Riley “B.B.” King would have turned 95 on September 16th, 2020.
I’ve been thinking about him and, if you’ll indulge me, I thought I’d share a little of what’s been playing in my head.
In no particular order:
As a kid, I was aware of B.B. from the days when I lived on Chicago’s south side and, late at night, used to turn my radio to, sometimes distant, stations that played his music. Now and then I would see a poster advertising a B.B. King appearance at Chicago’s legendary Regal Theater and would try to imagine what one of those shows would be like. It wasn’t until 1965, when B.B.’s seminal “Live At The Regal” album was released, that I got to hear the reality and it was miles ahead of any fantasy I’d had.
To this day, every time I listen to that album, I just start smiling. His interplay with Lucille and interaction with the audience is a defining “lightning in a bottle” moment that captures just how good B.B. was.
And, yes, he really was THAT good!
One year earlier, in 1964, the same year the Beatles took over the airwaves, it blew me away the first time I heard “Rock Me Baby” being played on WLS. B.B. King being played on a really big deal Chicago radio station was, to my mind and ears, indeed, a big deal!
A decade later, I would be working at WLS and have the chance to meet and interview B.B. for our weekly artist profile show, “MusicPeople.” My strongest memory of that interview is that B.B. couldn’t have been nicer. You know how sometimes you’re afraid to meet your idols because they won’t live up to your expectations? Well, B.B. far exceeded any expectations I had. A large man with a large smile and warm personality quickly put me at ease and, even though I had a few notes in my pocket, helped make that interview seem much more like just a friendly conversation. A copy of that interview is hiding somewhere in our audio archives and, one of these days, when it floats to the top of the pile, I’ll post the audio.
Thankfully, that first meeting turned into the first of many friendly conversations with B.B.
Years later, when I was at WIND and, years after that, when Johnnie and I segued to WGN radio, B.B. was nice enough to join us on several occasions. It wasn’t unusual, even if he’d just finished a show or we’d been told by one of his P.R. people to keep it a short conversation, for B.B. to make it obvious that he was enjoying talking with us and was happy to stay longer.
Long time Chicagoans will remember the, now shuttered, Mill Run Theater, in Niles, IL. This was a really nice “theater in the round” venue located in a near-north suburb of Chicago. In 1972, when I heard the site had booked Ray Charles with B.B. King as his special guest, it became a “must see” event for me.
Not surprisingly, it was a really memorable evening with the two blues legends. B.B. opened the show and, with all due respect to Ray, who of course later in the show proved that he was the Genius, if B.B. had been the only act, the audience still would have felt they got more than their money’s worth. Seeing, B.B. with Lucille and his incredibly tight band up close and personal brought back the smiles that accompanied my listening to “Live At The Regal” in the previous decade. This was one of many nights when I’ve wondered, “Why do they call it the blues, when it makes you feel so good?”
Speaking of seeing B.B. live, one of my favorite videos that shows just how cool B.B. was is this one where he breaks a string on Lucille right in the middle of a song and just keeps singing while he changes the string. Take a look.
Now, THAT’S cool!
I’ve mentioned Lucille and, on the off chance that any of you reading this don’t know who she is, I’ll explain that Lucille is the name B.B. gave to all of his guitars. The name came about after B.B. ran back into a club that was on fire to retrieve his guitar. He later found out that the fire was started during a fight over a girl named Lucille. While Lucille took on various shapes early on, for most of his career, she was a Gibson ES-355. I was more than a little pleased when I found out that was B.B.’s weapon of choice because that’s the same choice I made back in 1959 and she’s still my main guitar today. In later years, B.B. played and endorsed a signature custom model that Gibson and Epiphone made specially for him. One of the recent additions to my guitar family is the Epiphone version of Lucille and, while my 59 will always be my #1 guitar, I can easily see why B.B. loved her.
Now, playing as well as B.B.? Well … I can dream.
But, speaking of real players, my long-time friend and former guitar partner back in the late 50s and early 60s, Kal David, who also carved out quite a legendary career, including being recognized as one of the world’s best blues guitarist himself, credits B.B. as having been his first idol. Kal and the wonderful Miss Lauri Bono were scheduled to open for him when B.B. fell ill during a performance at the House of Blues, in Chicago and had to cancel the final shows of, what turned out to be, B.B.’s final tour.
At the beginning of this missive, I said that’ I’d been thinking about B.B. and just wanted to share a little of what’s been playing in my head. Well, I have and that’s it … for now. But, I can assure you that lots of B.B. will continue playing in my head and lots of other locations throughout the universe for a long, long time.
The song may say “The Thrill Is Gone,” but the soul of this man and his music lives on.