B.B. King's Autobiography Co-Author Remembers His Humility and Lasting Legacy: 'He's Among the Most Decent Human Beings' (Exclusive)
The co-author of the blues legend's acclaimed autobiography recounts their first meeting at a spa (seriously!), as he grew to admire the musician's striking graciousness, humility and humor.
In the early 1990s I was working with Etta James on her memoir when she invited me to meet her at an upscale health resort in Santa Monica, where she had come to lose weight. I arrived to find her seated at a table with B.B. King. When she introduced me, King stood up and shook my hand.
"An honor to meet you, Mr. King," I said.
"B," he said. "Friends call me B."
At this moment in their lives, both James and B were dealing with obesity. Looking a bit forlorn, they stared at their dinner plates that contained a small skinless chicken breast, two peeled carrots and a row of asparagus.
"Be careful," said James, knowing my propensity for interviewing. "You're looking at two hungry beasts. Ask us one of your silly questions and we'll bite your goddamn head off."
"Now, now, Etta, be cool," said B.
"I will if you give me your chicken," she said.
And just like that, B speared his chicken breast and placed it on James' plate.
"You really are a gentleman, aren't you?" she asked.
B succeeded. I can confirm that because not long after completing James' book, Rage to Survive, B called to say he was ready to do his. For more than a year I traveled with him the world over, where I witnessed the gentle graciousness he extended to everyone from superstars to servants. No matter how arduous the journey, no matter how many fans sought his immediate attention, B embraced patience like a preacher embraces prayer. He was, in fact, a prayerful man, a deep believer in the God of love who, as B was quick to say, implores us to treat one another with kindness and love.
As kind and loving as he was, his most extraordinary trait, especially for a musical master, was his humility.
While I was working on B's autobiography, Blues All Around Me (published in 1996), Ray Charles invited him to his studio in the shadows of downtown Los Angeles. Charles was toying with a jazz album and wanted B to accompany him on an instrumental. Driving to the studio, B was noticeably nervous.
"Ray's a virtuoso and a perfectionist," he said. "He operates in a different universe than me. He reads and writes music brilliantly, something I can't begin to do."
"But you have your inimitable style, B. You have your unique voice."
"That's all well and good, but I don't play no chords. And when it comes to riffing over complicated changes, well, sir, that ain't me. I don't have the jazz feel of T-Bone Walker. T could play jazz. The jazz cats I love and listen to all the time -- Barney Kessel and Jim Hall, Joe Pass and Pat Martino -- they've mastered their instruments. They got a big musical vocabulary. I only know a few words, a few notes."
"It ain't how many notes you know," Charles told B when we picked up the conversation in the studio. "It's how you use them. And you use them better than any motherf---er who's ever touched a goddamn guitar."
B laughed appreciably but remained visibly uneasy until, after five or six takes, Charles assured him that he had done fine. Beaming, B received the news like a schoolboy getting a gold star.
On another night, this one in Memphis, Bobby "Blue" Bland, the man B called the world's best blues singer, showed up at B's eponymous club. The two old friends did an explosive "Every Day I Have the Blues" before breaking into a mournful "Stormy Monday."
Back in his dressing room, B and Bland were eating a midnight dinner of catfish, fries and collard greens washed down with sweet tea.
"Our drinking days are behind us, ain't they, Bobby?" asked B.
"But that don't mean we don't miss them," said Bland.
"Indeed we do. And the ladies who came along for the ride."
"Speaking of which," said Bland, "I never have known how many children you've fathered."
"Seriously, brother, what's the count?"
"All I can say is that it's more than a dozen with a dozen different women."
"Thing is, B, most men in your position would challenge half those ladies claiming to have carried your child. But, man, you just accept what they say and make sure they're taken care of."
"Can't think of no other way to do it, Bobby."
The topic turned from the lure of women to mortality. Bland had recently undergone a major operation.
"I thought my time had come, B," he said, "but the Lord thought otherwise. You ever think about how, if you had the choice, you'd like to leave this world?"
"Think about it all the time, Bobby. Got two wishes and either one would suit me just fine. The first is to go out with [my guitar] Lucille in my arms, right there onstage blowing the same lowdown blues I been blowing since I was a kid. If that don't happen, then I wouldn't mind losing my life after making love to a beautiful lady. Mind you, I say after because I'd want to satisfy her first. Leaving her hanging wouldn't be polite."
B.B. King, among the most decent human beings I have been privileged to know, unfortunately was granted neither wish. He died May 14 at age 89 in his home in Las Vegas after a series of strokes and a long battle with diabetes.
"I don't need to be remembered as any great artist," he once told me. "Better to be remembered as some guy who just might be your next-door neighbor. A guy looking to love you and hoping that you'll love me too."
That sacred exchange of love -- in both his person and his music -- is B's lasting legacy.
This story originally appeared in the May 30 issue of Billboard.