Sue Weill of the Walker Art Center had booked him for two performances, 7 and 10 PM, at the Guthrie Theater. Naturally both shows were sell-outs.
King wasn’t there for sound check; but that was no big deal, his group had played together for a long time and they knew what B.B. wanted. But as it grew closer to show time, King’s absence became something to worry about. There was no front act booked, but the band worked it out to play the part of a front act without B.B. until he showed up.
Thanks to a policeman who liked blues guitar, King showed up after the band had just been on stage for about ten minutes. He walked on stage to thunderous applause and the audience had no idea there had been a problem. He didn’t need any warmup to make Lucille sing.
The band had taken the bus from the last gig. B.B. flew. When he jumped into the cab at the airport, he told the driver to take him to the Walker Theater. He knew he was being paid by the Walker and just assumed that was the name of the theater.
The cabbie knew there was a Walker Building downtown Minneapolis and that the State Theater was part of that building, so he took him there. Built as a vaudeville house, the Stage was transformed into a movie theater, then a church, and eventually reverted back into a legit house. At this period in time, the State was closed as a movie house and it would be a few years before it became a church. The theater was dark.
King went to the door and hammered on the glass. After a few fruitless minutes, he began to kick at it.
A cop drove by and saw this man kicking the door. He thought it was an attempted break-in. He drew his gun and ordered the man to lay down that case he was carrying, Lucille was inside; but the cop thought it might contain a weapon. As he was frisking him, B.B. explained who he was and why he was kicking at the door of the theater.
Luckily, the policeman, who was a fan of B.B.’s music, remembered reading that King was in town to play at the Guthrie Theater, which was about a mile away. He told King he’d get him to the Guthrie.
King paid the cabbie, hopped in the back of the squad car and with the help of the siren and the lead-footed policeman, got to the gig just a few minutes late. No harm done except between shows, B.B. got a lot of razzing from his band members.
It reminds me a similar story about Louis Armstrong, told to me by Eddie D., who was stage managing the show at Northrop Auditorium. Louis didn’t show up for sound check and still wasn’t in the theater at show time. There was a front act so between the front act’s performance and the intermission, there was about an hour’s fudge-time before Louis was to go on for his gig.
About ten minutes after front act went on, Armstrong showed up in the front lobby asking how to get backstage. Eddie said he angerly told Armstrong that he was late, and he also missed sound check. Louis just laughed and pointed out he was blowing horns way before they had sound checks and mics and speaker systems.
Eddie then argued that Armstrong was lucky his trumpet got there okay. He asked Louis what would happen if the horn got lost or broken and he had to come up with another one in a hurry.
Again Louis laughed. ‘This is all I need,’ he said, pulling his horn mouthpiece out of his pocket. ‘I always got this with me. Ol’ Satchmo could stick this in a tin can and blow the blues if he had to.’
I never had the privilege of working Ol’ Satchmo, but I did see him in concert once. On the other hand, I never sat in the audience for a B.B. King concert, but I had the privilege of working a number of his shows. Outside of that first time, all the other B.B. King’s concerts, I worked at various theaters around the Twin Cities, had B.B. headlining a bill with others, the likes of Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Bonny Raitt and other Blues guitarists. Whenever he was onstage, the wings were filled with musicians, both local and nationals like Bob Dylan, Prince,Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc.. For those of us working one of his shows, it was more than a concert, it was an event.
It was a bad few weeks for R&B aficionados. We not only lost B.B. King, we lost Percy Sledge, (When a man needs a woman) and Ben E. King, (Stand by me). Thank goodness for recordings; because they will always be there whenever we want to enjoy their music.
R.I.P. old timers. You fought big odds and you won.