Sunday, September 15, 2013
B.B. King with Fleetwood Mac, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Duster Bennett Tour Programme April 1969
Fleetwood Mac was, by 1969, in an awkward phase of transition. Having been launched by Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label as a Blues band, wedded to the Elmore James sound, and having traveled that route via the Chess studios in Chicago and segued into their top twenty period with “Albatross” and “Man Of The World”, they had a heavy foot in both camps when they stepped on stage at the RAH. What were they going to do as the warm-up act for The King? Their answer, sensibly, was to produce a splendid, no-nonsense set of knockabout Rock and Roll classics. They performed “Long Tall Sally”, “Maybelline”, “The Girl Can’t Help It” and others with an enthusiasm that spoke perhaps of an awareness of their predicament, but they pulled it off and managed to exit stage left with integrity.
It was time: B.B.’s band appeared on stage first, beautifully suited up like London gangsters on a Sunday outing with their Mums. They played the warm up set and then the barracking began;
“Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for the KING OF THE BLUES, the one and only, MISTER BEE BEE KING!”
And to a staccato accompaniment, he strolled on stage with Lucille, his guitar, strapped across his chest to greet the awe struck applause. Without further preamble he launched into “Paying the Cost to be the Boss”. I glanced at Bill. If he’d beamed any broader the top of his head would have fallen off backwards. B.B. finished his opener. I asked Bill what he thought so far; “Cor... FUUUUCK.” He always had a way with words.
And so it went, one searing classic after another, with B.B. wailing in his open-throated Gospel voice that had learned its’ craft at the feet of the Fairfield Four, and pulling a swarm of stinging notes from Lucille that both underpinned and highlighted it. His voice and guitar were like Brownieandsonny in so far as they knew each other, but they were more intimate lovers than competitive twins. There was a simpatico between voice and instrument that flowed directly from B.B. and arrived at our ears welded into the fluid sound of B.B. King at the top of his game.
Suddenly, a string on Lucille broke. The audience gasped in sympathy in the same moment that B.B. said “uh-oh”. Accepting the situation and stepping close to the microphone, he began to speak; to tell a story as if he were addressing just one person instead of an Albert Hall full. As he did so, he reached into his pocket for a fresh string. His story went more or less like this:
“Well, This here is Lucille, my guitar; let me tell you about her and how she got her name. A lot of years ago I was playing in a little club somewhere down south, and there was a fight. Two guys got into it, and in the fighting, the old kerosene stove that heated the place got knocked over. Started a fire. So, people started runnin’ for the door. B.B. King started runnin’ for the door too (laughter from audience). Then, when I was partway out the door I remembered I’d left my guitar back on the stage so I went runnin’ back to get it. Pretty foolish, huh? (more laughter). So later I found out that the fight was over a woman called Lucille. I figured if they were stupid enough to get into a fight and start a fire over a Lucille, and I was stupid enough to run back in, I’d better call my guitar Lucille. And here she is”. By which time he had re-strung and re-tuned, and immediately launched off into “Don’t Answer The Door”. It brought the house to its feet in a roar of amazement. We had no idea this was a rehearsed schtick, we just though he was being a thorough professional. As it turned out, he was. We just didn’t know how much.
Because Bill had credentials as a photographer, he managed to get backstage after the gig to take a few Cartier-Bresson snaps. I trailed along posing as his caddy, very aware of the privilege. B.B. was relaxed but stoked; the gig had gone well, and he was sitting on a chair, with an unplugged Lucille, just fooling around and talking to people. As Bill pursued decisive moments with his camera, B.B. started explaining the various guitar styles he admired and who had influenced him. He has always been open and generous about guitar players he admires.
“Here’s T-Bone” he said, emulating T-Bone Walker’s ground breaking single string style. “He’s the guy who started it on electric guitar”.
“Here’s how Blind Lemon sounded”; and he pulled music from Lucille that could have been trucked in directly from the Paramount studios.
He demonstrated another style; “This guy was a genius, anyone know who I’m talking about?”
“Django Reinhardt” I and another guy immediately said.
“Riiiight... Django. He was just great, I really admired what he could do”.
Opening the door of opportunity a little further, I asked B.B. how he’d first come across the Manouch Gypsy.
“Army guys coming back from Europe after the war; they brought the records in. I listened and was just ....amazed. Oh, I’ve been a Django man for twenty five years or more.”
I told my father this story over breakfast the next morning and he smiled and said “You’d better play me some B. B. King then...”
A big thanks go to Paul Vernon for sharing his memories of the evening with us.