This is from a recent interview by the famous Blues photographer and former manager of Buddy Guy & Jr. Wells, Dick Waterman. He is presently writing an authorized biography of BB King, due out next September 2005.
1. When/where did you first see BB play?
I first saw BB & met him through his driver Cato Walker Jr. at Louie's Lounge, an all black club in Roxbury MA in 1967. I was 16 yrs old at the time and was standing outside listening to the most amazing music I'd ever heard. I guess Cato saw me standing there over the course of the night and we eventually spoke. I must admit, I was a tad intimidated hanging outside in a ghetto neighborhood club alone but Cato put me much at ease, escorted me in as 'his friend', bought me a Coke and introduced me to BB on his break. I was an aspiring organist and the sound of BB's guitar, Duke Jethro's Hammond B-3, Bobby Forte's sax and Sonny's drumming completely blew me away. BB and everybody were as gracious as can be. I later became a regular fixture at the Sunday matinee jams at Louie's doing my best Jimmy Smith impression of 'T-Bone Steak', a shuffle swing groove in F. I'd practice all week like mad, just for that 15 minutes of 'fame' it afforded me. A year or so later, I saw BB at The Boston Tea Party on Berkley St, a hippie type hall, on a show with Jeff Beck & Rod Stewart and I believe The Quicksilver Messenger Service.
2. When/where did he first see YOU play?
By 1968-69 I was playing and touring with the late great Albert King as his organist. I believe we did a show together with BB's band at the Filmore West in San Francisco. We had a small combo, organ, bass, drums, sax, featuring of course Albert and his triangular rocket shaped guitar named Lucy. We had a huge big-band funky sound and were tight as hard times in 1929. Santana and Mike Bloomfield jammed with us, but Albert totally dominated everybody and I guess we impressed both Sonny Freeman & BB.
3. How did he go about asking you to join his band?
That night, Sonny asked for my number. I didn't have one, I gave him my mother's phone number. I never dreamed he'd ever call me, I thought he was just being nice and wanted to keep in touch as friends. Six months or so later he called me and invited to join the band. I was stunned and figured myself not 'up to it' but went anyway and stayed with BB for seven years as his pianist. I was the only 'original' member left from the first group when I left in 1976.
4. Where was the first gig you played with him and who
else was ion that band. Was it "Little Sonny & the Imperials?"
We went by Sonny Freeman and the Unusuals, which consisted of V.S. 'Sonny' Freeman -drums, Louis Hubert - tenor sax, Wilbert Freeman - bass, Booker Walker - alto sax, John Browning - trumpet & myself, Ron Levy - piano. A year later we added 'Little Joe' Burton on trombone. Booker left and was replaced by Earl Turbinton on alto. Louis Hubert switched to baritone sax and Bobby Forte was added on tenor sax. Maybe a year or so, after that, Milton Hopkins was added on rhythm guitar.
The first gig was in a huge gym at Syracuse University. We had no rehearsal, not even a meeting. I was a nervous wreck. I figured it'd be my first and last night. BB played in keys I'd never played in before, but somehow I made it through the night and then some. I met and romanced a young beautiful lady professor and got a sweet taste of higher education. What a night!
5. Tell me about your long hair and his dress code for
As was the style back then, I had long curly hair in a hippie type style. It was more of a political statement than any so called 'style', I must admit. BB pretty much accepted my hair as such. However, BB had a very strict dress code both on stage and off. Our first band uniforms consisted of black shoes [polished], black slacks [creased], white washable nylon turtleneck shirts and royal blue double-breasted blazers. In the summer months at festivals, we sometimes sported leopard colored African dashikis instead of the blazers.
We also had to look respectable while we traveled. No jeans, tennis shoes, chinos or t-shirts, nothing 'casual'. We had to at least wear slacks and a sport coat. We all got into it and dressed in pretty sharp suits most of the time and considered ourselves in competition with the pimps and players in the various cities, albeit on a much shorter clothing budget.
When we played Carnegie Hall in 1970, we had to wear tuxedos. I waited till the last minute to get mine, and waited so late, I couldn't find one in NYC, believe it or not. Leroy Myers, BB's road manager, freaked out and took me up to Harlem to a tailor he knew, who opened up his shop on a Sunday to 'fix' and alter one of LeRoy's tuxedos for me. The problem was LeRoy weighed around 260 pounds. I was about 165 soaking wet. LeRoy was maybe 5'6", 5'7"...........I was and am 6'2". With the alterations completed, whenever I sat down, the legs of the trousers came up almost to my knees exposing a good five inches of lily-white flesh and the two pockets in the back became one very wide kangaroo pouch-like pocket. At least my hair was washed and combed!
6. Give me any stories about being in black clubs and/or
black neighborhoods. Did you get subtle reverse racism?
I have to say, not at all, in fact, quite the opposite. I cannot recall any instance of any black on white racism, but many instances of sometimes not so subtle white on black racism then and since. I believe that's all a false myth perpetrated by white racists to scare people from socializing and dancing together.
Our group was like family, BB was the Papa. We all stood up for each other and truly exemplified brotherhood like it's supposed to be as humanitarians. I have to give the whole organization credit for that, but BB certainly set the tone for it, being the man he is. Whenever any racism arose, it was always dealt with dignity and class, became a non-issue and we moved forward.
Besides any racial issues, on religious terms, BB and the band always respected my observance of Jewish holidays with full support and understanding. We had a common bond and empathy in terms of being members of a sometimes disparaged minority.
Whenever we traveled to someone in the band's hometown, we were always invited for a family dinner or party and we all felt very welcomed and at home by all the 'real' families back home. As well, even members of BB's band that played at different times over the years, all share a common bond, much like alumni of a university. We call it the BB King school of life.
7. Give me recollections about going to Africa.
I still get chills thinking about being in the middle of 100,000+ crazed Zaireans chanting 'Ali Ali Boom By Yay' over and over when Ali suddenly arose like the fabled Phoenix from the ashes of despair to explode from his rope-a-dope act to pummel and beat George Foreman in the sweltering heat of Africa. We had all thought Ali, our favorite, was done for. Everyone was chanting, dancing and sweating as one. Way beyond sticky and humid, the air was thick enough to slice and the emotions were insanely intense in an all out orgasmic frenzy. It was very surreal, mystical, magical and miraculous. The energy was indescribable. Channeled, it could've powered a nuclear plant past its threshold a hundred times over.
BB's entourage included; myself, Hampton Reese [arranger], Sonny Freeman [drums], LeRoy Myers [road manager], Sid Seidenbeg [manager], Bertrand English [valet] and Bobby Forte [sax]. We had a ball. We stayed at a resort styled hotel with free 24 hour room service and open bar with a pool overlooking a picturesque richly vegetated and beautifully flowered river valley, very exotic. As we casually sipped our coconut drinks and feasted on endless sumptuous buffets, at times we'd see rockets light up the night in an apparent battle being waged on the other side of this once serene river valley across the border. After a few days we pretty much took it in stride as 'normal' and looked forward to the nightly 'show'. Everyday, all day, the JB's would rehearse, lead by Fred Wesley. The Fania Puerto Rican All-Stars jammed, ate and drank all day and all night, the JB girl dancers, danced non-stop, the whole ten days. I can't remember sleeping the whole time we were there, except for a few well deserved cat naps here and there. Oh, by the way, we were guarded by heavily armed soldiers, on very strict orders outside the hotel compound, just in case anyone thought of leaving this Caliglian pleasure den of iniquity. They'd fire off their machine guns in the air every now and then just to let us know they were still there 'guarding' and protecting us.
The then dictator of Zaire was an ominous character called Mobutu. I believe that was his name. I surely remember his face & hat. His picture was everywhere. When I say everywhere, I mean it. When you opened a closet his photo was there, when you closed the bathroom door and looked in the mirror, you'd see his photo reflected from the back of the door, when you opened a drawer, every 5 or so feet down any hall, in the lobby, the bar, behind the front desk, and of course a huge portrait in each room on at least two of the walls. I was happy I never saw his picture in my underwear! The printer and framer of all these pictures must've been very wealthy men, for awhile anyway, given they weren't murdered when they presented their bill, like so many others.
I sat next to Bill Withers on the flight from the then new Kennedy airport in Queens, New York to Kinchasa, Zaire direct. We flew on a chartered 747, which was the biggest and newest plane back then. It was all full musicians from the USA. Quite the passenger list, it was a virtual who's who of 70's music. Sister Sledge, The Fania All-Stars, The Crusaders, most of Count Basie's and the top NY horn players, BB & us, James Brown's entire entourage including his girl dancers [thank G-d] and many, many more I can't remember right now. The plane was packed and we partied like it was 1973! James Brown had so many giant road cases full of clothes our departure was delayed some 4 or 5 hours trying to fit them all in the plane. JB adamantly refused to leave anything behind, much to our dismay. He was not the most beloved of the artists that day, as we were all anxious to get going.
8. Musically speaking, he is predictable on stage or
does he switch things around on the fly?
During my tenure with BB, every night was a completely new show. We never really knew what he was going to play other than always starting with 'Everyday I Have the Blues' in Bb, then into 'How Blue Can You Get' in D natural. He never named the keys and rarely counted off a tempo, unless it was for the benefit of showmanship to include the audience. Somehow however, we always seemed to sense and really know what he was going to do. Whenever you didn't, or played a modern jazz harmony that was 'too modern' and didn't fit, he'd give you a look, that was unmistakable and unforgettable and you never made that mistake again unless you wanted to go home on a bus the next morning, early.
Whenever the band would get in a slump or grow lax in our performances, we'd rehearse. When you ask? Right after the show, that very night. We sometimes started at 4-5 o'clock in the morning for a good 3-4 hours until daybreak. Believe me. We played much better the next show!
We did a good 300 shows a year and BB always maintained the highest standards of excellence and we were expected to out perform anyone we shared the stage with, no matter who or what they did. And, we usually did. It was a source of pride he instilled in all of us, all the time. He played and led us, with so much heart and passion every night, you'd have to keep up or else you'd look and feel ridiculous, especially on that lonely bus ride home.
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