the bus coming. And I would get so excited, my little heart would just pound. He'd come maybe four or five times a year, whenever he was performing in the area."

Patty Elizabeth King, born forty-one years ago to B.B. and Essie Williams, who owned the Blue Note in Gainesville, Florida, gave this interview to People magazine in 1993 from a prison in that city. She was serving time for cocaine trafficking, and B.B.'s bus was arriving again, to play his sixty-ninth prison show. Patty cried when he left.

"My father was always in my life," Patty King says now. "He supported us. We've always been able to get in touch with him. If there was ever a problem, he was trying to solve it. I've called him in the middle of the night with problems, or just needing to talk to someone, and he's always there."

Released from prison and reunited with her four children, she now works with an elder-care organization in Gainesville to support the two young sons still at home. She is writing a memoir: Blues Baby. And, if anything, it will be a love song to her father. She says she's made it a point to reassure B.B. that papa's rolling-stone lifestyle was not an issue: "I tell him that he's done well by us. I don't want him to think that things that have happened to me in the past had any kind of bearing on him. He's just a great dad. He's my father, and he's my friend."

B.B. says that most of his children are doing well. They are spread out all along the road, from California to New York. Among the four sons and eleven daughters are a preacher, a blues singer, homemakers. He has helped support all of them, sent those who wanted to college, and is sending their children now – seven at present. They come out to see him as he passes nearby, generally on his dime, and fuss over him in hotel suites, cooking fish and greens, bringing along grandchildren to spoil. "I haven't been there all the time," B.B. says. "I've been the loner; I've run here, ran there. But I've always kept a place where they could get in touch with me, and they do."

His youngest, Riley B. King Jr., wrote from a prison in Huntsville, Texas. B.B. says he drew eighteen years for drug-related thefts. Once he had served five years, B.B. set his attorneys to pressing for an early release. "He's my son, and I love him," he says of the boy who used to come out on the road with him. But Riley's early letters from prison were angry and accusatory. "He seemed to think that his mother and me didn't do everything we could have done," B.B. says. He tried tough love – don't bother writing back if that's all you have to say. They settled things; the lawyers went to work. Once or twice a year, B.B. drove through the prison gates to visit his namesake. (On November 3rd, Riley B. King Jr. was paroled; B.B. got the news on the road.)

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