B.B. KingApril 10, 1999, New York City
I am in the full parking lot of Westbury Music Fair. I approach a tour bus, with a painting of B.B. King playing Lucille and musical notes running along side the bus.
Inside the bus is a man whose soulful music we will be listening to for many years to come, long after the musician himself stops. Also present is one of the world’s most famous guitars named after a now legendary woman who was the cause of a bar brawl and subsequent fire, in which Mr. King almost lost his life in while trying to save his guitar, Lucille.
Blues artist B.B. King is ranked 3rd on the Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
It is been about a year that my people and Lucille’s people have been trying to make this photo shoot happen. I knock on the tour bus door. The door opens and his son, Riley who manages him, shakes my hand.
I enter a simple and very clean tour bus to the sound of a video game. Looking past Riley, on the sofa, Mr. King types on a keyboard of a laptop computer. I smile when I think about all the people I know at his age who refuse to sit in front of the computer.
Riley follows my line of sight and says, “He’s a video game junkie.” As I approach Mr. King the sound of a battle emits from the computer speakers. He sighs and throws his hands in the air. Then, as if by surprise, he notices me. “Hello,” he says. I extend my hand and he shakes it. He asks, “What can I do for you, young man?”
Before I can answer, a knock on the bus door. Someone says, “We’re ready for you!”
Mr. King closes the laptop and moves to the edge of the sofa. He tries to get up but the years of eating soul food are holding him back. I take his hand and help him to his feet. He thanks me, throws me that winning smile, and then exits.
As Riley picks up the computer, he tells me to feel free to do whatever I have to do. I ask myself how and where do you photograph someone that spends forty weeks out of the year on the road. I ask Riley if I can follow. He says, “Come on.” I race after them.
Backstage, there are cords and painted arrows indicating where to walk and blocked off areas where one should not be. I watch the opening act perform on the stage. My assistant taps me on the shoulder and lets me know that I can go into the dressing room.
I enter the dressing room and take a quick look around. There is nothing but the basics, towels in front of a mirror and a sofa. Then, I step back and look at the curves of a beautiful lady. With lest in my heart, I say, “Lord have mercy. Lucille, is that you?”
Lucille is set in the corner of a mirrored wall, as radiant as I have ever seen her. I approach her, hearing her seductive strings like I had just walked into a Shangri-La and she demanded my attention. I am respectful and anxious when I whisper to her, “Can I touch you?” as if she might hear me, like I have always heard her. I kneel and gently finger the strings, and then I caress the body of the guitar.
Mr. King walks out the bathroom and sits on the sofa. He says, “She rarely allows anyone other than me to touch her, consider yourself lucky.” Graciously, I reply, “Thank you, sir.”
As we set up for the shoot, Mr. King plays on the computer. I chat with Riley and he informs me that he has sixteen brothers and sisters. First, I do a double take, then I think Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays are busy moments in Mr. King’s life. If the saying “kids keep you on your toes’ has any truth to it, this is a sharp brother. He is the original Big Poppa.”
After the shoot I watched B.B. play his set. The place is packed. He starts with a story about Lucille. He tickles the strings and the people applaud. The next song we hear from the musical royal is “The Thrill is Gone.” I watch mothers, fathers and grandparents jump to their feet. There is nothing like partying with people that have a bit of frost on their roof.