I Played My Guitar with B.B. King

I got a call from someone at his management company to meet him at Sun Studios in Memphis.  I parked the rental car about a block away, and carried my guitar, amp, and gig bag up to the front door of the two story brick building.  I put my amp down so I could open the door, and then reached down to pick it back up and scoot through the door before it closed behind me.

I sensed immediately that I was entering a truly special place.  I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand out as I thought of the history of this place.  This was where rock and roll truly began.  Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis all got their start here.  And, as a guy who had learned to love and appreciate blues music, I know that many of those greats also recorded here:  Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Little Milton, James Cotton…and B.B. King.

The first time I saw B.B. King live was at a U2 concert.  It was late 1987, and the band was recording a concert at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.  That performance would later be turned into the “Rattle and Hum” movie.  B.B. was the opening act.  It was a cool, occasionally rainy night, but I still remember how B.B. and his band blew me away.  That’s the night that my love for blues music, and my desire to discover and learn more about the early artists was founded.  From there I have learned to appreciate how many of the early blues artists were the inspiration for the rock and roll music that would come later.  Without these early artists, there would have been no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no The Who, no Allman Brothers Band, and no Eric Clapton.

The small lobby of the studio was covered in memorabilia – pictures of artists that recorded here and framed vinyl records with the bright yellow Sun Records logo in the center.  An older woman had been sitting behind a small desk, but she rose as I entered.  She gave me a smile, and introduced herself.  Her grey hair was in a neat bun, and she was dressed in a soft blue blouse, and navy slacks.  A pair of reading glasses on a multi-colored chain hung around her neck.

I told her why I was there, and she told me to follow her.  She asked if I needed help carrying my equipment, but I told her I could handle it.  I followed her down a narrow hallway, and she finally opened a door that was adorned with a simple cardboard sign that said “Studio One.”

She wished me good luck, and closed the door behind me.  I set my stuff down, and looked around the room.

And realized that what I saw scared me to death.  What the hell was I doing here?

There was a large cloth covered chair in the center of the room.  On a stand next to the chair was…Lucille.  Lucille is a custom made Gibson ES-355 guitar, ebony in color with pearl inlays and gold hardware.  Lucille is what B.B. calls his guitar.  The story goes that B.B. was playing in a small club when a kerosene lamp tipped over, and a fire started.  As people scrambled to get out of the club, B.B. was also making his getaway.  However, once he got outside, he realized that he had left his guitar in the club.  So, back into the inferno he went to try to save his guitar.  He got out…barely.  Later he heard that the fire was started by a woman named Lucille.  From that point on his guitar was named Lucille to remind B.B. not to ever do something that stupid again.

Next to Lucille was a vintage Lab Series L5 amp.  The combination of Lucille and that amp give B.B. a signature sound.  Once you know what you are listening to, you can always tell its B.B. who is playing.  But it really isn’t just the equipment.  His fingers, his vibrato, his phrasing, are all things that only he can do.  I’ve tried to duplicate it, but I can’t sound like B.B.

The door opened behind me, and a group of African American men entered the room, all talking and laughing.  When they saw me, they stopped and gave me the once over.  I recognized several of them from the half dozen other B.B. King shows I have attended since that first time in 1987.  A tall heavy set guy with graying hair finally reached out his hand and introduced himself.  I already knew who he was:  B.B.’s musical director, James “Boogaloo” Bolden who doubled as the horn player.  He told me where to set up my gear.  The rest of the band started talking again, and they all went to various places in the room where their instruments were stationed.  There was a three piece horn section, a large drum kit, several keyboards, and additional guitars and a bass player.  After a while, the guys started to warm up, all playing different riffs that echoed off the linoleum tile that covered the floor.

I nervously tuned my ’80 Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar, and set up the rest of my gear, finally plugging into my Marshal amp.  I tentatively played a few chords to make sure my tone was right.  Then I waited.

The rest of the band continued to ignore me, as they resumed the joking and laughing while warming up on their instruments.  I waited some more, not sure what to do next.

And then all noise in the room stopped.  B.B. was here.  At 87, he was a bit rickety on his feet, and an assistant help him to his big chair.  Once he was comfortably seated, the assistant handed him his guitar, carefully putting the strap over his head.

He gave me a bright smile, and thanked me for coming.  I had met him for the first time in 2002 after a concert at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix.  My wonderful wife had begged a staff member to let us go backstage after the show to meet him.  He signed a guitar and a picture “To Kerry” that now hangs on my wall at home.  He was absolutely the nicest guy in the world.

“Boogaloo” counts off four beats, and we start playing “Riding with the King”, a collaboration between Eric Clapton and B.B.  A microphone appeared in front of me, and I started singing with B.B., while trying to make sure that I was playing all of Eric’s parts that I had learned.  The song had a basic 8 bar blues feel, but since it was Eric and B.B. we were talking about, there was a slight “spin” that made the song unique.  I looked over at the small control room, and saw that it appeared that someone was in there recording us.

I concentrated on my hands, trying to make sure that I was playing the right notes.  The words flowed, and B.B. and I made eye contact as we sang the verses together.  B.B. took an extended solo at the end of the first verse, and I took one at the end of the second.  The music just poured out of me, and I didn’t want it to end.  The final section of the song, B.B. speaks a few lines, ending with “I’m gonna play this thing until the day I die.”  We then jam out of the song.  It was incredible – I had just played a song together with a living legend!

And then I woke up.

 

 

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