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Boston Globe Home Section 

 ON THE ROAD WITH B. B. KING
 
 
January 3, 2002

The King of Blues can be forgiven for turning to his sideman guitarist Leon Warren during a recent concert to ask, "Where am I?"

He hadn't lost his way musically; B.B. King still sings and plays Lucille - his Gibson guitar - as naturally as breathing. Rather, he wanted to know what city they were in. It had come to the point in a song where he plugs the local venue into his lyrics as a crowd-pleaser.

"It's early in the morning, and I ain't got nothin' but the blues," sang King. "I went up to Durham to get something to eat. The waitress looked at me, she said, `B, you sure look beat.' " The performer had his bearings.

The geography update establishing that they were at the Whittemore Center here in Durham, N.H., was pulled off with suave humor. Forgiveness was never an issue as far as the audience was concerned. The man is 76 years old, after all, and he plays 200 concerts a year.

Technically, "home" is Las Vegas, but King spends his life on the road. His Van Hool motorcoach, with eight beds, a kitchen area doubling as a lounge and, in the way-back, a combination private office/living room, is as much his refuge from the rest of the world as is anyplace else. The seating is all black leather, and the walls are covered with a polished hardwood veneer.

Nosed into the loading dock of the arena, the behemoth of a white, practically windowless bus cuts an imposing figure. Inside, the furnishings are plush but without clutter. Holding court before the Durham concert - one of five scheduled in New England this month - King wore a brown sport coat, with an American flag lapel pin, over a tan shirt with vertical brown stripes. Sitting at his desk at the rear of the bus, he shut down his laptop computer before entertaining some questions about life on the road.

His eight-man band travels on a separate bus, which King owns and which is emblazoned with his name. His own bus is chartered. Only his close associates travel with him, including Kelvin Williams, his valet who also happens to be his grandson. Williams is in charge of the wardrobe "and anything his grandfather needs," said King.

The blues master has 15 children and 14 grandchildren. A fifteenth grandchild, a Desert Storm veteran, was killed on the streets of Chicago not long ago. Single now, King has been married twice.

Why does he maintain such a grueling tour schedule at his age?

First, he offered the pat answer he has been giving at least since he published his autobiography in 1996 ("Blues All Around Me" with David Ritz, published by Avon Books): The members of his band have been with him for between 14 and 22 years. If he wants to keep them together, he has to give them work, he said.

Then he let his guard down just a bit. Looking an interviewer in the eye, King said, "I have a very contagious disease." A smirk crept into his face as he repeated, "very contagious. It's called 'need more.' "

Need more what?

The smirk turned into a broad smile: "I need more money, I need more recognition, I need more reporters asking me questions like that."

The recognition he needs is not so much for himself but for his art.

"For a long time, soul singers and rock singers got paid per night what I had to work a month for," he said. Even now, the blues don't get the air time and record sales other music gets. So King stays on the road to bring his music to eager audiences and to keep his profile as high as possible. Only one of his songs, "The Thrill Is Gone," ever became a pop hit.

Between concerts, King spends a lot of time listening to music. He has long been known for taking an extensive music library on the road with him.

Asked what else he brings to make him feel at home wherever he might be, King pointed to his laptop. Set up on a table next to a window with blinds that open to the highway zipping by, he composes on the screen with software called Cakewalk. It allows him to write songs and have them played back to him as he goes.

King also uses the computer to write letters (though not by e-mail) and to tutor himself on academic subjects. He said he is still trying to make up for not going beyond the 10th grade in school.

He was a vegetarian for 12 years until his children cooked him an irresistible meaty meal a year ago for Christmas. He was also an annual guest at the Pritikin Longevity Center before it left Santa Monica, Calif., to consolidate operations in Florida last year. Dietary lessons he learned there help keep his diabetes under control.

In his autobiography, King compares his music to someone of advanced age: "The rockers, and rappers, and soul-singing children all came out of the blues. Blues is the grandfather watching over his children," he wrote.

He sits on stage now instead of standing but his output shows no sign of letting up. A line from one of the songs he sings tells it all: "I'm going to roam this old highway until the day I die."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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