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B.B. King still king of the road


At 87, blues musician B.B. King is still a touring machine. If you ask one of his friends about where he lives these days, you'll get, "Well technically Las Vegas, but really he lives out on the road," as Robert Terrell explains. He's the director of entertainment at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Miss., not far from where the blues musician was born on a Delta cotton plantation.

"There's no one who knows the road better than B.B."

He used to do 300 shows a year, but now it's somewhere between 100 and 200.

Since he first picked up a guitar more than 70 years ago, King has outlived many of his early blues compatriots to solidify himself as one of the greatest living bluesmen and the only one with the nickname, "The King of the Blues." His signature song, "The Thrill is Gone," is a classic. And his influence on guitarists, from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix, is indisputable.

These days, just as fellow bluesmen John Lee Hooker and Solomon Burke did in their latter years, King pulls up a seat on stage, saddled with his old girl, Lucille, his prized guitar, and sings the blues.

Reviews can be mixed. In March, a Chicago Sun-Times reviewer wrote, "The thrill is still there to be found, however intermittently." In June, a Michigan reviewer wrote, "He may not play a lot of notes, but they absolutely are meaningful."

Since King rarely does interviews any more, we talked with Terrell before the Delta bluesman arrives to close out the Rodney Strong Summer Concert Series this weekend on Sept. 1. He gave us insight into the man born Riley B. King:

Q: What are some of your favorite B.B. King stories?

A: Well, there are so many. I like the one about how he left the Delta. He was parking a tractor in the shed after being in the field all day and realized he'd broken the exhaust pipe on the tractor.

He thought he'd better get out of there because he thought The Man was gonna do something to him. So he took off and left town.

I also like the one about Lucille. He was working a show out in Arkansas and there was a fight that broke out.

Back in those days, they had a big barrel of kerosene and wood in the middle of the dance floor to keep everybody warm in the winter time.

A fight broke out between these two guys and they tore the place up and knocked that barrel over and started a fire. B.B. ran out of the club, but then realized his money-maker was still there — his guitar. So he ran back into a burning building to retrieve his guitar and when he came back out he thought, "What the hell is my problem?"

Later he found out that the two guys were fighting over a woman, and her name was Lucille. And that's how he named his guitar.

Q: How would you describe his legacy in the Delta?

A: B.B. is just one of those guys who came from rags to riches. He was a cotton picker and played instruments on the street with a cup in front of him for donations. To go from that and go to the top of his game as the King of the Blues and still remain as humble as a pie — he's the most humble guy you'll ever meet — that's amazing.

Q: I imagine you use that story at the museum to teach kids about their potential?

A: Oh yeah. We talk about how a person's future can change based on what they put in today. We'll do field trips where we start by showing them where he was born in the cotton fields and show them where he played on street corners. We're talking about a living legend. Not one you read about in books. This guy actually comes back to give back to the community. He's a living legend.

Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@sideshowvideo.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.