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.
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.
“I have this one really important question – OK?”
A female voice cuts through the basso murmur. She says her name is Ann. She looks eighteen or so; there is a feisty DiFranco cut to her jib: frizzy hair flying from a leather clip, baggy shorts and sandals. She says she’s a singer-songwriter.
“Do you ever get tired of singing and playing?”
Ann isn’t buying it. “Look, even I get tired, because it’s so emotionally draining,” she says. “So painful sometimes. I put so much of me in my songs, things that really hurt me. And to do it over and over . . . . “
For the first time tonight, B.B.’s smile has vanished. He is almost stern as he leans across the table and tells her: “Don’t think about the hurt. Don’t think people are responding to the hurt when you play to them. Don’t . . . do . . . that. It’s about the music. You don’t know what they find in it – some connection. Who knows? Leave it at that. Don’t think of being hurt . . . . “
Morning is breaking civilly enough on the Connecticut shoreline as we settle into the private lounge of B.B.’s bus to talk en route to Baltimore. He slips off his shoes, which he always buys at Rochester Big and Tall in New York for his “big old weird feet.” Reflexively, he shuts down the throat-killing AC vents and slides the windows open to a powerful highway racket.
Traveling with B.B. is not for the fainthearted. The company is genial, but the pace is brutal by any standards. After every show, B.B. spends up to two hours talking to those who clamor to see him up close. At 2 A.M., with 600 miles to be covered for the next gig, even when B.B.’s diabetes is working its sneaky hoodoo on his blood sugar, no one is turned away. The band is often abed or winding down in some hotel lounge before the boss finishes work. Lately, B.B. has been suffering from insomnia – the damned diabetes, he thinks – so he sits in his room, clicking at his laptop computer, answering letters, playing solitaire or his beloved cybergame, Freespace, past dawn.
Creep down to the hotel coffee shop after a couple of hours sleep, and that sound – the low, impatient diesel rumble – is always right outside. B.B. owns the band bus, but his private leased coach is a recent indulgence. “There’s two other things I thought I owed myself the last five or six years,” he says. “A suite – not a huge one, but a parlor and a bedroom. And a first-class ticket on the airplane.”
The object of all these splurges: privacy. He says he’s such a creature of group travel that he catches himself closing his bedroom door behind him during the rare times he’s at home – alone – in his Las Vegas town house. Having the coach to himself gives him a great deal more solitude. On a full tank it has a cruising range of more than 1,200 miles. “You need that to keep up with the man,” says today’s driver, Hap Arnold.
The remarkable engine that is B.B. has been sputtering a bit lately, owing to a flare-up of the diabetes that was diagnosed several years ago. He has been wondering if it’s the same thing that might have blinded and then killed his mother when he was just nine and she was in her late twenties. With great effort, he pared more than thirty pounds off his ample self. His pockets rattle with Ziploc bags of prescribed medications. He does not drink alcohol or eat meat. B.B. carries no masseurs or personal trainers on tour, just a small space heater to ward off air conditioning in his dressing rooms. This morning he’s salting the first of a few stabilizing light meals – a couple of hard-boiled eggs. He pops open a wake-up Diet Coke.
“I’ve been thinking about that girl last night,” he says, meaning Ann. Hers wasn’t a new question, but it nettled. Why do folks always fixate on the pain? B.B. just hates it when people come up to him and confess how they held fast to his music when their lives and loves fell apart. He is always polite, but the truth is, he’d like to pound a wall.
“People say, ‘Oh, me and my girl broke up last week and, boy, I’ve been playing you ever since.’ It’s not really flattering. Any way I can get them to listen to me, I guess I should be happy. I shouldn’t be surprised that they reach out to the hurt in it. But don’t play it simply because you lost someone or you hurt. I’d still like very much to know that I’m a pretty good musician. And you can hear it even if you haven’t been hurt.”
Pain is hardly a taboo subject for B.B. It keeps cropping up in conversation as it does in life, as natural and persistent as crab grass. He’ll finish an anecdote: It hurt me. You don’t know how that hurt. B.B. even speaks the word with the same upward-sliding glissando that makes his guitar licks instantly recognizable. In hours of conversation, he demonstrates great intimacy with all kinds of hurt: romantic, racial, professional. He admits that his own hurts have compelled and propelled him. He’s played them, shouted, stomped and roared them. He’s autopsied and orchestrated them.
I’ve been downhearted, baby . . . .
Have you ever been mistreated?
How blue can one man get?
Growing up poor and motherless in the segregated South, B.B. says, he has lived some very deep blues. And he has no problem with people thinking that pain may have pushed and shaped his art. But he would like this understood: B.B. King also owns the copyrights. All this time and mileage he has put in are not about the triumph of misery as much as its subjugation. His favorite blues are about survival, not submission. He says he’s tickled at the way audiences are reacting now when he powers through a song from his new CD called “I’ll Survive.” Night after night, they rise to their feet when he brings it home with those two words. Respected, well paid, draped with honorary degrees and awards, he relishes his role as the poet laureate of Enlightened Complaint.
“Can you imagine,” he asks me, “how a seventy-three-year-old guy has all these young people coming out nightly? Just to see me? How lucky can you be?” He’s just as ready to admit that, yes, every day he also has the blues, if only for a moment. That’s life. We haven’t been talking five minutes when B.B. mentions what he calls his education hang-up.
“By coming out of school in the tenth grade, I’ve never caught up,” he says. “I’m always trying to learn what everybody else knows. For example, if I’m with somebody and they say, ‘Yeah, when I was going to college, I learned so and so . . . . ‘ Well, I feel a little inferior at the time. I have that little complex. I always feel that I’m the one that has to learn.”
Press him about his honorary degrees from the likes of mighty Yale and tiny Tougaloo College, the Kennedy Center Honors, his 1987 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; remind him of the seminars he gives at universities like Northwestern to demonstrate his philosophy of funk and technique, and he’ll finally acknowledge: “I feel I have a reasonable degree in art, in what I’m doing now. I started feeling this way not awful long ago. People praise you – I love it. But they don’t know my limits as I do. I know my limitations very well.”
Not that he is one to rest easy with them. He classifies himself as “very aggressive” in trying to learn things. To illustrate his point, B.B. hands me a zippered case full of CD-ROM disks with the invitation, “Go on, check it out.” I find Success Builder disks for Algebra 2. Geometry. Elementary Spanish and French. Reptiles of the World. Architecture. What else is in B.B. King’s Compaq laptop? Letters, compositions in progress.
All this talk of sophisticated communications leads him to remember a very basic message sent to him one night in Chicago. It came when he felt like a big deal – recording star, lady’s man, King of Saturday night – until this blues blindsided him and he came undone:
B.B.’s got a band, paying it pretty good, too. They’re playing a joint called Roberts, and B.B. is strong, loose and juiced with the promise of a new release. He tells the crowd he’s got a new ah-blum out. “Ah-blum.” After the show there’s the rasp of a note sliding under his dressing-room door. It says, “The word is ‘al-bum,’ not ‘ ah-blum.’ “Walking by the band room, he hears the guys saying “ah-blum.” They’re laughing . . . .
“That hurt me deeply,” B.B. says. “One of the guys that was doing it I thought was a friend. To be a friend, he should have told me, straightened me out.”
Suddenly he brightens with a coda to the story. About a decade later, in St. Louis, someone sent a note backstage asking whether he remembered the ah-blum message, which was meant kindly. Then the writer stood revealed: “It was a beautiful lady.” B.B.’s smile bespeaks a happy ending to that blues.
“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.)
“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.
“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!”
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!