The first time I saw BB King I was 18 years old and had no idea who he was. I’d had no exposure to the blues and since this was decades before Google and iTunes and YouTube, and he’d never appeared on any TV show I watched, I had no way to see what kind of performer he was. But when a friend asked if I wanted to go to King’s concert, I said sure.
The 3,000 seat gymnasium was packed with other college students and lots of adults. When the lights went down, ten men walked onto the stage in brown suits with ruffled shirts. They picked up their instruments and jumped right into a blues vamp. I was thrilled to see that the band included a three-piece horn section. I was enamored of that sound from listening to Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire, and Blood Sweat and Tears.
After a minute or so, one of the band members said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the King of the Blues, Mr. BB King!” The crowd leapt to its feet as King entered, wearing a tuxedo. He plugged in his guitar, strolled to the microphone, and played along with the vamp in that distinctive style that, from then on, would make it easy for me to pick out a BB King solo. Next, he told us all how happy he was to be there, and rolled right into “Caledonia.” The horns punctuated the song, the rest of the band was tight, and my ears were wide open.
At one point, King told the story about why his guitar was named Lucille, and said that he’d once been asked why he didn’t sing and play her at the same time. He explained that when he’s on stage, he’s having a conversation with Lucille. First he talks, then she talks, then he talks, then she talks. He paused for emphasis before adding, “And as with other women, I realized a long time ago that when she’s talking, I have to shut up!”
In the intervening decades, King’s stature and popularity had grown tremendously. He’d come a long way since the mid-1950s, when he once played 347 gigs, in different clubs, in a single year. If James Brown was the Hardest Working Man In Show Business, BB King must have been a close second. Those weren’t just one-nighters on stage. King was so popular with his female fans that, by his own count, he had 15 children by 15 different women. Safe to say he wasn’t going to get an endorsement deal with Trojan.
The next time I saw King in concert was 30 years later, at one of his annual blues festivals at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. By then, I’d learned a lot more about the blues and collected recordings by some of its masters, but the evening still exceeded my expectations. Susan Tedeschi, then an up-and-coming talent from Boston, blew us away with her opening set. She was followed by Buddy Guy, to me the second-best bluesman I’ve ever seen. In fact, Guy was so entertaining that night that he actually overshadowed King’s headline set.
By then, King’s diabetes had taken a toll, and his weight had gotten out of control, so he had to sit while performing. That didn’t diminish his talents one bit. He still played and sang with gusto, and the band (no longer wearing frilly shirts and brown suits, but still nattily attired) never missed a beat during his 75-minute set.
After that, my only other exposure to King was on video, whether he was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, becoming a Kennedy Center honoree, or receiving more than a dozen Grammy Awards. And whenever I’d hear him play, I’d flash back to that gymnasium and be thankful I’d been introduced to BB King’s music all those years ago.