The thrill is … hiding

“You really don’t want to hear me sing it a cappella,” suggests B.B. King.

He’s wrong, of course — who wouldn’t relish the chance to hear one of the last great bluesmen croon just to them over the phone?

“Here’s the way it went,” King finally concedes, before launching into some laid-back singing: “Pepticon sure is good/ Pepticon sure is good/ You can get it anywhere/ In your neighborhood.”

At 78, King’s performance voice remains deep and sonorous — though it’s less robust in conversation than that mighty boom he still unleashes onstage.

Pepticon, by the way, is an old health tonic for which King once wrote an impromptu jingle. The year was 1948, with a young Riley B. King recently migrated from rural Mississippi to Memphis, Tenn. The singer, still green and somewhat timid, had just landed a chance gig at the 16th Street Grill in nearby West Memphis, Ark., where the owner, Miss Annie, said she’d award him with a steady engagement if he could get on the radio and advertise her club.

Determined, and filled with newfound courage, King decided to try his luck at WDIA-AM, the country’s first station to hire black deejays. With his acoustic guitar clutched to his chest to protect it from the damp, King hiked across Memphis in the pouring rain, entered the control room, tapped on the glass window, and said, “I’d like to make a record.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Soon thereafter, King became a deejay at the same station; there he was tagged with the nickname “B.B.,” short for “Blues Boy,” and his career took off in earnest. The Pepticon story is but one gem in a life frothing with such tales.

King’s highway

With a steady and unfathomable resolve, the blues icon has toured nonstop — almost literally — for the past 50 years. David Ritz, co-author of King’s 1996 autobiography Blues All Around Me, suggests at book’s end the possibility that the revered musician is the most traveled performer in modern history.

Henry Rollins, himself no stranger to relentless touring, has even noted of King: “So many times I’ve been [traveling], and there’s this damn poster with B.B. King’s name on it. That motherf••ker, man, never stops. Good for him.”

As documented in his book with stark, almost shocking openness, King’s career path has been fraught with hardship and isolation. The father of 15 children (his second-oldest recently passed away), King has never seen any of them all that much.

“I never stayed home with them like I should have,” he admits in our talk, adding, with characteristic candor: “I’ve never felt guilty about it, in a way. I wanted so much for my kids and my family to have things that I didn’t have. And the only way I could find was doin’ what I’m doin’.”

Presently, King employs one son and grandson as his road manager and personal valet. Other children and grandchildren, he says, “Wanna hang with me. I’m starting to feel again like I’m a whole man. They’re filling up a lot of those empty spaces. They kinda — how can you say it? — they kinda fix my life where I feel like a person. Always good to get a hug from them.”

King also feels more secure these days about being a provider. It’s no longer his main motivation to work, he admits, but it still remains an important consideration.

“I’m happy to tell you that I don’t have to do it now,” he reveals. “I’m not rich, [but] today I do it because I love doing it. I have the best band I’ve ever had. Some of them are not able to do as I do. They have kids [too], some in school, college. And I love the band so much and I wouldn’t wanna go fishing every day, so I don’t wanna retire.”

Ever seeking Lucille

King may long ago have helped develop his own signature Gibson guitar (forever dubbed “Lucille”), but his ideal playing sound still remains unrealized.

Way back in 1968, King told Ralph J. Gleason, host of the TV show Jazz Casual, “I still haven’t got it the way I hear it.”

Asked about that comment today, King says with a laugh, “I still don’t have it like I want it. I play and enjoy what I do, yes, at 78 years old — but I still [can hear] the sound that I’ve been trying to find all these years!

“Oh, I think I’m doing pretty good,” he continues. “I think I know my job pretty good, but it’s something I hear — don’t know how to tell you about it and wouldn’t know it if I saw it walking down the streets. But I still can hear it sometimes. Not as much now as it used to be, but I’m still sort of searching.”

His devotion to the hunt extends to his personal listening habits, as well.

Ritz describes a persistent hunger in King: For several hours a week, even amid the hectic rhythm of travel, the blues icon immerses himself in the work of his idols — Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, among others. Yet King’s tastes range far beyond the genre he has helped define, and even far beyond this core of favorite artists.

The storied musician also enjoys making carefully sequenced mix tapes. In fact, his latest album, Reflections (MCA, 2003), provides a window into who King the listener is. The CD consists entirely of non-blues songs by artists whom King has waited a long time to cover — including Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Willie Nelson.

“I picked them all myself,” he reports.

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]

B.B. King plays Harrah’s Cherokee Casino (located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, an hour west of Asheville) at 8 p.m. on Sunday, April 18. Tickets cost $25-$35. For reservations and more information, call (800) HARRAHS.

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