Published Dec. 23, 1979
A bartender by that name (and I) looked up to see a dripping wet beer pitcher hurtling toward us. The bartending Joe one-handed the missile, nonchalantly.
"Now this is a nightclub!" I remarked to my Coke. The cola and I were sitting in a place called Headliners, on Madison's University Avenue. B.B. King was in the wings.
Six hundred people who paid $7.50 in advance ($8.50 at the coat check window) watched a Kingless 10-piece band play brassy opening tunes. "Lucille," B.B.'s black electric Gibson, gleamed on a chrome stand in its own spotlight.
Band director Calvin Owens did the honors: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mistah, B., B., King!" Then twice more, as if trying to conjure a ghost: "Mistah, B., B., King!"
Waddling in, the familiar, portly figure returned the 600 grins. He picked up Lucille for the unknown-thousandth time and played the blues.
Or should I say, played his blues? King's style has always been unique among bluesmen. Late in the 1940s, he set the west side of Chicago afire with his completely original approach. Unlike other Mississippi immigrants, he added ingredients of French jazz, Les Paul, Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker to the basic Delta mixture.
And few can match King for sheer natural talent. Anyone who's even attempted the guitar know that those wire-wrapped strings have got to be pushed down, hard. B.B. makes Lucille's look like they're made of silk.
By the end of this Madison performance, the toll was one woman fainted, two encores, three dozen inspired onto the dance floor, and 600 satisfied. He shook all hands offered, signed a few album covers and awarded the night's guitar pick to a little boy.
After the traditional and mysterious "after-concert recuperation period," a steel fire door opened into the backstage dressing room. One of the most famous faces in the world smiled at me and said, "Hello, I'm B.B. King."
Here is what your columnist was able to blurt in return: "No kidding."
No one has been that polite to me since the car salesman who took my $1000 down payment. I uncapped the Canon, unpacked my brand-new tiny tape recorder and sat on a trunk. King enthroned himself on a sturdy chair. Some excerpts from our half-hour conversation . . .
How's your diet been going?
(Patting his torso) Oh, pretty good. I've lost about 30 pounds now.
When you first turned professional--back in the Forties--what was the most a blues singer could hope to attain?
I didn't envision fame as I've achieved it. I thought that I would be able to make a living, and I wouldn't have to get up at 5:30 in the morning to get out in the cotton fields and stay out there till The Man say I could come home.
I was thinkin' about being able to have a home, which was something we never had. I was thinkin' of maybe a nice automobile, which was something I'd never had. I didn't think of havin' a whole lotta money. I felt like I'd like to able to pay my bills. Just the general things.
I never dreamed that I would have gone around the world. I never dreamed that we'd have played the countries that we've played. I was just thinkin' of a way out.
One of those countries was the Soviet Union. What kind of audiences did you have there?
We-e-ell, it was quite a bit different. It was kind of strange. But the people--the people were very hospitable. With the exception of the first two or three rows of seats, everybody else would be gettin' into it. Those front rows were the dignitaries and the press.
But finally, I found a way to melt them before I left. I have a habit of giving away the pick that I used in the concert. So I'd look for the highest-ranking-looking guy, sittin' there all frozen, and give it to that person. Then, when he's melted, everybody else around him was just a-smilin' away.
All that security in Russia must have cut down on the groupies.
Ah-mmm . . . you ain't gonna be able to keep an American from doin' something if she wanna do it. But, it's so strict. The retaliation on the people there, I mean. We had five ladies who were our interpreters, so we never done anything that would've harmed them. That'd been the end of their jobs!
Sometimes there'd be dances downstairs in the hotels. And some of the guys managed to, um, "communicate." Everything there was the way it was here in the Forties.
Those Russian cars must have reminded you of the Forties too.
They do, they definitely do. They look so much like so many of our older cars that were made in the Forties or early Fifties. I saw many cars with the copying of, say, '41 Fords or '53 Chevrolets.
There was no American music in their shops. But while I was over there, about 10 or 12 people came up to me with my albums and wanted me to sign 'em. They were gettin' 'em.
The newspapers are strange. There are no want-ads or anything of that sort. Nothin' but talkin' about the Party or Five-Year Plans and things like that.
Blue musicians of your generation have never had it easy. When you started, your parents called the blues "sinful," and generations after you criticize it as too individualistic, not enough black "togetherness" in it. Like tonight, there weren't any young blacks in the audience.
We have older blacks and young whites. That is our clientele today. I think we're gaining ground with young blacks today. Especially the young people who are familiar with my music through Mom and Pop are still there.
But when the others ever get a chance to hear me in person--not on TV--then somehow they seem to change their mind a bit.
Has your style changed at all to attract this young audience?
Yes, of course. I'm living in 1979; everything around me has changed. As I influence people through the years, they've influenced me. 'Course, I collect records and I do have some of the things from yesteryear with me, to keep me from gettin' too far from where I came. But never change? That's bull!
You certainly have changed since "yesteryear." You started out singing gospel.
After my mom died, when I was nine, I'd just be on the corner singin', because we was broke. People who would come by and ask me to sing a gospel song usually would thank me and say, "Son, you sure sing well. And if you keep doin' it, you'll be very popular [in church]." But if a dude asked me to sing a blues song, he either would tip me or maybe give me a drink of beer. That motivated my blues singing.
The money that I would make that evening would be much more than I had made all week, workin' hard, plowin' with the mules, drivin' a tractor, whatever.
That kind of reminds me of the cover picture on your new album, Take It Home: a little kid eyeing a guitar in the pawn shop window. How real is that?
That was sort of the artist's conception of it. I was actually 12 when I got my first guitar.
From a pawn shop?
No, a farmer sold it to me for $15. I was makin' $15 a month.
Is it true that you're gonna try to cut your touring schedule in half, after all these years?
I would like to, yes. I don't ever want to stop. I don't feel that I need to come to any city twice a year. Once a year is good enough.
I'd like to be able to spend some time in the studio. Take It Home took 14 days, the longest I've ever had to record.
Taking It Home
My tape recorder beeped to a halt. Lens cap on. Thank you very muches. And a handshake. How do those giant, thick fingers fit between the guitar frets?
While pondering this on Highway 151 back north, a very short Steve Goodman tune wailed out of the eight-track:
My baby came to me this mornin'
and she said, "I'm kinda confused.
If me and B.B. King was both drownin',
which one would you choose?"
I said, "Whoa, baby."
I said, "Whoa, baby."
I said, "Whoa-oh, baby . . .
I ain't never heard you play no blues.
Riley B. King ("That's how I sign my paychecks.") died, at age 89, on May 14, 2015. He was on the board of the non-profit Little Kids Rock, which provides free musical instruments and instruction to children in underprivileged public schools throughout the US. Since this interview, B.B. released another 31 albums, including his all-time best seller, Riding with the King, a duet collection with one of his biggest fans, Eric Clapton. Photos on this page are by me.