My memory of the great bluesman B.B. King is not in Memphis or the Mississippi delta, but among adoring crowds in Italian piazzas; a glimpse to remind us how beloved he was as he toured the world throughout his long life.
In 1993, I was invited to write about the 20th anniversary of the Umbria Jazz Festival. We writers, photographers and hangers-on lived among the musicians, sharing tangles of pasta in restaurant courtyards and schmoozing before their performances in the piazzas of Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto and other historic Umbrian towns.
B.B. King was the only blues musician in this seasoned all-star line up, which included Wynton Marsalis, The Manhattan Transfer, Stefan Grappelli and Bucky Pizzarelli. The talent performed at nightly open-air concerts, and no one got a bigger reception than B.B. Almost all of the audience stood and sang and cheered the entire time as if at a rock concert. And after, the musicians would retreat to eat and jam at villas into the early hours, hosted by Italians who opened their hearts as well as their homes.
B.B. was in his late 60s then, imposing as he sat with a giant smile, ready to go on with his beloved guitar Lucille in his hands. He gave short takes to those of us writing about the event. But the ladies could catch his twinkling eye; I remember one red-haired photographer who flaunted her charms and captured the biggest smiles and some of the best shots.
B.B. King's manager, a nebbishy-looking, low-key guy, would sit with us in hotel lobbies, setting up future interviews and talking of life the road while B.B. conserved his energy for the music.
The press was assigned rooms in the same lodgings as the musicians as we moved around the Umbrian hill towns. And the couple of times I was assigned to a room next door to B.B. King, I was warned by his manager to keep as quiet as possible when I was in my room, as B.B. spent much of the day sleeping off the revelries of the night.
Once I awakened early to watch the mist rising over the sunflower fields at dawn, and I heard B.B. and his entourage coming slowly down the hall, on their way to their room. I peeked and saw that Lucille was placed on a pillow and carried by a roadie, like an exotic princess.
A couple of years ago, I visited the Mississippi delta, the area of juke joints and cotton fields where B.B. was still Riley B King, an impoverished young blues singer, before moving on to Memphis. At the vast and impressive B.B. King museum in his hometown of Indianola, MS, who was peering at the exhibits? More Europeans it seemed than Americans.
Perhaps some of them, like me, were at that Perugia festival, 22 years ago. And it reminded me once again, that as much as B.B. King was a national treasure, he and Lucille were and are revered as much or more, around the world. For blues lovers, the thrill will never be gone.