BB King; Still Driven to Tour (B. Globe)
Thu Sep 2 23:40:51 EDT 2004
King of the road
Nearly 79, blues legend B.B. King is driven to tour and perform
By Mark Feeney, Boston Globe | September 2, 2004
HYANNIS, Mass. -- B.B. King has a lot to be happy about these days.
Last September, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him third on its list of the
greatest guitarists of all time, behind Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. In
May, the king of Sweden presented him with the Polar Music Prize, the Nobel
Prize of popular music (previous winners include Ray Charles, Bob Dylan,
and Paul McCartney). Next year, the B.B. King Museum is scheduled to open
in his hometown, Indianola, Miss.
And in a few minutes, he's about to go on stage to play for a sold-out
house, part of his B.B. King Blues Festival tour, which includes Dr. John
and Elvin Bishop. (It plays tonight at the FleetBoston Pavilion.)
Right now, though, King is looking uncharacteristically mournful. He's
sitting in the back of his tour bus, which is parked behind the Melody
Tent. The cause of his sadness? Having to answer how many dates he'll be
playing this year.
"I've cut down quite a bit," he sighs. "We'll probably do about 200."
Of course, 200 dates might seem like a lot, and it might seem like a real
lot if you turn 79 in two weeks, as King does. But King played 342 one-
nighters in 1956 and until quite recently averaged 250 shows a year.
"I've missed 18 days in my 57 years of playing," King says. "If they book
me, I'll be there."
A supremely amiable man, B.B. King is not the litigious sort. But if he
ever wanted to sue James Brown for the title of Hardest-Working Man in Show
Business, it's easy to envision a hung jury.
King has lived in Las Vegas for some three decades. But he's the first to
admit that the road is his home. "This is it," he says, gesturing at the
bus interior. "You're sitting in my quarters."
King shares the bus with five others. Another eight musicians and crew
members ride in a second bus. "Most of the time we don't take real long
jumps," King says almost sheepishly. "My band and I just do 300 to 400
miles. That's like a good ride on a summer day."
Certainly, it's a comfortable ride. King sits on a leather-covered couch
surrounded by a cornucopia of home electronics. A laptop sits on the table
in front of him, as does a can of Diet Coke. Also visible are a "CSI:
Miami" video and a DVD of the Marlon Brando Western, "One-Eyed Jacks."
King's hard work paid off long ago. He's sold more than 40 million records
(this despite the fact he's had only one song crack the Top 20, "The Thrill
Is Gone," which reached No. 15 in 1970). King, says Shelley Ritter,
director of the Delta Blues Museum, in Clarksdale, Miss., "is the most
commercially successful bluesman in history. He has reached more people,
and places, than any other blues artist." Performing is only part of it.
There are B.B. King Blues Clubs in Memphis, New York, Los Angeles, and at
Foxwoods casino. He's also been a ubiquitous presence in commercials,
endorsing everything from beer to fast-food chains.
The composer of classic songs such as "Sweet Little Angel" and "Rock Me
Baby," King long ago took possession of such blues standards as "Everyday I
Have the Blues" and "How Blue Can You Get." He was inducted into the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1995.
It's impossible to determine King's influence. "The reach is endless," says
Brendan Hogan, host and producer of "Blues After Hours" on WGBH-FM. "Guitar
players, period -- blues players or not -- try to sound like King whether
they are conscious of it or not." Hogan likens King to Louis Armstrong and
Ray Charles as "definitive American icons."
All of which may be the case, but King confesses to still getting nervous
before each show.
"Always, always," he says. "Some call it stage fright. To me, I'm
concerned. It's sort of like meeting your in-laws for the first time when
you get married. You don't know them. They know you -- they know about you -
- their daughter done told them all about you. But you, you're frightened,
because you want to be yourself, you want to be accepted as yourself. But
after I get up there, after I do two, three songs, it's almost like a
quarterback on a football team. I can tell which play to use next time."
No matter which play King calls, it's sure to involve his guitar, Lucille.
King may have come in third on Rolling Stone's list of guitarists, but
there's no question that Lucille is the most famous guitar in the world.
She got her name in 1949. King was playing at a juke joint in Twist, Ark.,
when a kerosene burner got knocked over in a fistfight. King braved the
flames to save his guitar. "Damn," he heard a patron say, "you wouldn't
think two guys would near kill each other over a gal like Lucille."
King is playing Lucille number 16. "I didn't buy 'em all," he
explains. "What happens is something goes wrong with one, I send it back to
the factory. And it's like with a car, they let you have another one until
yours is ready. When mine get ready and they send them back, I have
selective amnesia and forget to send the old one back."
The most striking thing about King offstage is how modest he is. It's the
best of both worlds. There's still a sense of poor-boy humbleness to this
son of sharecroppers. Yet he is "the King of the Blues," with all the
authority (and bulk) of a grand potentate who knows the meaning of noblesse
oblige. Is it possible to be simultaneously commanding and neighborly? It
must be, because that's how B.B. King is. It's a lesson he learned, he
says, working as a DJ at a black-operated, white-owned radio station in
Memphis when he was starting out: "You give honor to whom honor is due."
As a performer, King is nearly as celebrated for what he does with his face
as with his voice or fingers. He wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "Blues
All Around Me," that his first wife "used to call me ol' lemon face because
of my facial contortions when I play." (King has been married and divorced
twice.) "I squeeze my eyes and open my mouth, raise my eyebrows, cock my
head, and God knows what else."
In person, though, he sits placidly, his face in repose, except when he
smiles. King, who has a great, bubbling-fudge laugh, has an equally great
smile. When he smiles he looks like a kid who's just eaten the fudge.
Not that he does eat fudge. King was diagnosed with diabetes about a decade
ago, so he's given up all sweets. He also has bad knees and a bad back,
which means he now sits while performing.
The only other concession he makes to age is keeping the temperature on the
bus at a near-tropical level to protect his voice.
"I don't want to barbecue you," King says apologetically.
King dismisses the idea of retirement. "I'm a believer in God," he
says, "and I believe when it's time He will do it. Other than that, as long
as my health is good, and people still come to see me -- and I can handle
myself -- I don't see retirement at all. I feel fine, real good. In
Mississippi, where I come from, when you start to feeling `real good,' that
means you're about to leave this world, so I don't want to feel too good."
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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