The thrill is gone: B.B. King dies

B.B. King in Atlanta, June 1991. Photo by the author.

B.B. King in Atlanta, June 1991. Photo by the author.

Lots of musicians, journalists, ethnomusicologists, and fans will be sharing memories of Riley “B.B.” King (Sept. 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015). My favorite memory that best captures King — for me — come from the musician’s 1951 New York City debut.

I wasn’t there but I did get to speak with King and someone else who was.

Robert “H-Bomb” Ferguson (1929-2006) was a boogie-woogie pianist when he met King in backstage at the Apollo Theatre Harlem. “I came out in a gray suit. He came out in a purple suit, man. This cat came on stage with a purple suit, red shirt, and green tie,” Ferguson told me in a 1990 interview.

King told Ferguson that the promoters suggested that he dress “flashy.”

“I said, man you look like a clown. Man, you look like Ringling Brothers,” Ferguson recalled. “I said, ‘Man, if we going to work together, I don’t want nobody to think I’m like you.”

According to Ferguson, King took his advice and bought a gray suit to wear on stage.

The following year I interviewed King in an Atlanta, Ga., hotel room. He remembered Ferguson and the encounter. “No, [it was] a red suit with a red tie with red shoes. Red
and black sock and black shoes,” King said. “Yeah, that’s true, they just talked about me so much, talked about me so bad that I went and changed it.”

King was a sublime entertainer — a true professional and entrepreneur. In 1991 I asked him which hat he wore most comfortably: “All I do is play Lucille,” King said with a smile, pointing toward his trademark Gibson guitar.

Thank you B, for everything.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

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