B.B. King was the hardest working guitarist in show business. Maybe make that the hardest touring guitarist in show business.
The last few times in town, King was more court jester than regal guitarist. He was more about laughter than Lucille, telling stories and jokes and letting Lucille talk on maybe two or three songs during the concert.
But King, who died Thursday night at age 89, was a road warrior. Did he love to play? Or did he just travel to visit all his (grand)kids? An Orchestra Hall source once told me that King had a grown grandson who lived in the Twin Cities area. (He reportedly had more than 50 grandchildren.)
Whatever the case, the King of the Blues played fairly often in the Twin Cities – three times in 15 months in three different venues in 2007-08, for example – transforming the blues from something sad to something liberating. How could you not help but cry and laugh when he performed “Nobody Loves Me But My Mama (And She Could Be Jivin’ Too)? How could you possibly sit still when he tore into “Rock Me Baby”? How could you not feel good about yourself when he played “Riding with the King” – with or without Eric Clapton?
King was generous about sharing the stage with others – big names or newcomers. He took Jonny Lang on tour back when the Kid was a teenager. King shared the Orpheum stage in Minneapolis with Buddy Guy, one of his contemporaries in 2010. In 2007, he brought the B.B. King Blues Festival to the Minnesota State Fair featuring two other members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Etta James and Al Green. In his last Twin Cities appearance at Mystic Lake in October 2013, King had fast-climbing blues darling Sena Ehrhardt of Rochester open for him.
I met King in 2002 in his bus behind Orchestra Hall. As was his style, he’d worn a luxurious tuxedo onstage but now he was reclining in a silk bathrobe. I asked him why he was doing commercials for Burger King, which were being broadcast at the time. He simply said because of Chris Clouser. King had done commercials for the old Northwest Airlines when Clouser was a marketing executive there and now Clouser was president of Burger King’s marketing subsidiary. “I knew [Clouser] before I ever did a commercial,” King said. “Chris is one of the nicest people ever.”
King was nice, too, gracious with his time, music and guitar. Time to cue up the obvious song: B.B.’s “The Thrill Is Gone.”