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On the Bus with B.B. King

Page 4 of 6

"I wasn't much of a father," B.B. says. We spend a good deal of time discussing B.B.'s will, which is a source of pride and comfort to him. His blues will provide a substantial legacy. The education fund he started for his descendants is close to $2 million. "This is my way of trying to show them that Dad did love them," he says. "For those days that I wasn't there to hold their hands when they needed me."

He feels he's changed a lot – for the better – in the last ten years: "I think I'm a better father. My kids say, 'You're all right.' Some of them are very outspoken. They wouldn't say it if they didn't think so."

It took him years to make peace with his own father. Albert Lee King was also a traveling man, since his work as a tractor driver kept him away from home all week. "My dad never told me that he loved me," B.B. says. "Never. But when he was pleased with me, he called me Jack. I could always tell when my dad loved me. That's when my little heart would bust."

The ladies still like to dance to a live man. I watch them nightly from a gloriously loud spot behind the horn section. Dancing women always ring the front, jostling moony guitar kids. As one female security guard at a harborside Baltimore venue explains: "Lucille understands. Lucille is a girlfriend." And all the churning hips are sassing back: teen queens in twin-scoop halter tops, bifocaled soccer moms, a hard-rockin' grandma who's rumbling up the center aisle, fists pumping: Do it, pretty baby. Rock me hard!

It's hard to sit still with B.B.'s fine, tight eight-piece band at full throttle, with the huge beat of two drum sets, a bass rumble that walks right up your pant legs, a rhythm guitar courtesy of "The Fabulous" Leon Warren that is anything but utility. The cables and curtain pulls vibrate; flecks of abused drumstick fly up toward the lights. Bandleader and trumpet player James "Boogaloo" Bolden must weigh 300 pounds, but he never stops dancing, a syncopated Frigidaire with his COOL setting on permafrost.

Live! is the key to B.B. King's longevity. He noticed long ago that record sales always went up in towns he had played. Crowds got bigger every time he went back, which is probably why, wherever we go, people holler at B.B., "See you next year!" It's a marker as reliable as an equinox: B.B. King's in town!

Throughout this string of one-night stands, I make sure to claim my lookout in time to see B.B. walk into the noise and light. There is always a chair in the wings for him to wait for the moment. As he sits there, profiled in the half light, his festival-casual silk shirt falling over his tux pants, there is something calm and Mandela-like about him. The usually expressive face is inscrutable as he surveys the pandemonium of his own making, then steps out to face its consequence as saxman Melvin Jackson hollers:

"Mr. Beeee Beeeeee King!"

They're on their feet before he's played a note. It happens nearly every night. And this is where the long road leads, to pangenerational crowds, solid ticket sales and a robust stock portfolio – B.B. favors blue-chips. At this level, the road becomes its own destination. It affords a nightly renewal that keeps Bob Dylan plying the gyms of backwater academe, propels the rich-as-Croesus Stones, grandfathers now, gigging uproariously toward the millennium.

"You say you want more?"

In the glow of an hour's unconditional love, B.B. forgets how much his damned feet hurt, and Lucille sounds forever young. She sails, seduces, stings when the left fingers slip into the trademark perpendicular slide that stamps a B.B. King note. Sitting down casually with his bass and rhythm guitarists, he belts "Rock Me" with enough body language and hormonal glee to make the jaded drink vendors scream here on the Baltimore harbor.

"Domestic disturbance in Aisle Three," crackles a security walkie-talkie. "Man gettin' b'lligerent with his lady, all units . . . . "

Unaware of the wee squall of mace that results, B.B. leans back and roars into the lights.

"Rock me, baby . . . like my back ain't got no bone."

It's tough to get B.B. to own up to his own eloquence. Bulldog him with it, as I'm trying to this muggy Chesapeake morning, and he puts all his achievements at the foot of an entrenched Inferiority Thing. "Stupid fingers" – not agile or fast enough – is the explanation he has long given for the development of his signature style: "I always liked the steel guitar. I also love the guys that play the bottleneck. Just love the sound of it. But I could never do it; I never made it do what I want. So every time I would pick up the guitar, I'd shake my hand and trill it a bit. For some strange reason my ears would say to me that that sounds similar to what those guys were doing. I can't pick up the guitar now without doing it. So that's how I got into making my sound. It was nothing pretty. Just trying to please myself. I heard that sound . . . . "

B.B.'s signature vibrato is the stringed equivalent of the best soul singer's melisma – the art of drawing out a note, pulling it like taffy, releasing it a scant heartbeat before the ear can say, "Yes, now!" It satisfies like the perfect, unpredictable logic of Miss Ella's scat. In its fiercer moments, the kind that upend the hairs on your neck, such art does nothing less than make a fragmented world whole.

He has said that money was his first muse, the one that freed him from plantation work. I ask him when the music itself began to shape the life, and he says that it was pretty early on: "I was starting to hear the sound. It was more like a little itch – yeah. Any time I played, I enjoyed playing. The music was soothing to me. Just the notes from a guitar sounded like somebody bringing a kid candy. It was good for me."

After five decades and millions of permutations on six strings, is he satisfied with his own music?

"It wasn't what I wanted it to be. I still every so often would search for it. When I'm practicing now, I'm really chasing that sound." B.B. is dead certain that a perfect sound exists in his universe, though he can't possibly describe it: "I've got close to it, but I haven't heard it yet." Ask him whether he's OK with the idea that he might never hear it, and his ferocity is startling: "No! No, I'm not. As long as you're alive, there's a chance. As long as you study and try, there's a better chance. So I still study, I still practice."

B.B. is cracking another breakfast egg; we've left the dark of the harbor tunnel, and the shipyards of Baltimore shimmer in a morning haze. A big tanker horn blasts farewell. B.B. says he knows this East Coast corridor well. Baltimore had the Royal Theater, part of the Grand Slam in the restless and sophisticated black music market. Playing there, as well as the Apollo in Harlem, the Howard in Washington, D.C., and Chicago's Regal, certified you as a "made" act. Provided you survived. It was right here in Baltimore that B.B. endured the greatest public hurt that he has ever suffered.

The pretty men are all on the bill, Sixties soul singers so handsome, so clean in soft alpaca and vented sharkskin: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Drifters. B.B.'s capable band backs them all; from backstage, he hears the screeching – the kind of uncontrolled, love-me-thrill-me-take-me female wailing that a man only dreams of. Finally, the blues singer is introduced, and those pretty little things are booing. B.B. dresses sharp, but he does not look pretty when he plays, and Lucille makes him grimace, wince and go all guppy-mouthed. Louder comes their cruel descant: Booooooooo. Tears are rolling down his cheeks as he sings "Sweet Sixteen." He cries hardest when he reaches this line: "Treat me mean, but I'll keep on loving you just the same . . . . One of these days you'll give a lot of money to hear someone call my name . . . . "

"They got quiet then," B.B. says. "I guess they saw the tears. And they applauded me. But that one time, I was hurt like never before. I've felt it many times, been cut down to size for being a blues singer."

He has taken it from the other side, too, for not being blue enough. B.B.'s 1970 "crossover" hit, "The Thrill Is Gone," raised hackles with some blues purists for its gusting studio strings. The very eclecticism that has made his blues popular music – the covers of Ellington classics like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," the duets with the likes of George Jones and Joe Cocker, the bits of comic onstage shtick that have roots in Ma Rainey's black vaudeville – can set some root-blues aficionados to fanning themselves with a Blind Lemon Jefferson album sleeve.

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