Once, when I was a kid, eighteen to be exact, I received a great gift, the chance to play drums behind one of the masters of the blues, BB King. I knew it was a rare event and one that I would most likely never get the chance to repeat, so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped. Every year in Memphis they have the W.C. Handy Blues Awards Show, or the Handy’s, now referred to as the BMA’s (Blues Music Awards) which in the blues world is like the Grammy’s, and in 1986 BB King was the host and presenter. Held at the Cook Convention Center, it was a raging success, with hundreds in attendance that night to see and hear BB and enjoy the many performances from various blues artists from all over the world. That year Stevie Ray Vaughn was red hot and received numerous awards–Best Album, Best Song, Best Production–he got ‘em all and in Memphis, his music was all over the radio. Also receiving many that year were Memphis’ own Ruby Wilson and Don McMinn, who were two local heroes. Don, in fact, had taught me a great deal about the business and had somewhat taken me under his wing knocking the chip off my shoulder and setting me on a more humble path. He was an inspiration.
As a member of the Blues Foundation, I was starting to become a regular face at shows and events, but for some reason wasn’t able to attend the Handy’s that night. Maybe Dad wasn’t able to afford me a ticket, I can’t remember, but there was still a chance to catch the King of the Blues in action, if I hurried. It had become a tradition that after the awards show, a jam session would take place at the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street and every year, it would attract many famous faces, including the host of that years show. On that particular evening, a rumor started floating around that BB himself was going to participate in the jam session and everyone wanted to be there, especially me. I had only recently become aware of his music and was instantly a fan and having not been able to attend the awards, I quickly made my way down to the Daisy. The session started gearing up at about eight o’clock and many different folks took the stage, one right after the other. Don McMinn, The Fieldstones, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Danny Hawks and Ruby Wilson all performed great sets for the excited crowd, who sat patiently awaiting the arrival of Mr. King. I got there early and plotted myself right up to the side to get a good view and at precisely twelve-thirty, the crowd roared with applause, as BB stepped into the smoky room and took the stage. But something wasn’t right with his drummer and I could tell right away. He was nodding off behind the kit and as BB would try to sing and play, the beat would slow down and disappear. I stood nearby, watching in disbelief as BB would look over his shoulder at the man, drunk with whiskey, who would suddenly wake back up and start playing again.
It was hard to watch, but then I had an idea. As the music rolled on, I stepped up to the backside of the stage and got the attention of the monitor engineer, James, who happened to know me and asked him to go and tell the drummer that there was someone in the audience who was the house drummer for the Daisy and that I was pretty good. He didn’t want to do it, but I wouldn’t back down and so he went up there and did it. Getting his attention, he whispered into the drummer’s ear and looking over at me, he nodded his drunken head in agreement. I got very excited, but when BB counted off the next number, the drummer started playing and I thought that he wasn’t going to let me up, but then he looked over at me again and motioned for me to come up. Unbeknownst to BB, I jumped on stage and sneaked up behind the kit and the drummer, standing up, handed me the sticks and walked away. I sat down and immediately laid into the groove with the bassist and we were off and running. After several bars went by, BB turned around and looked with amazement at the skinny young White kid on the drums and a big smile came over his face. I nearly peed my pants. I played three songs with him that night and when we were finished, I went up to my new hero and thanked him for fulfilling a dream. To my great surprise,
“Young man” BB called to me?
“Yes, sir” I said?
“Listen, I’ve been having a lot of problems with my drummer lately and I’d like to get your phone number, just in case I ever need someone” he said.
“Wow, sure thing” I yelled!
Looking around, there was a brown paper bag sitting on the drum riser. I grabbed it and ripped a big piece off and asked my friend James for a pen, jotted down the information and handed it to BB.
“Thank you very much. You sound good and maybe one day I’ll call you” he added.
I went home elated.
Exactly one year later, while working as a clerk in the tape department at Poplar Tunes record shop, I received a phone call from a man named Reuben Fairfax, known to everyone as, Ruebaix, asking for me by name.
“This is a combination of my first and last names, R U E B A I X” he said, in a very astute tone. “It’s pronounced, Roo-Bay.”
“Cool” I said. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Well, George. I am the bassist for Mr. Albert King. I’m sure you’re aware of him and that he lives here at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis?” asked Ruebaix.
“Sure, I guess so” I said.
“You and I played together several weeks back at one of the Blues Foundation events, with Mr. Danny Hawks. Do you remember that? He asked.
“Yeah, I think so” I said.
“Well, Albert is looking for a new drummer and thought that you would like to come down and audition for the band”
“Yes, absolutely. How does tomorrow afternoon look for you?”
“Well, fine, I guess. I need to talk with my boss, but I’m sure I can be there.”
“Great. The audition will take place at the Peabody Alley at approximately three in the afternoon. We will see you there and thank you.”
I got the gig.
“Sixteenth’s, mother fucker!”
This was the phrase he yelled at me, onstage, over the microphone, nearly every single night of the three and a half weeks that we shared the bandstand together, in front of countless patrons of the Peabody Alley. Dressed in tuxedos, fine suits and evening gowns, the audience in the nightclub adjacent to the “South’s grand hotel” would stare in amazement at the towering six-foot-four, two hundred seventy pound figure of Albert King, shouting out the blues in songs like, Born Under A Bad Sign and Cross-cut Saw, while tearing into the neck of his signature Gibson Flying “V” electric guitar. With beads of sweat on his brow, the charcoal skin on his face wrinkled and tense with the aggression and bitterness of someone who, in his mind, had been over-shadowed by younger, more flashy bluesmen like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the “Godfather of the Blues” would turn his head slightly in my direction, stomp his feet on the stage floor and scream at the top of his lungs.
“Goddamn, punk-rock ass, mother fucker. SIXTEENTH’S” he’d shout!
For those of you not familiar with what that means, please allow me…a sixteenth note, in musical notation, is a note having the time value of a sixteenth of a whole note. On a musical staff, it is usually written as four notes played closely together and oftentimes quite fast. In Albert’s music, many of the grooves written for his songs required sixteenth notes to be played on the hi-hat or ride cymbal, which takes a certain amount of dexterity and limberness to be able to pull off, but at nineteen years old, my lazy ass hadn’t quite practiced enough to play continuous sixteenth notes. Instead, as I began to tire from playing the sixteenths, I would sometimes resort to quarter notes or eighth notes, which gave the music a completely different feel altogether and this would send my boss into a shouting frenzy, at which point, all bets were off. He called me every name in the book, with his favorite one being, “mother fucker”.
“Boy, Albert was cursing you last night, man” said my new friend and band mate, Hubbie. “He really don’t like you! You better stay away from ‘im tonight.”
Archie Turner-Mitchell, aka Hubbie, was the keyboardist for Albert’s band then and one hell of a sweet person. He told me years later that the nickname Hubbie had been given to him by a woman who used to baby-sit him. Apparently, the woman’s husband, whom she referred to as Hubbie, was a playboy and used to run around on her, but when he left for good, she began calling little Archie by the same name and it stuck. Great musician, too and one of the only people in the band who actually spoke to me as if I were one of the boys. I was a little too dumb and naïve to know who he was at the time, but his step-father, the great Willie Mitchell, had taken Hubbie in as a child and raised him as one of his own. Hubbie took to the piano very fast and having Willie Mitchell as his teacher and mentor, he learned to play in that laid-back fashion that has become so familiar in music made in Memphis. When he got older, Willie began using him in his famous Royal recording studio, where Hubbie was to eventually become a member of the Hi rhythm section, a serious group of Black musicians who played on countless recordings produced by Mitchell. I was not only sharing the stage with a blues music legend and icon, but playing with a member of the Mitchell family as well.
“What did he say” I asked.
“Well, he called you a few bad names, then a few more and then started on how you don’t know shit” Hubbie said, laughing.
I held my head down, feeling terrible, but not knowing what to do.
“You better get your passport together cause we’re going to Europe in a few weeks” he said.
“What, really” I asked?
“Yeah, man. Gonna back up Ron Wood from the Rollin’ Stones!” Hubbie added. “He loves Albert, man and wants to bring the whole band over to Paris to play with him for two weeks. What a break, huh?”
“Yeah, that sounds great!” I said, excited. “I just got back from France last year. Went over there with the gospel choir from Overton, so I’ve already got a passport!”
“Good for you, George. I’m sure Albert will give us all of the details real soon”
The next week, we all flew up to Cincinnati in Albert’s personal leer jet and opened for BB King at the Taft Auditorium. After the show, as the entire band was packing up the trailer to head home, BB came out to say hello to Albert and as the two of them were talking, I was called over to meet Mr. King.
“BB, this is my new drummuh,” said Albert.
Smiling, I took his hand and BB looked at me and said, “I remember you. I’ve still got your phone number.”
Validation from King’s.
We then flew down to Ft. Myers, Florida to play a crawfish festival, where Carl Perkins and Waylon Jennings were the headliners and afterward in the van, Albert said the only two nice words he ever spoke to me.
“DRUMMUH” which was the name he called me.
“Yes sir, Mr. King” I aksed meekly?
“Good jawb, son.”
“Thank you, Mr. King.”
About a week later, back in Memphis, my mother called to say that she wanted to meet Albert and asked if it was alright that she bring her husband Andy and her two children, Richard and Amber, down to the Peabody for an introduction.
“Sure Mom, I’ll see what I can do” I told her on the phone.
“Thank you, baby. I just love his music and it would be so great to meet him in person. I’m so proud of you” said Mom.
That night, at around six o’clock, I called up to Albert’s room and gave him the message that my mother was coming over to the hotel and asked would he like to meet her in the lobby.
“Of course, I’d be happy to meet your mother” he said.
I was shocked and when she got there, family in-tow, Albert came right down to meet them.
“Mr. Albert King, please meet my mother, Rosa” I said.
Taking her hand, kissing it, he said, it is very nice to meet you. Then he met my step-father, my half-brother and half-sister and gave all of them a warm and very uncharacteristic smile. I was completely floored.
“Thank you baby, that was so nice, but we have to go” Mom said, tears flowing down her face.
“It’s okay Mom. Thanks for coming down.”
“Goodbye Mr. King” they all said.
“Bye-bye folks” Albert said, smiling. His normal scowl completely washed away.
Putting his arm around me, he then started walking me back to the club. We walked quietly for a minute, through the Peabody lobby, then…
“You know you’re not going to Europe with us, don’t you” he asked?
“No, sir. I didn’t know that”
“Well, you’re not. And as a matter of fact, this is your last night.”
An hour later, blazing through another intense set, my last one with him, I’m distracted by a White man with long black hair who’s been sitting at the side of the stage, staring at me all night with a strange look on his face. Smiling, Ruebaix looks over at me and asks,
“You know who that mother fucker is over there, don’t you?”
“No. Who is it?”
“That’s your mother fuckin’ repleacement!”