Sneak Preview of Chapter on B.B. King From The Upcoming Book, HURRICANE
| My first recollection of hearing B.B. King was probably around 1969 while at boarding school in the tenth grade at Woodward Academy. The big FM station, WPLO, Underground Radio as it was known back then, would play B’s commercially released version of THE THRILL IS GONE. Although the strings in the arrangement appeared out of character to me, his haunting guitar lead licks in that song always seemed like something I could probably replicate. It was a beautiful sound. From the time way back in hearing the lead solo in LOUIE, LOUIE by the Kingsman, and Rick Derringer’s guitar solo in HANG ON SLOOPY, that single note style of guitar always grabbed me. Time after time would I sit with my guitar and try to match mine with that style of The King of The Blues. This was even before the spiritual experience of watching Duane Allman, which would occur two years later. In attempting to imitate his style and learn his solos, it was all about memorization at that time. I had no clue about scales on the guitar, major, minor, pentatonic or otherwise. The thrill arrived after managing to match the notes up to THE THRILL IS GONE in the key of B or B flat. Little did I know at the time that BB King was one of the pioneers of the blues music style. From time to time, Johnny Carson would have BB King on his show as a regular guest. After graduating high school, a copy of the album, Live at Cook County Jail, made it into my record collection. During my first year in college back in New Jersey, I would wear the album out trying to learn those lead licks. After returning to Georgia in 1973 to begin my career of teaching guitar lessons, THE THRILL IS GONE, would be a template for part of my teaching approach. The style of BB King would play a big part in everything I did as far as playing the guitar was concerned. During my teaching career students would ask about learning the style of BB King. The THRILL IS GONE, along with HOW BLUE CAN YOU GET, ITS MY OWN FAULT, and the other blues standards would be regulars in my performance set. It would be years of gigs in nightclubs, festivals, and joints where the BB King medley, copied by Duane and Gregg Allman in their group, The Allman Joys, would show up regularly in my set. My one chance to see BB King was around 1975 when he performed in Atlanta at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom. At that time, he was celebrating his 30th anniversary in the music business. There was a previous show that I regretfully missed on New Years Eve of 1974 to 1975 at the noted concert nightclub in Atlanta call Richards. My plan was to catch that show, but it was not to be.
About 20 years later in 1994, my first CD, HURRICANE BLUES, was released. Later that next year, in the spring of 1995, BB King made another appearance in Atlanta at the Center Stage Theater. At the same time, The Atlanta Blues Society, was holding a ceremony in Atlanta to plant a tree in memory of the legendary blues musician Willie Dixon, who had recently passed away. Somehow, the word got back to B.B. about the ceremony, and he made it a point to be there to break ground with the first shovel full of dirt for the tree planting. It was only then that the opportunity to shake hands with The King of The Blues. It just so happened that my schedule for the next month included my dream come true of being included in the lineup on a festival in Huntsville Alabama opening up for BB King.
I took the opportunity to seize the day by having a copy of HURRICANE BLUES with me to give to B.B. When I shook his hand, I politely mentioned to him that I would be on bill at the festival with him that next month in Huntsville. Of course, the chance to hand him a copy of my first CD didn’t go to waste. He was very cordial and a real gentleman as he took my CD, gently carrying it in his hand from the site where the tree was being planted, back to his limousine. My last memory from that great day was witnessing B.B. King entering the back of his limousine with HURRICANE BLUES firmly clutched in his hand.
Here we were set up the play and there was not one person in the club. Nobody was there! This was a result of typical club owner negligence by expecting the musicians to do all of the work for him. They think it’s totally the musicians’ job to run their business for them. While there are many good club owners out there, many seem to think that it omits them from their responsibility to step up to the plate in making any effort to get people into their venue. As we contemplated just packing the gear up without performing and just moving on, one person entered the club. It was a young black gentleman who took a seat back toward the back of the club by himself. His body language indicated that he would like to hear some music. Not being one to let anybody down, we played our show for one as if there were a thousand people there. At the end of the show, this gentleman walked up to me and said that he really liked the band, and that he would like to book us on his festival in Huntsville. It would be held over Memorial Day weekend the next year. That was well and good, but taken with a grain of salt. Many times customers will approach me at a gig, expressing an interest in hiring us for future date. Then they never follow through. At the same time, while in someone else’s venue, it’s also not the best time to discuss business. On this night, since this s club owner had done nothing to help promote our appearance, I was all ears and proceeded to listen. He said he would know more about his lineup at a later date, but he really appeared serious about my performing. He gave me his phone number and told me to contact him soon. In calling him the next week, since festivals are booked many months in advance, it was a good thing that I did. On those types of events, it’s always good to get a head start in trying to land a date. When asking him who would be in his lineup that we would be opening for, mly he simply told me that this would a chance to open the show for BB King. It was pretty much surreal moment when he said that, because my whole career began learning BB King licks, from first hearing him on the radio, from his records, seeing him in person, on TV, and just being in all over his guitar style. It was truly amazing when the moment finally arrived in May of 1995. When checking into our motel in Huntsville, everywhere you turned, there were posters and flyers about the Sportsman Park Memorial Day Blues Fest, starring BB King. And with a whole other series of opening acts, including yours truly, Roger “Hurricane” Wilson, it felt really good. It was a two day long event, with the crowd numbering about two thousand or so. My set was the third set of the afternoon. It was just a great time. When B.B. came on later that evening, he had so much security around him. For that reason, I didn’t get a chance to meet him or talk to him, even to just casually remind him of having met him the month before. It was just good to be there for a great opportunity to open for B.B. King. The large old style promotional poster still hangs in my living room to this day at this writing 20 years later. My only other opportunity to see B.B. King was at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis back around 2008 when he made an appearance there. My youngest son, Ryan, was there with me. He ran up to the stage and snapped a few pictures of B. that night. He knew about my adventure of having performed him years before that. It made me proud that he was able to witness the great B.B. King in person.
A few years later, the radio show, ME & YOU WITH B.B. KING, hosted by Bill Wax on B.B. King’s Bluesville on Sirius XM Radio was airing weekly. In mentioning my interaction by handing B.B. my CD in Atlanta many years before to Bill, he passed along that information to B. during one of their broadcast recordings at his home in Las Vegas. B.B. said he remembered it. That made me feel good.