On the Bus with B.B. King

Page 6 of 6

Along with tour stalwart Dr. John and muscular newcomer Susan Tedeschi, Guy has put the crowd gathered here on the banks of the Arkansas River in a party mood. This being big-oil/cheap-gas country, rackety five-dollar helicopter rides departing from the festival grounds compete with B.B.'s set, which is full, strong and celebratory. "FIFTY YEARS!" I hear again over the chopper's thwuck thwuck. "THANKYEWWWWW!"

As the eternal flame – Norman's flashlight – guides him back down to the grass, I hear B.B. say to his old friend, "Guess we made it, man."

He is ravenous after the show, chomping on a plate of broccoli, beets, baby corn, carrots. Between bites, he's talking about tonight's walk into the light: "Even when I'm sick, it makes me feel better. I swear to God, it's like therapy for me when they say, 'Here's B.B. King.' And if I'm able to get to that microphone, I feel better. I don't want to stop. Never. I'll retire five or ten years after I'm dead."

He says he will slow down enough to do the things he enjoys. He will spend more time at home in Las Vegas. He plans to fix up the fifty acres he has bought near Indianola, so he can kick back there with the three generations he has begat. And he will keep practicing, straining to hear that sound he hasn't heard yet, coming from himself. If he and Lucille can agree to see a bit less of each other, maybe he'll even get married, provided that his current flame waits. B.B. has a hope chest – nearly $1 million set aside so that any surviving spouse won't have to tussle with that huge crowd of kin when he's gone.

Whenever he gets the chance, when anything crowds him – the business, the women, the kids – he says he will grab a set of keys and do his very favorite, soulsoothing thing. B.B.'s final picture story is not a blues but an American reverie – a rippling mirage, perhaps, since it must take place in the Nevada desert some miles from his town house.

It is hot – hotter than ever it got in Mississippi cotton fields – but blessedly free of the weepy humidity that darkened work clothes half an hour into the day. The dead quiet is broken by the growing roar of an engine powering up the desert road. The motor was built in 1984, the last year that Chevy made its low-riding half-car/half-pickup, the El Camino. This one has been overhauled and painted a baby blue that vibrates against the parched ochers and reds. An elderly black man in soft, expensive clothes is driving; his only air conditioning is the masterful cool of Mitt Jackson's vibraphone floating from the dashboard. Painted on the truck's side are two small musical notes that announce to the rattlesnakes, the roadrunners, the sleepy buzzards:

B.B. King's in town!

This story is from the December 24th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone. 

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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