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For B.B. and Lucille, the Road Is Home

Pop music: Despite touring for the past 50 years, the blues legend does not even consider retiring. 'Nothing else I like to do,' he says.

September 26, 1997|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When B.B. King returns home to Las Vegas after a concert tour, he often does something that would strike most people as odd.

"There are times when I get home that for the first two or three days I close the bedroom door to make me feel like I'm in a hotel room," says the blues giant.

It's not so strange, though, when you consider a few facts:

Of the 71 years since he was born Riley B. King in Indianola, Miss., he has spent the past 50 as a touring musician.

In that time, he says, he's averaged more than 250 concerts per year; in 1956 he did an astounding 342 one-nighters. Do the math and it comes to more than 12,500 days on the road, in more than 80 countries on six continents, on most nights unpacking his famed guitar Lucille in a different room. In the same span, he's been at home about 5,000 days.

"That is my home," he says of the road. "Any time I go into a hotel, that's home. I feel more out of place when I get to my real home. You go to a hotel and know this room or suite is yours. You get comfortable. Most times I eat in the room, then go to the concert, play the show, maybe have an autograph session after, make some friends and that's about it. And then I go get some rest and get ready for the next one."

He's saying this, in fact, sitting in a London hotel suite, his headquarters for final recording sessions on his upcoming album of duets (with a cast including the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson). It's also been his base camp for several forays into Europe for shows he's been doing at summer blues and jazz festivals in locales from Norway to Croatia and Turkey.

When he did return to Las Vegas, it would be just long enough to get a short rest before heading out on a U.S. tour, including a recent stop in Los Angeles.

And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I at least know I'm still alive and well," he says of his pace.

The truth is, there's nothing stopping King from spending more time at home. He doesn't have to tour; he's got plenty of income, not only from song royalties, but from advertising usage of his music and from having licensed his name and image for the B.B. King Blues Clubs on Beale Street in Memphis and on the CityWalk at Universal Studios, with plans to build more.

"Could I be retired?" he says. "People ask that a lot, but I think about it this way: What would I do if I retired? A lot of people I know who are successful in music or whatever, when they retire they just look for another job. I like the one I've got. If people stopped supporting me by buying my records, coming to the concerts and so forth, I would stop. Or if my health got bad. But other than that, why should I? Nothing else I like to do. I wouldn't want to go fishing every day."

What's amazing is that he hasn't in all this time gotten sick of singing the same songs night after night--especially one song: his biggest hit, "The Thrill Is Gone." Since 1970, when the song reached No. 15 on the pop chart, he's sung it nearly every time he's performed. (That would be more than 6,700 times.)

"There are very few nights I missed doing that song," he says. "And I'm scolded when I do. My job is trying to make people happy. From time to time you might get a bit bored with something if you do it exactly the same way, but I don't. I do like I feel it that night. The chord patterns may be the same, but I'm not just trying to sing it the way you would do a play, word for word. I play it like I feel now. If I feel good, I play it that way; if I don't, I do it different. I tell the musicians, 'You know the chords, play 'em. But play what you feel. Don't just mimic the record.' Otherwise it gets booo-ring. If I'm not enjoying it, I feel the audience is not either."

*

He also hasn't gotten sick of hearing other blues musicians--and he hears them everywhere, from Minneapolis to Moscow to Melbourne.

"They have blues clubs everywhere," he says. "I even found a blues club in Russia. And recently in Switzerland we played for 25,000 people, and they had a local group open for us and, sure, they play blues."

What's most impressed King is that there are some very young musicians jumping into the form. Asked to name the most promising new blues players he's heard recently, he cites two teenagers, Minnesota-based Jonny Lang (who released his debut album on A&M Records earlier this year) and Australian Nathan Cavaliere.

"Jonny Lang's 16, so he's got youth and talent with it," King says. "What else can I ask for?"

But are these youngsters pushing the form forward or merely copying established styles?

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