It’s possible that the first photo I ever saw of B. B. King was on the cover of Charlie Keil’s Urban Blues, an ethnographic study that spilled over into common discourse and made Charlie’s career. And I’m sure I read more about him in that book than I’ve read about him since then. But I don’t recall when I first heard King’s music and I only ever saw him live but twice in my life, once at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in upstate New York in the late 1970s or early 1980s and then a bit later in Albany, New York, when I opened for him as a member of The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band.
I don’t remember much about the SPAC performance except that before long he had us dancing in the aisles, at least those of us close enough to the aisles that we could get out there and dance. The rest of the rather considerable audience had to be content with giggling and grooving in or in front of their seats. By this time, of course, King’s days of struggling were over and his audiences were mostly white, as are most of the people in the USA – though those days will come to an end some time later in this century.
Dancing in the aisles: that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enters your body, lifts it up, and you become spirit. The blues? Why not, the blues?
My memories of the Albany gig are a bit richer. To be sure, as I recall, King’s music was better at that SPAC gig, for the music comes and goes even with the best of them. Our manager (and saxophonist) Ken Drumm had seen to it that King had champagne waiting for him when he arrived in his dressing room and that got us an opportunity to meet him after the gig. But we had to line up with everyone else – mostly middle-aged ladies in big hats and Sunday dresses – and wait our turn. We didn’t have more than a minute, if that, in the man’s presence.
And that meeting is worth thinking about in itself. King was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers. I don’t know about the rest of his band, but I recall a thing or two about Out of Control’s line-up at the time: two lawyers (I suppose we could call them ‘Big City’ lawyers for contrast, though Albany isn’t that big of a city), an advertising executive (that would be Mr. Drumm), a commercial photographer, a Berklee College drop-out, a car salesman, and an independent scholar (me). All brought together in the same place at the same time to worship in the church of the blues. I suppose I could invoke the melting pot cliché, but there was no melting going on, though the music was hot enough. As for the pot, to my knowledge the Out of Control boys were clean that night. I have no knowledge of BB’s band.
I don’t know about the other guys in the band, but I found the blues by way of jazz and jazz by way of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, and Dizzy Gillespie – yeah, I play trumpet. And when I learned that this funky music was grounded in the black church, it spun my head around three times. At least. The church? What kind of church could that be?
Which is to say that a lot of history, deep history, trailed us into the Palace Theater the day of the gig. I remember that I had my teacher and mentor, the late David Hays, with me. Hays was a Southern boy himself, though you couldn’t tell from his accent, which he’d shed as a Harvard undergraduate, courtesy of a Pepsi-Cola scholarship. I remember Dave at the gig because he helped us hook up the Leslie speakers, which we rented for the gig – you know, those jobs with the big wood cabinets and the rotating high-frequency horns.
As for us, we were pleased as punch to be opening for King. Only in America! Our opener was something called “Running Blues”, which started with a spectacular unison horn line: Ricky on tenor, Kenny on alto, and me on trumpet. It ended on a high trumpet note, one of those notes I can’t always pull out of the hat. I missed it that night, but didn’t have time to be embarrassed because the music kept coming. And Cris had me covered from the mighty Hammond B-3 anyhow; couldn’t hear anything but those screaming Leslies. So it was cool.
What I remember of King’s performance was maybe 30 seconds or a minute. It was in a slow blues late in the set, the volume was down, and King was singing about misery. And boy was he miserable. To hear him you’d think he was fixin’ to die right there on stage, just dissolve into a pile of pulsating protoplasm. Then, all of a sudden, he snapped his head a quarter turn toward the audience and a big smile flashed across his face: Gotcha! Just as quickly, the smile disappeared and King continued on his progress toward pulsating protoplasm.
Requiescat in Pace
Riley B. King
September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015