B.B.: The once and future King

Published 8:37 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2015

By Frank Roberts

Lucille has left the building.

Riley B. King, born on a Mississippi plantation and later to become known to the world as B.B. King, the undisputed “King of the Blues,” died in Las Vegas on May 14.

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He was 89, and he left a guitar-hero legacy. So did she — Lucille, that is. The guitars (plural) were black Gibsons. He and one of them share a burial site.

Many, many moons ago, I shook hands with King, gave the Lucille du jour a tap on the strings, and had a pleasant conversation.

I was reviewing a concert in Virginia Beach and, as you can probably figure out by looking at him, he was a very friendly soul who liked to talk about anything and everything — as long as it was music.

For about a year, King was not in good shape, reportedly suffering from dehydration and diabetes, a killer combination. In October, he collapsed mid-concert. He was in mid-career when I met him and had the pleasure of listening to him, watching the earnestness he put in his performance.

Performances? Seventy years of them, a career best described as “fabulous.” He won 15 Grammy awards.

He is quoted in the book, “Off the Record: An Oral History Of Popular Music,” as saying, “People all over the world have problems. As long as people have problems, the blues can never die.”

And, as long as people have access to his music, the name B.B. King will always be around, and so will Lucille, the name given his trusty guitars.

Yes, there was a flesh-and-blood Lucille. King made her famous, but the two never met. She was from Twist, Ark., where King played a show, when a fight broke out between two men over a woman named — you guessed it — Lucille.

During the melee, the men knocked over a kerosene stove and set the venue afire. King ran back into the club, risking his life to save his $30 Gibson. He rescued it and named it in honor of that woman. After that, he named all his guitars “Lucille.”

King’s daughter, Patty, has been handling the estate. Here’s hoping that the sensationalism connected with the death of so many celebrities these days does not affect the gentle man I met and listened to so many moons ago.

A man I met many times, because he “concertized” in Hampton annually for many of those moons, was Conway Twitty. He came up in conversation with the docent I met during Murfreesboro’s recent piggie fest.

The very nice gent who was in charge of my room in the fantastic Jefcoat Museum there went through some of the Twitty albums I had on display.

We talked about some of the titles of the revered singer’s library, and how they almost, but not quite, crossed, as they say, the line.

He thumbed through the albums and found such Twit hits as “Tight Fittin’ Jeans,” “At Least One Time,” “How Far Can We Go?” “Slow Hands,” and the topper, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.” I asked Conway about those titles, and his standard answer was something like, “They’re about my wife.”

The song that really made some station executives nervous — it was banned by some stations — was “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” which was not, according to Twitty, about the loss of virginity, but merely an ode to love involving newlyweds.

Anyway, the ladies, both married and single, loved the guy, welcoming each visit with squeals of delight. When talking to him — and he was very low key — you couldn’t help but like the guy. I saw him upset only once, and that was when his bus nicked a car on the way to a concert. No injuries or major damage, but the event frayed his nerves a little.

During the visit to the Jefcoat Museum, there was a steady flow of visitors, and I delighted in being able to talk about the stars whose musical efforts were on display. The only bothersome note came from two Murfreesboro residents, father and son, who lived a few blocks from the museum, and didn’t even know it was there.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.