Remembering B.B. King and Robert Johnson

May 14th marked the anniversary of the day B.B. King died during his sleep in Las Vegas in 2015.

On May 27, 2015 his body was flown to Memphis where a bass band marched in front of his hearse for the funeral procession down Beale Street. They played “When the Saints Go Marching In.

He lays in rest at the B.B. King Museum down Route 61 in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi.

B.B. King, October 10, 2015, Majestic Theater, San Antonio, Texas (Photo: Jack Dennis)

I had the honor of interviewing King in his office/bedroom at the back of his $1.4 million tour bus behind the Majestic Theater in San Antonio.

Typically I interviewed stars in their dressing rooms or a separate room downstairs at the Majestic. When invited to come aboard his 45′ Provost Coach, I was delighted. It definitely added to the personal excitement of meeting King.

Before the greatest bluesman walked walked on stage that Sunday night, October 10, 2010, a gracious audience was already standing.

The B.B. King Blues Band warmed up the crowd to an immediate standing ovation and no one sat down until the King of Blues finally commanded it.

“Thank you San Antonio, please set down,” he grinned and hand motioned everyone down.

The 85-year-old performer remained seated throughout the concert but his voice boomed as strong as ever, even after over 10,000 concerts and 62 years of live shows.

Awarded his 15th Grammy in 2009 in the traditional Blues Album category for “One Small Favor,” King would weave in and out of various classics, like “The Thrill Is Gone,” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and “You Are My Sunshine” with a generous slower groove and back to an occasional take-charge seriousness.

“Come on man,” King turned around to his drummer who battled the beats to his licks on the beloved Gibson guitar, Lucille. “You know, I’m from Mississippi…and…I carry a blade!”

King was telling the appreciative audience about the ways of ladies when a woman from the audience seductively walked up towards the stage.

“I’m not saying a word,” King graveled in a half smiling tone. He pulled his head to the side and back–and just watched with intrigue. Fiercely, he blasted Lucille into another roaring blues lick.

Just an hour before, in his bus parked on College Street behind the theater, King told me about the time– a few years before Elvis Presley walked into Sam Phillips’ Recording Service at Sun Studios in Memphis– that he walked in as Riley B. King to begin his recording career in 1951.

When he was barely 11 years old, one of King’s greatest influences was working across the street from the Majestic Theater recording his first songs.

In 1937, a seed of Rhythm and Blues was historically planted on the corner of Houston and St. Mary’s streets in what some call the “Magical Corner” of San Antonio.

Far from the Mississippi Delta, were an unhappy Robert Johnson was unwilling to stay trapped in the sharecropper’s world of backbreaking work with such little return, the young man recorded sixteen songs in the Gunter Hotel.

Robert Johnson invented the Blues at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, 1937.

It changed the music world forever. Even today, artists like Eric Clapton and John Cougar Mellencamp pay homage to Robert Johnson’s contribution at that building. Some even come to record in the same room their inspiration did.

Young Riley King would listen to Johnson regularly.

“It gives me good feelings, just knowing I’m right across the street tonight from where he recorded way back then,” he smiled.

B.B. King, the most popular bluesman the universe has ever known, engraved the Blues in the solid rock of our American culture. His fifty-plus albums produced 15 Grammy Awards and earned him inductions in the Blues Foundation and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Note: I was so intrigued with B.B. Kings touring coach, I later did more research.

The plush motorcoach had over $200,000 worth of electronics inside. Superior Interiors of Nashville customized the inside and Digital Home Lifestyles of Phoenix installed electronics.

The bus too over 100 hours of design time and 300 hours of installation. He had over 20,000 CDs and 6,000 DVDs to access and enjoy at his whim.

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