By Steve Newton
As you’ve most likely heard by now, B.B. King, the beloved “King of the Blues”, passed away last night at the age of 89. He was receiving hospice care at his home in Las Vegas, where the longtime diabetic was recovering from dehydration.
You can read all about the great man’s numerous accomplishments in a thousand other obituaries being posted around the world today, but this one is more a personal reflection, based on meeting him a few times in my role as a music journalist.
The first time I met him was back in 1984, when he was playing a string of dates at the Plazazz Showroom in North Vancouver. He welcomed me into his hotel room and politely answered all my questions. I remember asking him why he never sang and played guitar at the same time.
“Can’t concentrate,” he told me. “I quite often say I’ve got ‘stupid fingers’. My fingers don’t seem to accompany my singing. I can’t seem to play the proper chords and sing at the same time, so generally when I play I’m singing in my mind. And when I sing my guitar is just numb.”
After the interview–or maybe before, it was so long ago I forget–B.B. graciously posed for a photo with me, and I took full advantage of it, grasping his right hand and putting my hand on his shoulder. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Not to mention niceness.
Famed Vancouver punk-rock photographer Bev Davies took the shot, and 10 years later I took the photo with me when B.B. was playing the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. He signed it real nice for me, and my plexiglass Raven guitar too.
I met B.B. in person for a third time after his show at GM Place in Vancouver in August of 1998. His heart was still huge.
“Come on in!” he urged the gaggle of well-wishers and autograph hounds gathered outside his dressing room. It was 12:30 a.m., about 45 minutes after King had finished his set on the first night of the 44-date B.B. King Blues Festival tour.
“I’ve got a bunch of photos here that I can sign for anybody,” he announced, holding up a stack of 8-by-10 promo shots, “and there’s a big pile of guitar picks for anybody that wants one.”
While more high-falutin’ superstars would have been sipping cognac in their hotel-room Jacuzzis by then, the 72-year-old King of the Blues was making sure that he pressed the flesh with some of his more devoted followers.
My older sister Marnie—a King fanatic who recently cleaned up at a karaoke contest crooning “The Thrill Is Gone”—was beside herself at the prospect of meeting her idol, and when the time came to pay her respects, all she could manage was a choked-up “I love you.”
A bewildered B.B. responded with a mile-wide smile and a fatherly bear hug, which was in keeping with his whole after-show aura. To me, it’s that kind of attitude that separates the truly great artists from the merely famous ones.
R.I.P. B.B. Say hi to Stevie Ray for me. And my brother Dan too, please. He would have loved you just as much.