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If It Weren't for the Stones 

All Hail the King and LucilleIt was the summer of 1969 and there was a party goin' on backstage at Ravinia, the outdoor concert venue

click to enlarge All Hail the King and Lucille
  • All Hail the King and Lucille
All Hail the King and LucilleIt was the summer of 1969 and there was a party goin' on backstage at Ravinia, the outdoor concert venue 30 miles north of Chicago. The classical music squares running the joint, they'd never seen anything like it: For sixty years, backstage had been the site of oh-so-sedate and oh-so-cerebral pre-concert soirees, fore-fronted this summer by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Maestro Georg Solti. And, man, if he'd got wind of this, he'd never have stood for all the laughin', drinkin' and cussin' this then-21-year-old journalism student saw and heard when he was admitted backstage to interview the even-then-legendary B. B. King. Here he was all crisp in his burnt-orange sharkskin suit a half hour before his first gig at Ravinia, maybe 45 miles but cultural light-years away from the Regal, Chicago's black music Mecca, which King repeatedly sold out.

You wouldn't think B.B.'d make time for an interview with a student, but no other reporters, not from any of Chicago's four dailies, requested face time with him. I alone asked, "How do you feel, now, Mr. King, moments before your first public appearance at the summer home of the Chicago Symphony?" I resisted the temptation to add the late '60s coda, "Far out!" to the question. (I wasn't stoned.) B.B. chuckled, then said, "I'm a little nervous, but I'm always a little edgy before a show. That's all right."

He gave me 20 minutes, his posse´ carousin' 'round him, but I remember only one more exchange with the King of the Blues. Back then, in July '69, there was an issue, mostly for white pop critics and other hipster wanna-bes about what was called "authenticity" in popular music. B.B., Muddy, Howlin' Wolf, they were authentic, right? But the Beatles, with their "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy" blues and the Stones, particularly the Stones, well, they were rip-offs, man, makin' fortunes playin' stadiums, while "true" bluesmen, like the "Beeb" were still scufflin' on the "Chit'lin' Circuit," the nationwide web of black venues that required bluesmen and -women play more than 300 one-nighters a year.

The Stones were "sell-outs," these whites said, and made at best pale imitations of authentic blues. ("Pale," can you dig it? Right on.) So I began to ask B. B., "Some say acts like the Rolling Stones have made millions from your music, while you, who should have been booked to play in places like this long ago, have been stuck ... "The smile fled from his face, and the room went quiet. "You know," he said softly, "If it weren't for those guys, . . ." He paused, as serious, as the expression went, as a heart attack, "I'd never have gotten here tonight." He elaborated some, but nearly 40 years later, I don't remember those details. I remember the seriousness with which he took my question, the earnestness with which he answered it and the generosity in his answer, all of which convinced me I was in the presence of not merely a talented but a great man. He could have been so poisoned by the (call it by its name) racism that had so degraded bluesmen like B.B. for decades. But I detected absolutely no trace of bitterness in him, only gratitude that he'd arrived at this place at this time to play his music to this audience.

B.B.'s website claims-credibly-that "his reign as King of the Blues has been as long as that of any monarch on earth" and that he's "defined the blues for a worldwide audience." He's been doing that for seven decades, and this may well be his last.

Catch him at the Schwab July 6, people. He may be a dinosaur, but remember that by the time homo sapiens arrived dinosaurs were extinct. Contrariwise, you-we-have the privilege of catching the man from Itta Bena, Miss., before, in the words of one of his early hits, he packs up his final "suitcase and move[s] on down the line."

 

BB King

6:30pm Sunday, July 6. Les Schwab Amphitheater, 344 SW Shevlin Hixon Dr. $39-$79. Tickets at the Ticket Mill or ticketmaster.com.

 

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