We all of us fans knew it was coming but it’s still a lesser world without B.B. King. I was fortunate to photograph him performing half a dozen time and to meet and share a conversation with him a couple times too. He was such a kind and gentle man.
The first couple times I photographed him I left knowing I got nothing that others didn’t get. That third show, in the mid-80’s in Little Rock, I was leaving, feeling disgruntled with the results again. As I was walking out a side door from the stage I looked back and finally saw something a bit different. It’s still one of my favorite concert shots.
I next photographed in Memphis on Beale Street. I was trying to get a portrait of him on the street in front of the great neon sign outside his club. He’d never played there but was doing two shows that night. He was running late and while I waited it started raining. When he arrived he apologized and said whatever you want let’s do it. I told him and he didn’t care about the rain. I said “what about Lucille?”. He just gave a big broad grin and said no worries “I’ve got another Lucille in the back”.
That night he played for his friends and family, telling stories of growing up and coming to Memphis with the wear marks of a cotton sack still on his shirt, of being befriended by Rufus Thomas and getting on the radio live for the first time. He told stories between almost every song and identified someone in the audience who played a part in his life. Of the multitude of concerts I photographed it’s still a very real highlight.
Late that night as I was walking down the corridor to my room at the Peabody I heard steps behind me, turned and saw B. B. stopping to enter a room a couple doors down. We gave each other a tired smile.
The next time we met was courtesy of Delta. Sitting in my upgraded seat in First I had my book open and earbuds in waiting on boarding to finish. I was on the aisle and didn’t even pay any attention to my seat mate, looking forward to the down time after a couple long shoot days. A woman came up behind me, tapped my shoulder and apologized for disturbing me before leaning over and telling my seat mate that there was “a problem with the bus in Fort Smith”. B.B. King told her to “call Andy and tell him to wait until we land”. I smiled, closed my book and said hello to him. He couldn’t have been more friendly. I didn’t want to disturb him during his ‘down time’ either but he wanted to talk. We discussed the price of catfish in Indianola and the imported fish from Viet Nam, diabetes treatments, his extended family gatherings at his penthouse apartment in Vegas. We talked about life on the road. I told him I had been doing so many nights a year, year in and year out. He said he was thinking about cutting down himself. He’d once been doing over 300 nights a year but was down to 280 and thinking of cutting it to 220. I felt like such a piker in comparison. As flight attendants served us breakfast we continued to talk. That two hour flight was the shortest two hours ever.
I photographed many celebrities and occasionally met some. None were nicer … more humane … or bigger to me than B.B. King. The King is dead but his music was a gift to generations.