The Life of Riley
There are moments in your life and the lives of your children that resonate. I don’t mean the average Father’s Day (which I know is coming up) or Christmas or what have you. There will always be the particular holiday or event that gets tempered into your mind.
Then there are extraordinary moments.
When my oldest daughter, Abbi, was about to turn five there was a particular thing she wanted. It wasn’t a massive party with a bounce house. (Okay, she probably wanted that, but so what) The year before we’d taken her to see the Brian Setzer Orchestra simply because she loooooved the song Jump Jive and Wail. Setzer did the song with distinct aplomb.
But at the tender age of five she had another person, young as she was, that she heard me talking about seeing live. The King of the Blues: BB King.
You have to understand . . . this is the girl who, at the ages of two and three would sit in the back of my car and say “Daddy?!” I would reply, “Yes, Abbi?”
Her command was loud even then: “SING!”
She once freaked out her aunt because they were driving down the road together and she was in her car seat, this delicate little thing, and singing “I want to hear some funky Dixieland pretty mama come and take me by the hand . . .”
So at the age of five, when her compatriots were all singing Brittany Spears and maybe even the Wiggles at times (I don’t remember, sue me!) she was walking around the house shouting out: “Caledonia! Caledonia! What makes your big head so hard!”
It was this particular five-year-old that had heard her father talking about the opportunity he had to meet and interview one of his biggest heroes: BB King. I mentioned that I had tickets to go see his show and without hesitation, this almost-five-year-old said “can I go too Daddy?”
I interviewed Mr. King on his bus. I should preface this with the fact that his people were over-protective – which I get – to the point of almost cold.
“You will get five minutes with Mister King. Five only! You will not get a second past that, so keep it brief,” they told me. I had set this up, taking months and months to get it. I negotiated, nearly begged, and when they said yes I cornered my friend John Chapman, reporter and sports anchor for WOWT in Omaha. He initially said he had to produce sports until I told him who we were interviewing.
“Hell, I’ll re-rack the 5 o’clock show . . . I’m in!”
When we got there, after another reprimand of keeping to five minutes, we met the man himself: Riley B. King. He brushed off his people and spent almost a half hour with us. At one point John got quiet, looked at BB, and said:
“Nobody love me but my mother . . . ”
and without missing a beat, BB King looked up, and said “and she could be jivin’ too!” You can almost see the camera jiggling as all three of us laughed.
Knowledge, said Mr. King, is important. Reaching his audience, too. He noticed the shift from mostly African-American to mostly white audiences. Then new generations coming as well. He said he wished more young black kids would embrace the blues, but he also embraced the new audience that was coming to see him. With the new record Riding with the King he recorded with Eric Clapton he was on the Billboard charts. He didn’t bemoan the change in audience at all.
“Blues,” he informed us, “is how we’ve lived in the past, how we live today, and I believe how we will live in the future.” He told us off-camera what John and I already knew: blues isn’t sad music. It’s all emotion. You can have insane happiness, deep sorrow, intense anger, all of that wrapped in the color of the blues.
You worry when you meet your heroes that they won’t meet your expectations. He exceeded them.
Before we left, I asked him a question, very humbly:
“My father is a huge fan and is socked in by a blizzard. Could I bring you his copy of Completely Well and have you sign it since he can’t make it?”
He agreed, wholeheartedly, and said it would be his pleasure.
For whatever reason, Abbi’s mother did not want to come to the show. She’d seen him before, but still, it was Abbi’s birthday. But when Andrea wanted to be persnickety she was persnickety. She dressed Abbi in faux leather pants and a leather jacket and did her hair. It was late by the time the show was over and Abbi started to fall asleep.
When we got backstage BB King looked at me, said “there he is!” and welcomed us in. As Abbi approached he pointed and said “and this is what we were talking about earlier. This would be the third generation that comes to see the King, am I right?” Abbi looked up at me, and seeing me smile nodded.
BB King smiled, hooked his arm in Abbi’s, and pulled her next to him as he sat down. “Come here, princess,” he told her. He took a small cup filled with guitar picks and plastic pins and dumped them on a shelf next to him.
“Do you have a brother or sister?”
“I have a sister, Hannah,” she said.
“Then pick something out for her,” he told her. Abbi grabbed a small thing from the table.
“But I’m not letting you have one of those,” he told her. She looked confused, but knowing who he was she wasn’t going to complain. Even at five, her birthday (which I’d told BB), she was respectful.
“Want to know why,” he asked her? Abbi nodded. BB pointed to an enamel pin on his lapel that was of his beloved guitar, Lucille, and said “because I’m giving you this one!”
Abbi’s eyes got as big as plates as he removed the enamel pin and pinned it to her lapel. He let us pose for the picture you see at the top, and he embraced Abbi and thanked her – thanked, her! – for coming to his show.
From then on Abbi has remembered that night. She kept the pins in a little box that she still has in her room. When people ask her, she tells them “I have BB King’s personal pin!” When they don’t know who he is . . . she proudly informs them that they need to know and educates them. Then and there.
I wanted to write about this as a documentary is hitting the theaters called BB King: The Life of Riley. This man could have hidden in his bus, left us outside, ignored us even. He didn’t know me from Adam. Still . . . he made an indelible mark on my daughter’s life. He showed her a lesson that I tried every day to impress: respect, love, generosity, all these things are important. When you have down time utilize it for knowledge. In the short span of time we were in his backstage room he was the nicest, most humble man we’d met.
To this day, the man people know as a King . . . treated her like a queen. The bar was set very, very high for every man who comes before her from now on.
That’s okay. This . . . like the trend on social media of Throwback Thursday . . . is one of those moments, tempered in her memory. It’s amazing that I was the one able to give it to her.