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B.B. King: The Blues Monarch

B. B. King faced every hardship imaginable. While other bluesmen had turned these into cliches, he lived them - and survived. In 2012, The Blues magazine told his incredible tale…

They hanged a young black man in Lexington, Mississippi. He was castrated, then the mob dragged his mutilated body up and down the street behind a car, as a teenage boy called Riley B. King watched from the sidewalk.

It’s no wonder the blues flourished in a time and place where just having a black face could get you killed. “I grew up knowing that I didn’t have a name but ‘boy’,” says B.B. “‘Come here boy! That’s your name.’ There were certain rules you grew up knowing about. If I saw a white man at that time and didn’t know him, I’d get off the street and let him pass by.” 

  Racism is still prevalent in the Deep South, as it is all over, but attitudes have changed over the years [“I was shocked more than most white people to find we had a black President!” laughs B.B.] as The King of the Blues was to discover one life-changing date in the late 60s. It’s early in the afternoon on Sunday February 26, 1967. An old International tour bus nicknamed Big Red rolls up to the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, California. As the bus comes to a halt, B.B. King and his entourage peer out of its side windows at the ‘same old funky building’ they’ve played countless times before. On this occasion, the clientele strikes them as unusual. Instead of the mature, well-dressed black patrons they’ve played to since forever, there’s a bunch of scruffy white kids lounging around the Fillmore’s entrance. 

“They had long hair,” says B.B. King. “They were sitting out there on the stairs that led to the doorway of the Fillmore. I told my road manager, ‘I think my agent’s made a mistake.’ All these guys, with the long hair, they didn’t seem to be bothered with us at all.” 

The Fillmore is run by impresario and promoter Bill Graham. A champion of the counter-culture scene, Graham and his venue host shows by the likes of The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. He will abandon the Auditorium a year after B.B. plays there to open the larger capacity Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom venues, both in San Francisco; and the Fillmore East in New York City. In the meantime, back at the original Fillmore, B.B King is looking for answers. 

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