The King of the Blues: Remembering B.B. King PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 28 June 2015 18:17

B.B. King was born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, on a cotton plantation in Itta Bene, Mississippi, just outside the Mississippi delta town of Indianola. He began his career by playing on the street for dimes. By 1947 he hitchhiked to Memphis Tenn. and was absorbed into that musical community. About a year later, he was performing on the Sonny Boy Williamson radio show. It was during this period that King changed his professional name to Blues Boy King or B.B. King. His guitar of choice for the last 40 years has been a Gibson guitar and they have all been named Lucille. The name came from a gig that he had played in the 1950s in Twist, Arkansas when suddenly the club caught on fire. King ran back amidst the flames to pick up his beloved guitar. He later discovered that a kerosene stove was knocked over when two men got into a fight. The fight was started over a woman named Lucille.   

B.B. King released his first album in 1957 titled Singin' The Blues on Crown Records. He would release 10 more LPs on Crown until 1963. From that year until 1970, he would release many classic albums on Bluesway, ABC and the Kent Record labels. One noted classic album by B.B. King was the 1963 masterpiece Live At The Regal. This album was recorded live at the Regal Theatre, in Chicago, November 1964. It is considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. It is also one of the most popular B.B. King albums by his fans. The 1969 album on Bluesway titled Completely Well produced his signature recording The Thrill Is Gone. The song had previously been recorded by West Coast blues musician Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell in 1951. However, the B.B. King version took off around the country and the world. It earned him a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1970 and a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 1998. B.B. King continued to record and perform live almost up to the time of his death. One of his last recorded albums was released in 2011.

I first saw B.B. King perform for the first time while in high school circa 1973 or 1974. It was announced that B.B. King was coming to the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. The Capitol Theater is a historic movie theater that also served as a concert hall. My first concert experience was at the Capitol Theater in 1968 when I sent to see Joe Tex perform there with my parents.

When it was announced that B.B. King was coming to the Capitol Theater, my buddy Keith and myself decided that we would go to the show. Keith and I went to high school together and we both liked the same music. After we purchased our tickets Keith told me Howard when we go to see B.B. King, make sure that you bring your albums so that he can sign them.” Every time I ran into Keith in school he would tell me the same thing Make sure you bring your B.B. King albums with you, because he will autograph them for you”. I never said much because I had never asked anyone for an autograph before. What kept running across my mind was “How could we ever meet B.B. King after the show?” I finally told Keith after he told me again to bring my B.B. King albums, I said Hey man, let me explain something to you. We will never get a change to meet or talk with B.B. King. They will never allow us to speak with him, besides B.B. King is too busy to sign autographs for us. I am not going to bring my albums because we will never get a chance to meet with him.” Keith never asked me again about that.

On the day of the show Keith and I went to the Capitol Theater to see B.B. King. The opening act was the James Cotton Band. Early in Cotton’s career he became the replacement for the harmonica player in the Muddy Waters Band named Little Walter. The James Cotton Band came out wailing with funky blues numbers like Sweet Home Chicago and Cotton Boogie. What I remember most about James Cotton was that I was impressed with his great band. During that time he had a fantastic drummer named Ken "The Snake" Johnson. He was known for chomping on his trademark Juicy Fruit chewing gum while keeping time on his drums and cymbals which were high standing. He is featured on the 1975 James Cotton album titled High Energy. After that, he became prominent as the drummer for the Steve Miller Band during the Fly Like An Eagle days and then he was with Kenny Neal. His career began as a teenager with the Ike & Tina Turner Review.

Once the James Cotton Band completed their set, I was satisfied that I had seen a good show and a good performance. Mind you, this was the first time that I had the chance to eyewitness B.B. King live on stage. I did not realize what I was about to experience.

The announcer came out from behind the curtain and said that B.B. KingThe King of the Blues” would be coming out shortly as soon as they rearrange the stage. The crowd responded eagerly. The band came out first and blew away the audience with a couple of funky blues numbers. Then the band leader introduced B.B. King who came out playing his guitar while the crowd went wild. B.B. King and his band performed numbers like I Believe In My Soul, Why I Sing The Blues, Sweet 16, The Thrill Is Gone, Guess Who, I Like To Live and others. The show was great and the audience clapped for him to come out to do an encore, which he did.

Keith and I had seats in the balcony and once the house lights came on we followed the crowd down the steps to exit the theater. The steps from the balcony in the Capitol Theater emptied into the main lobby. You can either exit to the street to your left or walk directly to the front of the stage on your right. The crowd exited to the left to the outside of the theater and Keith followed. Once I came into the lobby area, I happened to look to my right and quickly noticed that the main seating area of the auditorium was empty. Standing in the apron were about 15 or 20 white kids who were talking to the band leader who was standing in front of the closed curtain on the stage. The kids were cheering and they all had B.B. King Memorabilia in their hands. Some had posters, some has photos, some had albums etc. I called to Keith who was already outside and said “Hey Keith, come back in here. I think that B.B. King is about to give out something for free. It looks like they are about to give those kids something free maybe a t-shirt or something. If they get something free I want something free too.” Keith replied “Yeah. Let’s go down there”.  As we got closer, we could hear the conversation between the band leader and the small crowd of fans. I whispered to Keith “Let’s walk up real quiet and stand behind him. We will blend in with them and when they bring out the free stuff we will get one too.” Keith said “Bet!”

No one noticed us in all the excitement. We heard the bandleader say to the young fans that B.B. King just told him that he will go out and sign their things. The crowd of fans went crazy and began cheering. Keith and I looked at each other. The curtain moved and B.B. King came out. They cheered some more and began shaking his hand. He then began to sign everything that they had one by one. I remember one of the fans got his LP signed Live in Cook County Jail. I then said to myself; Dang! I have that album!”

Once the fans were satisfied, they admired each others autographs and the whole crowd walked past Keith and I without noticing us. Suddenly, I realized that we were alone standing on the floor looking up at B.B. King. Except for the faint voices behind the curtain of the band members packing up their equipment, there was just silence. A friendly smile was affixed upon B.B. Kings face. I continued staring at him blinking. Keith then broke the silence. He said Howard, say something to him man!” I replied. I don’t know what to say”. He responded “Just say something”. I then stepped forward and said ”Mr. King would you sign an autograph for us? B.B. King said Sure fellas. What do you have for me to sign?” I turned to Keith and said out loud Keith what did you bring for Mr. King to sign today?” Keith responded “Me? You see man. You never listen to anybody. I told you to bring your B.B. King records and here is the man right in front of you.” I then spoke to B.B. King Mr. King we don’t have anything sir.” B.B. King responded You fellas didn’t bring anything like a program or a poster?" We both said No sir”. B.B. King then asked his band leader to go and see if they had any more publicity photographs in the back. The band leader quickly disappeared behind the curtain. Again B.B. King was looking at us smiling and we would look at him and at the floor over and over not knowing what to say. The band leader came back and held up both of his hands and said that they are all out of photographs. B.B. King said Fellas, I am sorry. We gave out all of our photographs away at the last show, and we do not have anything to give to you.” We both responded Thank you sir. It’s OK. As we began to turn away, he called back to us and saidHey I do have one thing that you can have. I just have one, but you can have this.”  He handed me the bright red guitar pick that he played the show with which was in his shirt pocket. My eyes became big when I first saw it. Both of us were excited that we had a chance to fraternize with the great B.B. King. Like the previous small crowd of fans that preceded us in company of the King of The Blues, we both began to shout “Long live the Blues!, The Blues will never die, Long live the Blues!, B.B. King is the King of the Blues! Yeah! Yeah!”

Thirty to forty years later, hosting a radio show and having the opportunity to interview many great people of the music business I still feel that my job is incomplete. The one person that I have not added to my list of interviewees is the King of The Blues. I tried several times to schedule an interview with B.B. King. It became impossible to get through his employees that handled his calendar. I spoke to his personal manager and she told me to contact her back in three months. That turned into six months which turned into years. Once I had a scheduled interview with the King of the Blues which was set up by a publicist or an agent. Once it became known to the personal manager the interview was canceled. I tried at least five times or more to get a telephone interview with the King of the Blues for one specific reason. I wanted to say thank you again for giving a shy kid his personal guitar pic. A figure like B.B. King only comes around once in a lifetime and we will never see another like him. Long live the King of the Blues and long live B.B. King!

Rest in peace Riley B. King (September 16, 1925 - May 14, 2015)


Howard Burchette



Last Updated on Monday, 29 June 2015 07:14