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