Backstage with B.B.: 'King of the Blues' is generous with his music, and with his time

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Guitarist Magazine is honoring B.B. King this month, releasing a gala 132-page magazine focused on the man they call “The Undisputed King of Blues.” That had us going back to a personal moment spent with this music-making legend …

The magazine offers an historical overview of King’s live and influence, following him from humble beginnings near Indianola, Mississippi, to international stardom as an ambassador for the blues. There’s also a exclusive one-hour documentary DVD from director John Brewer, who is at work on a feature-length film about B.B. King. The DVD features in-depth interviews, archival film and images from throughout King’s career, along with new video from last year’s blockbuster sell-out performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Elsewhere, the magazine offers technical sections on King’s guitars and gear, along with playing lessons and techniques, and more.

But first, let’s go backstage with B.B. …

B.B. King, inside the bright circle of television light, asks someone to bring him a soda. The stage crew, meanwhile, is hurriedly disassembling the stage out in the arena. King takes a sip and looks at the label: “We’re not getting paid for his,” he says, and puts the can out of sight.

He has been signing an endless stream of albums, pictures and scraps of paper, first just off stage and then in his dressing room. King’s been interviewed, photographed and given the key to the city. The concert has been over for hours, forever. But B.B. King is just getting started.

“What we want you to say, Mr. King,” the TV person instructs, “is: ‘Hello, I’m B.B. King. Lucille (his legendary guitar) and I would like to encourage every one of you to join the fight against crime in this parish.'” King considers it for a moment, after saying “O.K.” Then he looks some more at a piece of paper with notes about what he’s supposed to say.

There are a group of people lining the walls of his dressing room — friends, bodyguards, attendants, and another in the never-ending line of families waiting for their sliver of time with a living, breathing legend.

“May I say, ‘Hello, I’m B.B. King. Lucille and I would like to encourage you to join in the fight against crime,’ like that? I want to make it for everybody,” he says. The TV person answers: “Well, sure, Mr. King. It doesn’t have to be like that. It can be universal.” King looks over the paper again, whispering to himself. “If you just let me look at it a couple of times, I think I can get it in my head,” he says, helpfully. After another moment, King says: “I think I’ve got it,” but asks for another soda break.

He’s just finished performing for more than 1,900 people in a little Louisiana town, another in a lifetime’s tapestry of nights spent weaving stories of love-gone-bad and love-gone-for-good, all with his patented butterfly-wrist guitar twang. King has thrown off his coat, and wiped his brow. It is well past midnight on a Sunday morning, approaching now 1 a.m. But he doesn’t seem weary.

“Hello, I’m B.B. King. Lucille and I would like each and every one of you to join in the fight against crime,” he says, then waves off the take with a quick hand gesture. “O.K., let’s try it once more, just to make sure we’ve got it,” the cameraman says. There is a quiet moment. Then, in a louder voice, King says: “Hello, I’m B.B. King. Lucille and I, we’d like to join –” He stops, and smiles with open joy. “We’ll do another; we’ll do another,” the TV person says. King takes a deep breath: “Are we ready? Alright,” he says, cheerfully. “O.K., Hello. I’m B.B. King. Lucille and I would like to encourage each and every one of you to join in and help the fight against crime.”

The take is finally done. They cut the camera off, and start spooling up cords and taking down the lights. “Now, I’m a star. Get the wheelbarrow!” King booms, gesturing around the room. “Get the wheelbarrow, ’cause my head’s going to expand! I got to get it out of here!” Everyone laughs. But no one leaves.

Another woman comes up with another notebook to be signed. “I have a friend who wants me to get your autograph,” she says. “Because she is in love with you.” King’s smile grows wider. “In love with me, huh?” Sitting next to King now, the TV person says: “You have more women in love with you.” King is writing “Best Wishes” in the notebook, then. “But none of them,” he says, wryly, “want to marry me. Lucille, she just stays with me ’cause I pay her.”

Somebody else in the dressing room says: “Do you imagine it’s because a woman can’t keep up with you?” “Well,” King says, “I’ve been married more than once. That may have something to do with it.” Again, everyone laughs. Again, though, nobody moves. The pause this time is longer than the last. King finally says: “Well, thank y’all.” But somebody gets him going again, talking about being given the key to the city. King sits back, taking it all in: “When he handed me the key, I wanted to ask him … ‘if I run a red light …,” he says, looking around the room with another huge grin. “Would it help get me out?”

Then, King is up and ready to leave. But he never does. “Alright, thank you all,” he says, then starts right back in.

“A couple of days ago, it was Monday,” King says. “I was in San Jose, Calif. I needed to see my dentist, so I told my secretary to get me a car, which he generally do. And if I’m running late like I was at that time, we have to call all the agencies in town that rent cars kind of in a hurry,” King continues. “Well, I call this lady up, and the lady says: ‘I’m sorry, but do you have a reservation?’ You can’t get a car without a reservation.”

King is sitting again, though still at the edge of a couch that was hastily dragged into the dressing room for the show. “Then she said: ‘But, can you give me an autograph?'” King exclaims, then glances around, incredulously. “So, I didn’t say anything. I just looked at her, kind of like this.” King makes the same face he makes when he roars that nobody loves him but his mother — and she may be jivin’, too. “She says: ‘I’m sorry, but I ain’t got no car.'”

Out by the door, the backstage manager is asking photographers if they need any more shots, and writers if they have gotten everything they need. The people around B.B. King look tired, and ready to go. He doesn’t. Not by a country mile.

“She said: ‘But, I’m going to try to help ya,'” King continued. “And she did. I got me a car, from some car company I never heard of before.” King shakes his head at the memory, laughing softly. “O.K., thank you,” he says, after being prodded to leave again. One of the members of this entourage says: “Thank you all.”

What might have been the last group files out of King’s quarters, only to stumble into another smattering of fans and friends still waiting in the hall. Several children traveling on tour with King are walking up and down the arena halls, patiently biding their time under flourescent lights that make their church clothes glow. One of them, a boy wearing crooked glasses, finally asks: “Is he done yet?”

The man guarding B.B. King’s door says: “Almost, son. In a little while.”

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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