By Alan Paul
I took my 13-year-old son Jacob to see B.B. King at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey, last week. Who knows how much longer B.B. will continue his endless tour. He’s 86 and may actually want to retire some day.
I wanted Jacob to see him and he had a memorable experience. When my son went up front to take a picture, he was standing right in front of B.B., when the great man said, “Hey there, little dude,” leading everyone to cheer. B.B. then flipped Jacob a guitar pick, which he had to get down and scramble to find on the floor, before returning to our seat with a huge smile.
B.B. is on something of a valedictory tour. He was only on stage about an hour and he did not play a lot of extended lines, but his voice sounded great, with a strong command of dynamics. The band was excellent, and I really don’t think a single person there was anything other than happy.
I feel lucky to have seen B.B. many times and they’ve all been different. The first time, I was thrilled to interview him for the Michigan Daily, my college newspaper. The show, at the Michigan Theater, was just fair. The band was good and B.B. was a great showman and sang really well but he played no extended lines, often stopping after a couple of nice licks.
Less than a year later, a friend and I drove down to the Masonic Temple in Detroit to see a triple bill of B.B., Albert King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. We were in our usual scrubby T-shirts and jeans. The rest of the crowd was almost all older black folk dressed like they were going to church. All three performers were excellent. B.B. put on a radically different show than I had seen in Ann Arbor. He was charming, funny, less hammy and he ripped on guitar.
After the show, we were blocked into our parking space until hree old ladies got into the car in front of us. I waited and waited but the car didn’t move, so I walked up and tapped on the window. The driver rolled it down and a big cloud of smoke came out, Cheech and Chong style. The three old biddies in church hats were sitting pressed together in the front seat passing a big doobie around.
“Excuse me, I’m stuck behind you. Could you please pull forward?”
“Sure. Sorry, baby.” Giggles all around.
After I started writing for Guitar World, I got to see B.B. repeatedly and his playing kept getting more inspired in his 60s. I have seen him fiddle with distortion, play jazz, comp beautifully behind other soloists. That era of him pushing his playing out seems to be over, but the new one, of B.B. King taking a victory lap of the nation on his endless tour, is pretty swell as well. Go see him if he comes through your town.
Alan Paul is a contributor to Guitar Aficionado and the author of Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing. Visit him at alanpaul.net.