A VISIT WITH B.B.KING.
THE KING; B.B.KING.
Interview and Photo’s by Mark Fredell
originally printed in the paper BLUE MONDAY and Boradcast on KFAI Radio, Minneapolis Saint Paul.
On March 23rd, BB King and his band rolled into town for an appearance at Orchestra hall in Downtown Minneapolis and I was fortunate enough to be able to arrange a brief interview with him. As it happened, the show took place the day before my daughters 5th birthday and she jumped at the chance to accompany me excited about meeting Mr. King. Its funny when you arrange such a meeting, you are dealing with someone in this case Miss. Tina France from BB’s management company and she was very helpful stating that I would be allowed 15 (or maybe 20) minutes with Mr. King on his bus before the show, and providing me with the cell phone number of the tour manager to call 2 days before to finalize arrangements. Sherman Darby the tour manager is a very nice but serious man that doesn’t waste time and cut’s right to the point, we played phone tag for the better part of a day until finally we connected and he told me to meet the bus at 7:00pm outside the venue and they would be happy to have me onboard for the interview. So the night arrives, I get my girl cleaned up after a hard day of day-care get myself cleaned up and off we go DAT recorder in hand looking forward to my 15 minutes with the King of the Blues. I didn’t have a completely prepared interview, though I had some questions in mind as well as a few talking points outlined, we arrived at the theater at about 6:20 so we had plenty of time to hit the box office for our tickets at will call (thank you to Orchestra Hall for the seats- though they almost didn’t want to let my daughter in; I guess there was some question about her age, hmmmm.. that’s a story for another time though.) So now tickets in hand we set out for the stage door area, where we are to meet the bus in a half hour; well to make a long story much longer, an hour and fifteen minutes later the bus with Mr. King finally arrives, yes it was about 15 minutes before eight and there were “family” members of Mr. King hanging out and eyeing my daughter and I whom of course went on the bus ahead of us. Any one that has followed BB’s story for the past 30+ years has most likely heard that he no longer questions the validity of people claiming to be his kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews, he simply takes them at their word, greets them graciously, and at times gives them a few dollars if in need, he decided some time ago it was just simpler to do this than to fight every story of someone claiming to be his son (or daughter) by Ms. So and so he had a night with way back when. Anyhow, after another fifteen or so minutes of waiting, Sherman comes off the bus, and I introduce myself and my daughter, he greets her with a wide smile then looks to me and says “so you wanted 5 minutes with Mr. King right”?.... Um 5 minutes? Ms. France said I would get around 15 minutes, his reply, “I’ll give you 10 minutes but don’t make me come back and remind you.” Yes sir thank you I say, then as the “family” members leave the bus, my daughter and I board and walk to the back where BB Greets us with a smile, he recognizes me slightly; We’ve met twice before and I have photographed him some five times in the past 4 years being one of only 2 or 3 photographers at the front of the stage for his past 3 Blues Fest tours at grand Casino. I introduce Annette and tell him it’s her birthday the next day. He shakes her hand. We sit and as I unload the tape player we make small talk, I mention how Mr. Darby has cut my 15 minutes down to 10 and B says “well they’re just looking out for the old man” now with the tape player unloaded, and running I listen in the head phones for the volume level then pull them off when satisfied and my girl puts them on to listen to the interview through them smiling and nodding when B asks her “do we sound good?” And with that, the interview begins… I feel a bit rushed now and scramble to get my thoughts in order of priority and what follows are the results of my visit with the KING OF THE BLUES MR. BB KING…..
Mark Fredell: I want to of course begin by saying thank you for the opportunity Mr. King…
BB King: Oh it’s my pleasure…
MF: So you’re pushing 80 this year, 80 years young, congratulations.
BB: Thank you, I prefer 80 years old though, I’ve earned ‘um.
MF: Okay then 80 years old, and you don’t really seem to be slowing down much.
BB: Well I’ve cut down quite a bit now, I had been doing 240 to 270 concerts a year and now since I’ve been in my 70’s we usually do just over 200 shows every year and this year I’ll do hopefully close to 200 and I’ll start to cut down after 80(In September of this year.)
MF: Alright. Now you have a new record coming up can you tell me about it, I know there are some special guest, and is there any new music on it what are some of the details?
BB: Well anything that we do together will be new ‘cause they haven’t done it before… (Laughs) I have done one track with Sir Elton John I can’t tell you the name of it yet but we did cut one and I’ve been raving about it ever since we did it he’s such a great musician and a wonderful person to work with I had a wonderful time working with him. And there will be others (on the new record).
We haven’t had anyone turn us down that we’ve asked we’ve had some that couldn’t make it at the time we needed to do it but we’ve been lucky, everybody we’ve asked and I imagine it’s been over a hundred people; and some of them have said they would love to do it if we could do it another time but we just didn’t have the time…
MF: What are some of the years other highlights? I know the BB King museum in your home town (Indianola Mississippi) is going to be breaking ground soon.
BB: Yes they are, and they had hoped to have it ready in time for my birthday (September 16th.) but they won’t be able to do that but it should be ready in early 2006.
MF: And what do they have in-store, do you know any of the details, are you involved in any of the planning for it?
BB: I’m not involved in any of the planning for it, I have seen the architecture and I’m very pleased with what they are doing. They are, it will be where young people can come and have games and things of that sort, we will have workshops there from time to time and sometimes I will personally go there my self and give workshops.
MF: Speaking of which, I happened to catch on cable just this past weekend a broadcast of your workshop from the Montrose Jazz festival… I believe this particular one was from ’95 or ’96 I was wondering is that an ongoing thing for you, have you been back every year?
BB: (chuckling) Oh yes, I’ve been back every year; I’ve been doing that for some time now. When we first started there wasn’t that many people, but each year it gets more and more, this past one in fact 2004 we couldn’t get all the people in.
MF: Well I bet it’s nice to know that at this stage of your career you’re still drawing strong. I know I got to the box office today to pick up my tickets and they told me the show had sold out a few days ago (the show was at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.). So what’s this tour been like so far? (A bad choice of words on my part and I knew it as the words were coming out of my mouth).
BB: Well it’s been good, but as you may not know, I’ve never really taken time off. We’ve had time off but we haven’t just taken time off the road like some people do, say maybe well take off 5 or 6 months, we never have I took off maybe 3 months for a vacation once a long time ago and never have done it again but I have been off sometimes for oh maybe a month or two or three weeks but we’re on tour all the time, we just sort of rest up a little while then get back up on the bus and go again; 57 years of it like that.
MF: Yeah, the road really is your home… The other question I have for you now, and you may not what to answer it, I don’t know, I hope you do… Looking at the state of blues today which has been on somewhat of a decline in popularity recently, it’s harder for the ‘club bands’ to maintain a living on the road, who do you see as possibly the next real torch bearer you know you’ve got people like Robert Cray, and Keb Mo and some others that have had some good success, but no one has seemed to reach your level and been able to maintain it, they haven’t broken through like you have and sustained it.
BB: Well, let me put it like this, maybe you just don’t hear ‘um, I do (laughs) there are so many, we’ve got as you mentioned Keb Mo, Corey Harris there’s Johnny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepard and then there are a lot more, a lot more of them out there that are good, terrific, I think that when I’m gone you won’t miss me, you might miss the name but that’s it.
MF: Well sir I for one will miss you greatly…And I hear what you’re saying…
BB: But I kind of disagree about the decline. The Blues today is more popular to me than it’s ever been since I’ve been trying to play it and ( MF I’ll give you that in certain respects) and it has to do with those young people we’ve mentioned, some of them; you know the thing is we still don’t get the exposure that some other music does I don’t think of it so much for myself, but I remember the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan he and Robert Cray too they were actually superstars in the blues world and they didn’t get it, so I know if they didn’t get it I could forget it. But like I say, there are still some real good players real good ones.
MF: Of course there are, but what I was referring to really were all those bands that I see coming through town here in Minneapolis for instance playing the clubs and they are struggling to get from gig to gig to make a buck and there really aren’t to many larger venues that give them a chance.
BB: That I can’t help you with, we have 6 clubs (Referring to the chain of BB Kings Blues Clubs) and I don’t play them to much, though I do once or twice a year but usually we, we’re open six days a week and well some of them we can’t pay either what they ask for but they do have a place to play if they, well usually I don’t book them but we have managers that do and I suppose they have their favorites they bring in more often than others… I don’t know.
MF: Well I’ve gotta wrap this up, I know you’ve got to get ready for your show, I really appreciate the time and the opportunity to visit with you a bit and best wishes to you for a great year and many more to come.
BB: Well I thank you very much, it’s always a treat to come here to Minneapolis and play the Orchestra Hall it’s a beautiful venue and we have a lot of fun.
MF: It is beautiful and I’m sure you will sound great (BB: Well I hope so) Thank you very much Mr. King…
Well there you have it my visit with the King, I am grateful for the chance to spend even a few minutes with this truest of living legends, as I packed up the recorder, Mr. King chatted a bit with my daughter asked her what she was hoping for, for her birthday (a bike) before she pulled my arm and whispered “daddy can I give him a hug” I told her don’t ask me ask him, she did and of course the answer was yes. I took a picture of the 2 of them, something I will always treasure and we bid him a goodnight. The show was good though not his best, however on a side note, keep your eyes and ears open for his opening act on this night a kid (19) named Daniel “Slick” Ballinger he’s from Florida originally and now lives in Clarksdale MS. I only caught his last 2 songs this night, but the crowd response told me he was something special; that was proven two nights later when I witnessed him open for Tommy Castro at the Cabooze, he’s amazing!
As for the interview, as I pondered some of the questions and the answers he gave I realized what was really obvious in the first place, BB King is BB King, he leads a life somewhat detached from the rest of the blues world he is a genuinely humble and courteous person, he loves to talk, but in this setting he’s a bit calculated and doesn’t want to offend. He gives the same safe answers and doesn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ so to speak and as for the bands that we (as the typical blues fans) see coming through town year in and year out, well that’s a world that he (deservedly) hasn’t been involved in for quite some time. He lives the life of the ambassador of the blues to the world this polite and gracious man from Indianola MS. That has seen more in his lifetime than most any of us could comprehend, I could never begin to understand what his life has been like any more than he should understand what it’s like for the typical band clubbing it through life in a station wagon or van today, he’s been there and done that but it was decades ago and it simply isn’t’ his reality any longer. As for the BB King Blues clubs, after a bit of research on my part, all I can say is it appears he’s out of that loop as well; a quick scan at the schedule’s at most of them show that there is very little “BLUES” happening in most of them, and the one(s) that do have some tend to showcase the same handful of acts week in and week out. So be it.
BB King will celebrate his 80th birthday later this year and when the time comes that he does leave us it will regardless of his own opinion on the matter leave a huge gap which in all likelihood will never be filled by any one person, after all he is ‘THE KING OF THE BLUES.’