[JPL] At 81, B.B. King is still going strong

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Sat Mar 31 07:37:39 EDT 2007

At 81, B.B. King is still going strong
By Steve Jones, USA TODAY
SALISBURY, Md. ‹ B.B. King gets comfortable in the brown leather swivel
chair and reminisces about his life as a bluesman. In about a half hour,
he'll take the stage at the Wicomico County Youth & Civic Center, but for
now he's relaxing aboard his 45-foot Provost touring bus.
"I wish we could have had transportation like this 60 years ago," King says

The bus is outfitted so that this King of the road can travel in comfort and
style. At 81, after more than 10,000 concerts, he's earned it. There's
plenty of room for him to stretch out on long trips between concerts, and
the spacious rear compartment has a workstation for his laptops as well as a
TV and state-of-the-art electronics. The rides give him a chance to read fan
mail and work on music, and large windows allow plenty of sightseeing.

"People say, 'I'm going on vacation to see the Tower of Pisa or the Eiffel
Tower' or whatever," he says. "But I think to myself, if you were like I am
and get a chance to travel coast-to-coast, you wouldn't want to go anyplace
else, because we've got some of the most beautiful country I've seen."

King, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December, relishes the
freedom of this mobile livelihood. This year, he's celebrating his 60th
anniversary on the road, and he has come a long way since the days he did
the driving himself. He can't count the number of old station wagons and
vans he wore out hauling himself, his band and instruments across the land.
Having started his career in 1947, he hired his first driver in 1955 to tour
in a used Greyhound bus dubbed Big Red.

"I was finally able to pay one," says King. "Now, I've got two drivers. I
have a second bus for the band and equipment, so if I want to leave right
after a show, I can, and they can come along later."

Two years ago, a Tennessee segment of U.S. 61, the legendary Blues Highway
that stretches from New Orleans to Minnesota, was named after King. It
seemed appropriate for a blues ace who spent decades playing more than 200
concerts a year and in 1956 played 342 one-nighters.

Age and illness aren't holding him back. A diabetic, King was hospitalized
briefly in January while on tour in Galveston, Texas. He resumed his
schedule a week later and has dates booked through the summer. The 17-city
B.B. King Blues Festival, uniting him for the first time with Al Green and
Etta James, launches July 24 in Miami with stops in Atlanta, Detroit, New
York, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver and San Francisco before it wraps Sept. 9.

Throughout his career, his audiences have tended to skew older than his pop
and R&B contemporaries, with whites outnumbering blacks 2-to-1.

"I was never like James Brown or Jackie Wilson," he says. "Kids were crazy
about them. I never danced in my life, and I don't get no trophies in
Hollywood for looking good. So I never had that audience."

One reason he has toured relentlessly is to spread the gospel of blues,
which gets a fraction of the exposure accorded to genres that sprang from
blues, King says.

"There's an old saying: If you can't take the mountain to Mohammed, you take
Mohammed to the mountain," he says. "I've been taking Mohammed to the
mountain all these years, and that's how I gained popularity."

He has performed in 90 countries and with the biggest stars. But "the
highlight of my career" are the shows, free to children, that he stages each
June in his hometown of Indianola, Miss.

"I usually give a little contest to see them dance," says King, whose B.B.
King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is scheduled to open there in
2008. "My buttons almost pop off my shirt with pride just to see it. I've
been going back for 41 years, and it's just my way of showing the kids, the
people that I knew there and the ones that are still there how much I
appreciate them. If not for the people that helped me growing up, I couldn't
have made it."

King grew up as a sharecropper on a nearby plantation and attended a
one-room schoolhouse. He was about 4 when his parents separated and 10 when
his mother died. For the next four years, he lived alone in his cabin until
his father found him. A tractor accident persuaded him to hitchhike up U.S.
49 to Memphis with only his guitar and $2.50 in his pocket.

Global travels have provided a rich education. But he cherishes the lessons
learned in Mississippi.

"I learned about working with people," he says. "That you are not an island
and that you need people. I've also learned that if I lived my life again ‹
other than the segregation part ‹ I wouldn't change much. I would finish
high school and go to college, major in computers, minor in music, and I
wouldn't get married until after 40. (King was twice married and divorced
and has 15 children.)"

An assistant lets King know that it's almost show time. King concedes that
he still gets butterflies.

"Scared," he says, laughing, when asked how he feels about the pending
concert. "The same bear that was biting when I was a kid still bites now."


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