Back in the early 2000’s, I wrote for several different Central Jersey newspapers. It was never a style of writing that I loved exactly, but I learned I was pretty good at finding the formula and building what was needed. One of the best things about this kind of freelance work was discovering I could request interviews with all kinds of amazing, well-known people. Within a few days I could be in the midst of a great conversation with someone I admired all my life. I would sometimes suggest writing about shows I knew of and had a personal interest in covering, but just as often I’d pick up assignments. I felt blessed – and quite a bit nervous – when I was given the opportunity to interview B. B. King.
He was coming to The New Brunswick State Theatre, The Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, and The State Theater in Easton, PA in January 2004. We had a brief phone conversation and I captured the quotes I needed to construct a few paragraphs and let readers know he was coming to town. At the show in New Brunswick, what I remember most is how little I was able to say to him in person. I am not generally starstruck, but then again, here was a legend beyond legends. What could I really say? I remember talking to a few of his band members and being impressed by how crisply they were dressed and how they referred to him solely as Mr. King. When I got through the meet-and-greet line I shook his hand and let him know I was the one who spoke to him for the show preview. He smiled and said he’d been curious to meet me. I got a quick autograph, then realized I was without words. I slipped back into the room and just observed for a little while before leaving. I’ve come to remember this show in a way similar to how I recall seeing Ravi Shankar perform in Philadelphia. In each case it was incredibly moving and mostly beyond descriptive language to hear and witness an absolute master.
Here is some of what I wrote by way of announcing the shows in 2004:
On the cover of his latest studio CD, “Reflections,” B. B. King, with eyes closed, looks absorbed in sweet concentration, like a man offering a loving prayer, or an artist fully consumed by the music we will find therein. Yet, the 78-year-old guitar pioneer thinks of himself in simpler terms. “I’m kind of what you call a country boy. I was born and raised on the plantation,” he says of his origins in Itta Bena, Mississippi.
A simple country boy, perhaps, but with a difference: He can play the guitar like nobody’s business. He sings with deep conviction that retains that hint of hurt and grit that only authentic blues can deliver. The “King of the Blues” will rule the land Tuesday at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, and at Easton PA’s State Theater on Thursday.
“Everybody has, believe it or not, a soul, and everybody feels something… I play things that I feel and enjoy doing,” he reveals during a telephone interview before a concert in Quebec City.
Revered by rock favorites like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, his profound influence on the face of music across genres and decades continues. In 1948 he left farm work for Memphis, Tennessee, and he had his first hits, “Three O’Clock Blues” and “She’s Dynamite,” by 1951. His signature song, “The Thrill Is Gone” scored his first Grammy in 1970. King paired with Clapton on “Riding with the King” in 2000, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
King recalls the making of “Reflections,” his 32nd album. “I think we got some pretty good work on it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a perfect CD,” he says modestly.
I am even more astounded by his humility today than I was then. This quote is so startling:
“I always find faults in nearly everything I’ve done, but still people seem to give me compliments…and I accept that. I think the people’s judgment is much better than mine.”
I don’t believe it was false humility. I do hope he ultimately knew and truly experienced his own brilliance and the joyful sounds he brought the world.
Rest well, Mr. King.