Bluesman B.B. King, who's performing Sunday and Monday evenings at the blues club that bears his name on Universal CityWalk, has been accorded almost every honor the music world can bestow. But he says the proudest moment of his life came last Christmas when he performed for Pope John Paul II in Rome.
King has a storied history. He literally came out of the cotton fields of the Missisisppi Delta to eventually achieve worldwide acclaim as King of the Blues.
At age 22, Riley B. King left the Delta where he had to pick 500 pounds of cotton per day just to earn $1.75 and went to Memphis, Tenn., to pursue his musical dreams. There he got his first break and a new name as a disc jockey for a radio station.
But, soon, the singer-guitarist was fronting his own band and beginning the constant touring schedule that would become the essence of his life for the next half-century.
During an almost 50-year career, he's performed around the world and influenced entire generations of blues and rock musicians. In the early days, King has said, the blues were treated "like the stepchild . . . the bottom of the totem pole"--an inferior style of music.
"[Back then] being a blues player and being black was like being black twice," King said in 1996. Today, things have changed.
King, 72, received the Presidential Medal of the Arts in 1990 and was a Kennedy Center honors recipient in 1995. Over the years, he's received seven Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. He's a member of the Blues Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's received honorary doctorates from Yale University, the Berklee College of Music, Rhodes College of Memphis and Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
By phone from his hotel on the road last week, King said nothing caused him to bust more buttons on his shirt than meeting the pope in Rome last December. He performed for the pope at the Vatican's annual Christmas concert. Later, he had an audience with the pontiff.
"It was the proudest moment in my life; it's beyond me to describe it," King said. "He spoke very softly, but his words thundered in my head. He said, 'Thank you. Happy holiday to you and your family and loved ones.' "
King also presented the pontiff with a gift, one of his "Lucilles," a specially made Gibson 355 model electric guitar. When told that the Holy Father was a folk-music singer who would probably appreciate such a gift, King's buttons could almost be heard busting once again over the phone line.
1997 was an especially busy year for King. Besides performing for the pope in Rome and doing his average 250 other road gigs, in December he received the Blues Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award at a special ceremony at the Palace here in Los Angeles. Earlier, in November, his 60th album was released.
"Deuces Wild" features King performing with many of the younger performers he has inspired, including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Tracy Chapman and Joe Cocker, among others. Even rapper Heavy D stops in for a track.
Unlike some duet albums of recent years, where the stars were recorded separately and only united through the miracle of modern electronics, King and his collaborators were together for all these recordings.
"We recorded some of it in London, New York and some in Los Angeles," King said. "Joe Cocker was the only one I did not record with, but I was there in the studio.
"Each of these artists has something that I like, each has something that was different, each of them had something I could learn from," King said.
King speaks modestly about his own contributions. He still readily credits the people who influenced him when he was a young artist--performers such as his cousin Bukka White, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker and others. King said he still listens regularly to the recordings of these people while he travels to those 250 performances per year.
"All those are people that I love," King said.
The CityWalk blues club will give King's fans an opportunity to hear and see the master in an intimate setting, as opposed to a big arena such as the nearby Universal Amphitheatre.
"In a small club, you can do softer things, more jazzy things, you can mix it up a little," King said. "The people who come to hear me know what I do.
"I do what I do," King said. "I pick what's good for the audience at the time and I try to be entertaining."
B. B. King performs at 7 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday at B.B. King's Blues Club, 1000 Universal Center Drive, Universal CityWalk. (818) 622-5464. $50-$100 per person includes dinner and appetizers, $35 standing-room only.