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On the Bus with B.B. King

Page 5 of 6

"Blues purists have never cared for me anyway," B.B. says a bit crossly. "I don't worry about it. I think of it this way: When I made 'Three O'Clock Blues' [his first hit on the R&B charts, in 1951], they were not there. They were not. The people out there made the tune. And blues purists just wrote about it. The people is who I'm trying to satisfy."

Likewise, he has no patience for the self-styled ethnologists who seem to think that a guy who started singing on a Delta street corner shouldn't cover a swank Sinatra tune. B.B. can still sing his uncle's stentorian field hollers, loosed at the end of the workday:

If I feel like this tomorrow . . . .

Feel like I'm gonna make my getaway . . . .

B.B. honors the memory, but he's not going to drag that out on The Tonight Show.

For God's sake, why Vegas?"

This is the question that B.B.'s manager, Sid Seidenberg, fairly shrieked when B.B. decided to make that neon Gomorrah his putative home, in 1975. On the surface it made some sense – Elvis was wowing capacity crowds at the Hilton's showroom, and B.B. rocked those high rollers at the hotel's big lounge hard enough to secure a five-year contract. But at the time, B.B. also had a big IRS debt and an alarming weakness: "I used to gamble like mad. Keno is the thing that got me hooked." There's still a glint in his eye as B.B. describes his biggest score: "They paid me $50,000 in crisp $100 bills!"

Seidenberg, a CPA turned manager who has been with B.B. for more than thirty years now, has guided his sole client into ambitious "five-year plans," hammered out the corporate endorsements that long eluded bluesmen and heckled record companies into respectful box sets, "superstar" duet projects and the like. Seidenberg also suggested a gambling cure to B.B.: Don't draw your salary in Vegas – have them bank it. And don't take casino credit – write checks. Write them out with all those scary zeros and you'll realize how much you're spending. "I did that," says B.B., "and when I noticed how big some of those checks were, that cured my gambling. I go home now; I don't want to go to the casinos."

He prefers to stay at home, in the town house that two secretaries watch over during his long absences. B.B. admits it's more like a warehouse, chockablock with souvenirs, electronic gadgets and the largest collection of hats this side of Elton John's closet. One of his secretaries, Laverne Toney, has instructions to leave all of B.B.'s toys where they lie when she goes in to empty the six VCRs of his favorite soap-opera tapes (The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless); she ships them out wherever he is. The boss's other secret vice is really kinky: The man can't stop buying office supplies – pens, computer disks. Toney giggles when she conjures the image: big bad old bluesman cruising Staples for a deal on double-A batteries . . .

Home? Can you believe that? I'm going home. Gonna stay in my pajamas till I have to get on the next plane. Just sit there . . ."

B.B. is fantasizing about his imminent three-day stopover in Las Vegas. Having rejoined the tour in Dallas after a couple of weeks' absence, I find B.B. looking tired, a bit gray and worrying aloud. "I've always had confidence," he says as he waits to mount the outdoor stage amid a cloud of Texas-size crickets. "I've never thought of going onstage and passing out or anything, just going out trying to make people happy and having fun myself. But it started two months ago, when my diabetes got really out of whack – I started not having the confidence I've had. Each night is like, 'God, can I make it? Can I make it?' So if I can make it tonight and tomorrow . . . . "

We have two nights left out here. And B.B. says he knows he could not make it – anywhere, any time – if not for his cadre of men. Their loyalty and honor have sustained him on the road. Despite our sue-me, sue-you times, B.B. says, their working arrangements are simple. "Just this," he says, extending a big hand and shaking it in the air. Bandleader James Bolden has made that handshake last more than twenty years; few have been with B.B. less than a decade.

B.B. calls it a family: bass player, rhythm guitarist, keyboard player, two trumpets, one saxman, a pair of drummers, roadies, assistants, drivers, security men and Sherman Darby, the calm, durable tour manager given to watching Truffaut movies – in French – while he does paperwork on the bus. And Norman.

Every busy statesman must have his attendant, and for close to forty-five years, on and off, B.B. has been aided, annoyed and abetted by one Norman Matthews, a fellow Mississippian and one of his very oldest and truest friends. They met on Norman's birthday in April 1947. They have dodged whining bullets in boardinghouses together, drowned happily in the company of willing women and – before the days when B could command a nightly plate of smoked salmon backstage – shared the last of the tinned sardines and pork and beans.

"You don't think that's good, young lady, you try it when you're hungry," Norman says. He still has a photo taken on a day they were "just plain starvin'" somewhere in the Carolinas. A desperate B.B. went fishing – and ended up in the creek, drenched and still hungry. Norman says he could always finesse a little something. "I dealt a little three-card monte, picked up some change . . . . "

Now that B.B. is mainly vegetarian, and in need of many small meals, Norman is ever at his elbow with a Diet Coke, a sandwich, a Tupperware container rolling with hard-boiled eggs. Norman accompanies B.B. on his yearly tune-up at the Pritikin Longevity Center, in Santa Monica, and absorbs the directives of its dietitians and doctors. Norman cooks a mean plate of butter beans; he knows the names and locations of all B.B.'s lady friends, children and grandchildren who show up along the road. The two don't have to talk much. Hand signals, shrugs, the semaphore of a raised eyebrow do the job. "I have one brother that's as close as he is," B.B. says. "Norman knows everything. And he tells me everything – whether I want to hear it or not."

The loyal bodyman is an honored tradition in soulful circuits: In the Sixties the self-styled King of Rock & Soul, Solomon Burke, employed a midget – Little Sammy – to boogaloo beneath the fifteen-foot ermine-trimmed train of his cape and keep it snapping neatly behind him. Ship out with James "Butane" Brown and you'd better know how to handle a hysterical woman and a hot comb.

The key to a bodyman's strength and longevity is in his very transparency. Much of the time, Norman is onstage but unseen. "Nobody knows who Norman Matthews is, and ain't nobody about to find out," Norman tells me. Even when B.B. and the band are in summer casuals (tuxedo pants and silk print shirts), Norman tucks himself into a fly tuxedo studded with B.B. King lapel pins and American-flag pins. You can always tell where Norman has been sitting by the small heaps of souvenir guitar picks and Lucille-shaped pins that trickle from his pockets.

Toward the end of every show, Norman walks onstage during the final ovation and gives the boss a cup of cold water and handfuls of the giveaways to toss out. Willie King, B.B.'s son, wraps a snowy towel around his father's wet neck and helps him into a warm tour jacket for the final bow. Norman wields a flashlight to get the boss safely backstage. They make a slow, stately procession, two elderly men stepping cautiously out of the bright clamor and into the darkened wings.

One more show to go – Tulsa, Oklahoma – and B.B. is down. He hasn't slept at all. Didn't yesterday, either. As we load up to leave Dallas, a fretful Norman says the boss isn't even eating. Almost before the city limits, B.B. is finally out, slumbering past the newly carved condo buttes, the grazing cattle, the highway that narrows as we hit Oklahoma and becomes a two-lane bordered by trailer parks and ammo shops. He dreams past Okmulgee, where leathery dudes in pickups hoot, honk and raise arms ringed with tattoos of barbed wire as they recognize the bus with Lucille's likeness. Tulsa is announced by the hiss of brakes. B.B. moves slowly through the front lounge; pillow marks still crease his cheek as he follows Lucille into the hotel lobby. "Gonna sleep some more," he mumbles. "Feel like hell."

Yet four hours later, B.B. is transformed: jaunty Kangol cap, big grin, a wicked cackle as he light-fingers a forbidden bag of chips from the bus kitchenette. He's well enough to talk, strong enough in the hour we sit outside the riverside venue to accept the wild embrace of bluesman Buddy Guy, who has bounded onto the bus after his set in crisp white overalls, bandanna and glistening Jheri curls. "Where is my King?" Guy is yelling. "I have come to honor my King!"

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