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 Wausau, Wisconsin.
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.”