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A king, and yet a prince

At 80, nice guy B.B. King still rules -- both on the road and recording with his 'young' friends. The bluesman may move more slowly, but the thrill's not gone.

October 09, 2005|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

THE tour bus where B.B. King is sitting has parked right outside the artists' entrance at Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City so the walk to the stage will be short and painless.

The venerated guitarist, singer and songwriter is balancing his lifelong yearning to get onstage against offstage life with diabetes. The illness has given him a latter-day second career as a spokesman for a glucose monitoring device, and he mentions those ads for comic relief once he's in front of an audience again.

But the truth of his condition is that, at age 80, walking and even standing now require serious effort, the reason he spends as much time as possible off his feet.

Stretched across the bus' comfortably upholstered bench, in the same black silk shirt, black slacks and gleaming black patent leather shoes he'll wear onstage, the one-time Mississippi sharecropper exudes a regal presence befitting the man always introduced as "the king of the blues," a musical monarch whose bus is his castle.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 19, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
B.B. King -- A profile of B.B. King in the Oct. 9 Sunday Calendar section said the blues musician had been married and divorced twice, with no children. King had no children with either of his wives but fathered 15 children with other women.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 23, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
B.B. King's children -- An Oct. 9 article on guitarist B.B. King said that he has been married and divorced twice, with no children from either marriage. However, King acknowledges having 15 children (five adopted) with other women.

Yet this is no king in exile. The road is where B.B. King wants -- lives -- to be: either relaxing before a show with such techno toys as MP3 and DVD players and satellite radio, or fiddling with them on the journey to the next gig. The 13-time Grammy winner technically lives in Las Vegas, but rarely spends a week there without a next gig looming.

Last year, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden presented King with the Royal Swedish Academy of Music's annual Polar Music Prize, but despite such late-in-life accolades, there remains one reality for him. The music he's played to audiences in 90 countries more than 300 nights a year for upward of six decades still doesn't get the recognition he thinks it should.

His constant touring, therefore, is as much a product of necessity as desire.

"I'm not doing as much as I once was," he says, a sobering comment given not only his touring but the fact that he's just released a new album, "80," of duets with a dozen rock and pop stars; has a new book, "The B.B. King Treasures"; and is making a series of national TV appearances. Oh, and he's at work on a blues museum in Indianola, Miss., where he grew up.

"People thought I was truly a workaholic. But I never got the exposure in my kind of music that other types of music that are exposed daily in the media [received]," he says with more than a trace of hurt in his voice.

"I never had that. I've had one record that was played like other records. It was called 'The Thrill Is Gone,' the only one I ever had that was played on radio stations like other types of music, unless I was playing with somebody else."

King is an imposing presence in his head-to-toe black outfit, even though this is one of the rare times he doesn't show up in a three-piece suit or a tux -- an image decision he made early on.

"I had a cousin, a blues singer called Bukka White," he says. "He said, 'If you're a blues singer, you're already put down by just being a blues singer. So if you're going to be a blues singer, always dress as if you're going to the bank to try to borrow money.'

"What he meant was don't look as if you just slept under the bridge last night."

Motives behind the music

BEFORE he was a bluesman, he was a country boy named Riley B. King on a Mississippi plantation. He earned 35 cents per 100 pounds of cotton he picked, and he could pull close to 500 pounds a day. Later, he learned to drive a tractor and upped his pay to $22.50 a week. Tractor drivers got a lot more attention from girls than cotton pickers did, but he quickly learned that musicians got even more. That's not the only reason he chose music, but it's not inconsequential either.

"I think woman is God's greatest creation," says King, who has been married and divorced twice, with no children. "I think we're No. 2, but she's No. 1. Not that I want to sleep with every woman I meet, but I admire them all."

That admiration colors his assessment of the vernacular of today's music, especially rap. "I don't kick rap," he says, "as long as they use clean lyrics. But when they start talking about what they could do to women, then I get mad."

Over his long career, King has made excursions into rock, R&B, even disco, but he's always stayed rooted in the blues, and been a bit disappointed that so few young black musicians seem interested in the sound he loves. (Recently he's toured with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa, two next-generation white blues players.)

There are Beatles detractors, U2 skeptics. But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with a negative word to say about B.B. King or his music. "B.B. King taps into something universal," says Eric Clapton. "He can't be confined to any one genre. That's why I've called him a 'global musician.' "

Nor is there much debate that he's among the kindest souls in the music world.

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