Yep, met him!

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

With the passing of B.B. King yesterday at age 89, it now leaves Chuck Berry as the oldest living R&B legend (I think), as he’ll reach that same age in October this year. And because I actually got to shake BB’s hand and share more than one or two sentences with him when I was only about 21, obviously there’s a bit of a story that can be told.

We can start by saying the show I saw was a total fluke that me and my partner went. I’d heard mention on the Bay Area Soul station K-DIA, that King would be at the Showcase Theatre in Oakland, throwing caution to the wind about where this venue actually was. We just thought it would be like any Rock venue that he had been playing in recent years. We guessed that one completely wrong.

The Showcase was a posh 700-seat venue in the heart of Oakland’s ghetto, and my first sight upon entering the venue was a very dignified looking man wearing a light blue suit that he might have stolen from The Temptations. On further review, we realized that of the 700 or so in the room, there were maybe THREE other white people, each of them the only white face at their respective tables, and most were decked out in furs or other upscale garments that made us a little more conspicuous in our T-shirt and jeans ensembles. Still we found a table for two and though the cost of drinks was for the time (1972) rather high, we managed to scrape together enough change to get a couple of Tanqueray & tonics and drink them very slowly for the next 90 minutes or so.

There was no opening act, though the band did 3 or 4 instrumentals before bringing B.B. out. Then the man entered the stage, and this very large man didn’t have to do much to completely captivate what for him must have seemed a bit of a home field advantage. Until the Rock pseudo-gods of the 60’s starting mentioning him in glowing tones, sometimes inviting him to either be the opening act or to jam with them, King was doing alright on the “chitlin” circuit, but by 1970, when he had his major crossover hit, “The Thrill Is Gone,” he had moved up to playing Las Vegas and Rock concert halls. Here in Oakland, he was back in his element, and he certainly let it be known from the moment he walked on.

Most impressive was when he’d be playing a really soulful guitar lick, then punctuate it with a very loud, but off-mike, grunt. It sounded like an orgasm, and for most of the crowd, it probably FELT like one. About four years later, when we were working in Lake Tahoe, we saw B.B. playing the lounge at Harrah’s casino, a room that we would also play in 1979. There was an incredible difference in the shows, not so much in the material as in its presentation. In Tahoe, he’d say things like, “Now ladies and gentlemen, lemme tell ya what the blues is all about,” and then proceed to give examples. In Oakland, he didn’t need to explain a thing! These folks already KNEW what the blues was all about, so B.B. could start from that vantage point and proceed with reckless abandon. The show he did in Tahoe was still a good one, but was B.B. Lite compared to the one in Oakland. Also absent in Tahoe were the grunts.

The Showcase Theatre had no real backstage area, which meant that when the show was over, the performers had to walk through the crowd to get to the dressing room. So here’s this master who’s just finished a glorious 90 minute performance, dripping with sweat, as were most of the audience, but now he has to shake countless numbers of hands before heading back to his dressing room. He had no body guards, probably because he felt comfortable enough at the venue not to worry about that sort of protection. And most of the audience members did little more than shake his hand. For some reason I could never explain, he saw us, shook our hands, then started to talk to us. “Did you really like the show?” he asked more than once, and after we told him it was one of the greatest shows we’d ever seen, he seemed convinced that we did in fact, like it. We must have been more conspicuous than we imagined, for we didn’t really see him converse with anyone else. Maybe he thought we were critics.

Because B.B. put on such a magnificent show, and because we really liked the feel of the venue, we’d go back there usually once a month to see such performers as Esther Phillips, The Dells, Joe Tex, The Stylistics, and Rufus Thomas. As with the B.B. King show, we’d be among a handful of white people there (although we dressed a little better in return visits), yet we invariably got to meet and chat with the artists. What helped was that I was adding incredible records to my collection at the time, and would bring copies of original 78 RPM records of some of the veteran artists along to their shows. That was usually our ticket to the performers dressing rooms after the show, and in a couple cases resulted in us getting invited to after-show parties.

This went on for a year, but at one of the other major Soul venues, New Ruthie’s Inn in Berkeley, we got our dose of reality, and the thrill was gone, so to speak. In early 1973, we were at New Ruthie’s to see a double bill of The Dramatics (“Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”) and The Whispers. As we found a table and were served our drinks, my partner set her purse on the floor for a second or two while the waitress handed us our drinks. When she picked her purse up again, her wallet was gone. The guys at the next table then helped her look for the missing wallet, making it that more obvious that they had stolen it. We probably could have coped with that, but the fact that they were daring us to do something about it made it downright scary. That, and reporting the incident to the cops from a pay phone outside, and getting “You want us to come THERE??” Gee, and some people actually LIVE “there.”

Our spirits were dampened, and we stopped going to those venues, but we could at least cherish the times we spent there, and maybe count our blessings that the only bad thing that EVER happened to us in about a dozen shows was a petty theft. Because we had so many lovely experiences, beginning with the B.B. King show, that’s what we can look back on. I have many B.B. King 78’s in many collection. It might be time to pull some of them out tonight.

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