LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Three months. That was the
longest stretch B.B. King ever took off from the road. After
six weeks, however, that old antsy feeling came knocking.
"I was married then, and I'd promised my wife I would take
off for a while," King said. "But since I haven't been married
since 1968, I don't have anyone to argue with about that. So, I
stay out there."
After a 10-day hiatus following a string of Canadian dates,
King's current U.S. road show revved back up again with a
Southern trek that got under way June 9 in Indianola,
Mississippi, with his annual homecoming concert. All told, his
2007 tour includes 150 scheduled stops.
Having celebrated his 10,000th concert last year at his
club in New York's Times Square, the bluesman kicked off
another milestone -- his 60th year on the road -- in January in
Los Angeles. During the past five months, his mobile home has
pulled into such cities as Phoenix, San Antonio, Chicago and
Kansas City, Mo.
In the middle of that tour, which is scheduled to run
through year's end, King will once again squeeze in room for
his annual summer blues festival. With 16 stopovers including
New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles, this year's fest
circuit begins July 24 and pairs King with two other legends
for the first time: Etta James and Al Green.
Between performances, King will begin recording a new
Geffen studio album in July with T-Bone Burnett producing. It's
slated for release in early 2008.
"People keep asking when I'm going to do something else
with Eric Clapton or U2," King said. "But I can still do things
by myself. This time, I've decided I don't want to do anything
with partners for a while."
Earlier this year, he also spent a week at his self-named
clubs in Memphis and Nashville filming a concert DVD due later
this year. A previous live album, "Live at the Regal," was
inducted this year into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
So what keeps the indefatigable 81-year-old (he turns 82
September 16) going, with a slate of one- and two-nighters that
would put many of his younger compatriots under the table? For
one thing, after so many years, it's become second nature.
"It's the way I make a living," King said early one
afternoon in Chicago, having performed the night before in
King also has become a blues ambassador. In a time of
narrowcast radio airplay and mainstream ringtone mania, that
has become a necessity.
"Blues players don't get our records played every day,"
King said. "The only stations I know that do play blues are the
two satellite (radio) stations, but they also play other music.
I found a long time ago that traveling from city to city, we
were able to get publicity that we don't usually get. After
we've gone to whatever city, our record sales go up, and we get
more letters and cards. Then when we go back, it's a better
crowd than next time."
Though it might not seem so on the surface, King has slowed
down. He remembers doing 342 one-nighters in 1956, a high that
later dropped to an average of 240 nights per year. Now he
averages between 100 and 150 shows per year, each lasting 90
minutes to two hours.
"I promised myself sometime back that I would cut down on
my working," King said. "Now we work two to three weeks and
take off a couple of weeks."
Until he was 70, King was a licensed pilot who flew to his
gigs. But the suggestion by his manager and insurance company
that he fly with a qualified pilot "took all the fun out of it.
That's like having a chaperone when you've got a pretty girl."
So King now travels primarily in a mobile home while a
second bus ferries band members. It's that camaraderie -- most
of the members have been with him at least 12 years -- that
keeps him and the fun going. That and the fact that the
diabetic King has been able to find sugar-free chocolate
turtles to satisfy his sweet tooth.
Despite 60 years of touring, King never takes his audiences
for granted. "I still look some nights for it to be just me and
the promoter," he said. "You can't ever depend that everyone
there is really there to see you. I'd say 40 percent are true
fans and 60 percent are there because they're with friends. So
you hope if you're good that night that maybe 20 percent of
them will become fans next time."