BB King is dead – long live the King’s music! ‘There is always one more time‘ as the true King of the Blues famously sang. Sadly for all of us though there won’t now be ‘one more time’ for us to see the great man on Tour. Wonderfully for all of us though, his music will be there for us, our children, and their Grandchildren. Those of us fortunate enough to have shared this planet with the man, and seen him captivate every single person in an audience of thousands even when just talking, can count ourselves very lucky indeed.
I was ‘very lucky’ on three occasions. Way back in the 1980’s I saw BB at Portsmouth Guildhall. I brought along a friend who was into Jazz and a bit dubious about BB. Of course Riley B. King had one of the best horn sections in the World behind him under the control of James ‘Professor Boogalo’ Bolden on trumpet and BB’s nephew Walter on Sax. My friend was in Jazz heaven even before BB took the stage. Then of course, When BB did take the stage, It was my turn – to be in Blues heaven.
It would be a while until I caught up with BB again. It was after moving to Bonn and ‘ A final farewell tour’ was how it was sold by his promoters – the year was 2005! It was a show with four support acts: The Joe Sample Trio, Oletta Adams, Renee Olstead and Randy Crawford, but that didn’t mean BB would be in short supply – the whole show ran for some five hours in total. I remember BB smiling as he told us all “They say it’s my 80th birthday tour, and they’re right. They also say it’s my last tour, and I HOPE they’re wrong!”
Even back then, despite the man putting in a grueling World Tour, the critics had started to sharpen their pens. BB though both knew it and dismissed it with a typical speech putting himself in 3rd person: “People are saying that BB, he’s too old to stand up all night now” he said. “And they’re right. Some people are also saying that BB. He’s (here he waved a finger at his head) but they’re WRONG”. The show was spent sitting down it’s true, but BB from the waist up was still constantly in motion and playing as fluidly as ever. ‘Got the key to the Highway, gonna ride it ’til the day I die’ he sang. The Blues was BB’s Highway and he was riding it until his car broke down for good and forever.
Soon after that 2005 show I got involved with the fan-site of Ana Popovic and was overjoyed when BB King made a return to Bonn in 2011 with Ana as support. To make the show even sweeter for me, Ana’s Manager Mark was kind enough to put me on the Guest-list with a photo-pass.
We were forbidden from taking any shots of BB before he came onstage and were even instructed to wait outside the photo-pit until instructed otherwise. 3Songs? It looked like we would get three minutes! In fact we got our three songs and another ten minutes of chat to take our shots. The chance to shoot BB was so special that I’d gone out and rented the best glass Nikon had to offer. It was money well spent, and brought the pictures accompanying this very article in fact. The best camera lens in the world though couldn’t convey what it felt like to be on the end of that smile, and BB had a smile for all of us in the photo-pit that evening. He gave each and every photographer a shot like the one below:
BB did a lot of talking that evening. Too much? Maybe. He laughed as a roadie ran onstage to fix a cable and run off again. “Wish I could still run like that” he quipped. The 80th Birthday edition of his beloved guitar Lucille sat on his lap for much of the show, only getting a workout for brief runs, but then, as everyone knows, one note by BB was worth a songbook of them from most everyone else. There was a note taped on the stage floor saying ‘Must finish by 10.50’ and I had the feeling that BB could talk well past that time if permitted – funny thing is, if he talked until midnight without picking up Lucille I doubt many would have complained.
The show ended as it sadly must though, and we were sent on our ways home with a spirited ‘When the Saints go marching in‘, BB dug deep into his pockets and ladled out hand-fulls of guitar picks. Like everyone around me I was thinking that was the last time but hoping – as BB sings so confidently – there would be one more time.
For the man who in 89 years went from the log cabin of a Mississippi cotton plantation to the White House in Washington there were four years of ‘more times’ onstage. Was it having fifteen kids to support? Was it financial problems? What keeps a man on the road when he’s into his eighties and suffering increasingly from diabetes? When that man’s name is Riley B King there is only one real answer I’m sure – playing music for the people. Look at that smile brightening up my camera lens and you can’t imagine BB being any happier than on that stage. God bless you Blues Boy…