When B.B. King plays guitar, he listens. He doesn't sing when the beloved shiny Gibson he named Lucille is speaking. He treats his guitar like a lady, sweetly and flirtatiously, like he does all the women who know him, or adore him, or cross his path, if only for a moment. Ladies first.
And when Lucille's done making music, King sings stories of love and loss, pain and loneliness, about being left behind and being left out. About growing up in Indianola, Miss., the birthplace of the White Citizen's Council, the political arm of the Ku Klux Klan. About seeing people lynched. About being blue and feeling unsafe being black in America. About living alone in a shack at 9 years old, picking cotton on a plantation, like his great-grandparents who were slaves.
But King also sings about joy, sex, booze, love and laughter, smiling wide with the thought of them while he plays Lucille. And we all listen.
I started listening when I was 9, dancing in our den while my mother played "The Thrill Is Gone" over and over on vinyl. I always dreamed of meeting King, and finally, at the age of 32, I got my chance.
I was one of the younger producers to join a new CBS News magazine show based in New York called "Street Stories with Ed Bradley," and I quickly pitched a profile story following the King of the Blues on the road. When Bradley agreed to be the reporter, I knew some kind of magic was headed our way.
But I was nervous, too. We'd be on the road for a week with King and his eight-man band and road crew. And as the only woman on the scene, I also was in charge of the CBS team of three sound men, three cameramen and an assistant. I'd be working with a renowned newsman and a legendary bluesman, and I had to get it right.
"Street Stories" was Bradley's signature show, a grittier version of "60 Minutes" where the rules were: "No sticks (tripods), no lights, no gels (colored lighting)." We shot stories in real time, on the streets. There were no sit-down interviews with floral arrangements and soft lighting. The program was raw and edgy, and following King was the ultimate street story: a 67-year-old who was touring on the road more than 325 days a year.
While millions of fans knew his bluesy music, no one knew the painful personal story King soon would reveal to Bradley. Our cameras followed the guitarist and his band for five days on tour in Florida in 1992. We filmed them checking in and out of hotels, lugging equipment, eating breakfast in roadside diners and telling tales. We shot footage on King's customized bus, his home on wheels, which had a hand-painted picture of Lucille on the outside, and on the inside, a small kitchen, sitting area and private bedroom.
After each concert we staked out the stage door to film the line of adoring fans patiently waiting for autographs and hugs. In Orlando, we found a row of ladies with full figures and big smiles, in flowered sundresses and church hats, bearing homemade pies.
King greets each person with kindness and the conversations often go like this: "You look lovely tonight. What is your name?"
"I'm Bessie, Mr. King. I am so happy to hear you play your music right here in my town."
He looks at her with twinkling eyes, "Miss Bessie, you can call me B.B., and I am happy to be here." Bessie glows.
"I have a peach pie here for you," she says. "It's my grandmother's recipe and I know you will love it. You can add a little scoop of vanilla ice cream if you want."
"Thank you Miss Bessie," King replies. "I will eat this later tonight and maybe I'll share it with my band."
By 11 p.m., King is tired, but he waits until he's greeted every last fan before climbing back on his bus. By the end of the night his assistant has collected about eight homemade pies and cakes. I watch King look longingly at the mounds of sugar. Like beautiful women or a new ebony Gibson ES-355, each sweet temptation calls to him: swirled milk chocolate, strawberries and cream, lemon meringue.
"It's the pecan pie that gets me," he tells his crew. "Hey folks, come enjoy these treasures with me." He sticks a plastic fork in a pie. I can't resist saying, "B.B., it's probably not good for your diabetes and high blood pressure."
Smiling like a little boy, he responds: "Young lady, you are right. I just don't want to hurt the feelings of those pretty women who worked so hard making these treats."
That night, when the fans are gone, King takes off his bright blue sparkly jacket and wipes his brow. The cameras are rolling. "B.B., why do you do it?" I ask. "Why are you pushing yourself traveling over 300 days a year? Don't you need a rest?"
"I'll tell you, young lady," he says. "It's my life. Lucille is my voice and my partner. I need to let her talk and tell her stories. I need to listen to her and help her along. You know when it's down deep inside of you; you can't keep it from coming up and out."
Of course, these are King's stories, not Lucille's. King writes about the indignations of racism in his autobiography, "Blues All Around Me." Touring a segregated America in the 1940s and '50s and relegated to "colored-only" hotels, King often was stopped, harassed and humiliated by white police officers.
"You don't realize the damage. You hold it in. You feel empty, like someone reached in and pulled out your guts," he writes. "You feel hurt and dirty, you feel like you're less than a person. ... You're powerless."
In the book, King recounts the night he stayed in the same Birmingham, Ala., hotel as Martin Luther King Jr., who'd checked out. But the Rev. King's enemies thought he was still there. "They bombed the place," B.B. King recalls. "The bomb rocked my room, but didn't do any bodily harm. The force of the explosion, though, reminded me of the seriousness of hatred. People were willing, even eager, to kill." Those memories seem to drip down King's face when he's onstage, like tears masquerading as beads of sweat. He often closes his eyes while performing.
"When I'm on stage," he says, "I am no longer B.B. King. It's just the guitar, Lucille." King doesn't play chords. He plucks his songs with intricate finger work, stretching and bending the strings to raise or lower the pitch, tremolo, his left hand making a fluttering vibrato, moving up and down Lucille's polished neck. And King gives Lucille a kiss at the end of each song.
Lucille got her name in 1949, when King was playing in a juke joint in Twist, Ark., and a fight broke out that knocked over a garbage pail filled with kerosene. While the crowd fled the burning building, he ran back inside to save his guitar. King burned his legs and learned a lesson. When he heard the fight was about a girl named Lucille he says, "I decided right then and there to christen my instrument Lucille, if only to remind me never to do anything that foolish again."
The original hollow-bodied, electric Lucille and every guitar King owned since the fire, has followed him from juke joints to cities across the country to the White House and around the world. While we travel with King on tour across Florida, members of his family come backstage after each concert. One of them brings four grandchildren who tug at his jacket with cries of: "Hi Grandpa! I am 11 years old now. Look how tall I am, Grandpa." Later, while the car carrying his grandchildren pulls away, King gets back on his bus, lamenting all the time he's spent saying hello and goodbye in one breath.
How could King build a family if he was always on the road? Instead, he says he got love and gave love where and when he could. He's been married and divorced twice and fathered 15 children. He says he always did his best to support them and tries to see them when he has a concert in their town.
King wants to know his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he says, back on the bus. "Whenever I'm nearby at a concert, my family comes out to see me." He seems to force a smile, and we both know it isn't the whole story. King promises me that he'll talk about it when Bradley arrives. He has a family secret.
After four days of the crew filming with King, I pick up Bradley at the Jacksonville, Fla., airport. He was a news superstar who got his start covering the Vietnam War and later became the first African-American White House correspondent. He was cool and handsome, wore an earring, and was just as comfortable in jeans and a leather jacket as he was in designer suits.
Bradley was a Renaissance man who loved music — especially jazz and blues. My job as producer was to prep him for the interview, coordinate the camera crews, direct the shoot and get him to the location on time. We had only a few hours to shoot King and Bradley together because the reporter had to catch a flight the next morning.
I brief Bradley on the progress of the story. The windshield of the rental car is foggy from the thick, Florida heat while we head out of town. An hour later we see barbed wire atop high fences and heavily armed guards in watchtowers. We're entering the grounds of the Gainesville Prison, where authorities wave us onto a dirt parking lot.
I hand Bradley the script for his on-camera stand-up, where the correspondent faces the audience and sets the scene. He steps aside, rehearses the lines a few times under his breath, then turns to the cameraman and says, "Let's roll." He does it in one take.
Next we need footage of King performing for the prisoners. The warden escorts our team through the prison gates and we hear King singing "Chains of Love," with a crowd of mostly black men and a few women singing along. I think of the chains of love in that space that connects King with his past and present — chained to his bus on the road, to his music, to Lucille. Bringing it all here to this place of loneliness and desperation.
King knows these places well. He's been giving free concerts in prisons across the country since 1971 when he co-founded a nonprofit to help improve prison conditions and support prisoners' rights and education. King brings music and hope. But here at Gainesville, it's personal.
Someone in the audience is dear to King's heart. Onstage, he points her out to our cameraman: "That's my daughter, Patty King. She is in here for drug trafficking. I've never had a child in trouble with the law before, but my heart, my Patty, she is here." Prison officials surround her.
After the concert, Patty wraps her arms around her father while the cameras move in. Tears stream down her face, and she whispers, "I'm sorry, Daddy." King is patting her on the back: "I love you, Patty. I love you."
We set up our cameras in the prison offices for the interview with Patty and her father. "This must be tough for you, B.B.," Bradley begins. King responds: "I love my family. I love my children. And I wished I could have been a better father than I have been in some ways."
Bradley turns to her: "And you, Patty?" She says she wishes she'd made better choices and is sorry she hurt her father and her children. King's eyes fill with tears while he looks over at Patty's two young boys, sitting on a social worker's lap. He sighs: "It's very hard. I love my children. But I could not be there for them."
Bradley pushes for more. One of the best interviewers in the business, he'd ask a question and then wait for an answer, patiently listening, playing with his glasses, stroking his beard, to hold the uncomfortable silence until people opened up. At the end of the interview, King pours out his heart. Then he hugs Patty and his grandchildren and slowly makes his way back to the bus.
The steamy heat has turned to vapor. On the bus ride from the prison to the evening's concert in Jacksonville, we film an interview with King and Bradley. King talks about his childhood in Indianola. He was 4 when his father left, and 9 when his mother died and he wound up living alone in a shack picking cotton on a plantation. It was a scary place for a young, parentless, black boy. "I saw lynching," he says. "I saw men dragged through the streets." He would later tell those stories through the blues.
King's mother called that blues sound "the devil's music," but for King it was salvation. His mother took him to church every Sunday where he sang gospel music, and later started a vocal quartet and taught himself how to read sheet music from a Sears, Roebuck catalog. At 16, he hitched a ride up Route 66 to Memphis, Tenn., to Beale Street, to stay with and learn from his cousin Bukka White, a famous Delta blues guitar player.
Young Riley B. King worked as a tractor driver and a radio disc jockey. They called him the Beale Street Blues Boy, and later Blues Boy King, which was shortened to B.B. King. His first Memphis gig paid $12 a night, and King soon started to make hit records. He told Bradley that through the years he sent money home to support his 15 children, two ex-wives and the lovers he'd left behind.
Watching King and Bradley talk, I think back to my research trip to King's hometown of Indianola. A few weeks earlier I walked the dirt roads near his childhood shack and tasted the greasy fried chicken at a diner. I attended Sunday services at the church where King prayed and felt the roots of his music. There, I met his cousin, the Rev. Birkett Davis, who told me that when King was a boy, the preacher let him play his guitar, and King made his own guitar out of wire from a cotton bail and a broom handle.
Davis says in those days every seat in the church was filled, and a young King sang his heart out in the choir. That day, there was wailing, swaying, women in white choir gowns and young children with missing front teeth, their voices carrying into the rafters. People were singing, some were crying. The word of the Lord was in this sacred space, and it was rocking.
The Bradley-King interview had ended, and that evening at a sold-out concert in Jacksonville, King is rocking the crowd. I can hear gospel music in the rafters, and for the audience, this is church with King as preacher. Thousands of fans call out, "Amen!"
At the end of the concert King uses a tambourine to beckon Bradley to join him onstage. Bradley shakes the tambourine and finishes the set with the band, and King announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a warm Jacksonville welcome to CBS '60 Minutes' newsman, Mr. Ed Bradley!" The crowd erupts in a standing ovation.
Then King sings "Chains of Love" again, just like he did at the prison that morning. He later tells me he was brokenhearted that night because his daughter Patty couldn't be there. She was back behind bars.
"But the show must go on," he says. "And you never know how much it hurts."
Backstage after the concert, King is sitting in a chair plucking at Lucille. He stands up, puts his hands together and looks right at me, "Young lady, if you were not the producer, I would ask you to marry me." I take his hand gently. "B.B., I am flattered. Thank you for that compliment but I don't think I could handle 15 children." King laughs and gives me a hug, moving easily between flirt and sweet grandfather. The ladies with the pies tell me they too were weak in the knees.
A few days later we watch these moments again in a dark editing room at CBS headquarters in New York. Images of King playing onstage, on the bus, his band members rehearsing, Patty crying — as filmed by the cinematographers Roberto Alvarez and Lynn Raybren. Editor Lisa Orlando tells the story through King's songs — creating powerful vignettes for each moment and using his concerts to propel the narrative. When I write the script and Orlando layers Bradley's voice over the images, we know we have a beautiful story. Millions of viewers watch the piece when it airs on Feb. 4, 1993, and CBS executives submit it for an Emmy Award.
I remember making the call to Bradley a few months later: "Ed, we won the Emmy."
"I am proud of that piece," he said in his low, sweet voice. "Have fun at the party."
I thank B.B. King in my acceptance speech. It was his story — we simply had the honor of telling it.
Twenty years later, King's music has stayed with me. Sometimes I feel it in my bones. I feel the chains of love and I want to go back to that church in Indianola.
At 87, King still lives mostly on the road, playing an average of 100 gigs a year — one next week in Richmond. Known as the world's leading blues guitarist, he's collaborated with U2 and Eric Clapton, and inspired musicians including Bob Marley, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt, John Lennon and John Mayer. He's released more than 50 albums and won 15 Grammys. King has received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Presidential Medal of the Arts and four honorary doctorates, including one from Yale. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As King told Bradley, he won't stop playing music until — and here he looks up to the heavens — "My arms are folded and the good Lord says, 'That's enough.'"
The last time I saw King perform was in 2008 in my adopted hometown of Richmond. After the concert, he was backstage sitting uncomfortably on a too-narrow chair, his heavy thighs falling off the sides. I reach over to hug him and he perks up. "Well, hello there, young lady. You've come back to see your old friend. Did you bring CBS News with you again?"
"No I'm here with my husband," I reply. He looks up at him and winks: "You lucky man. I wish I was your age now."
We talk about the heartbreaking news of Bradley's death from cancer in 2006, at the age of 65. At the time of filming, no one could have imagined that King would outlive the youthful Bradley. "He was too young to go," King says, shaking his head. "Too young, too smart, too good. And too good-looking. It's a damn shame but that's the blues."
King's eyes were tired, but he still had that sparkle. I told him he still had the magic and that we loved his concert. "I will keep on playing — you know that," he says. "Me and Lucille." S
Roberta Oster Sachs is a journalist, educator and leadership trainer. She is president of Oster Sachs Communications, a Richmond-based media and leadership consulting company. She was a network news producer in New York for ABC, CBS and NBC for two decades before moving to Richmond with her family in 2006.