I first met the blues when I was seven years old at a family house party one warm summer night in Denver. We children were running in and out of the rooms and playing while the adults were listening to music, drinking, talking and laughing. There was plenty southern food: fried chicken and catfish, ribs, corn bread, potato salad and cole slaw. Someone's mother or father put a 33" record on the stereo. At some point I remember hearing the husky voice of the singer and funky twang of the guitar. It attracted me and drew me in to the point of asking who we were listening to. i remember the album cover, Z.Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues." He was wearing a dark red shirt open at the collar standing next to what looked like the door of a barn somewhere in he countryside. His arms were crossed in a way that let you know he was comfortable being himself. He looked straight into the camera with no posing, no mugging. This was real music from a real man. He looked and sounded so confident. I wanted to be like him! Since I was a little boy watching the Johnny Cash show on television, I loved the sound of the guitar. I just couldn't understand how he could make it sound like he did. It was a mystery.
In the spring of 1981 B.B. King came to town and the family got all dressed up. I had never worn church clothes to a music event, so I knew that this was going to be something different. As we rode to the concert I felt a little strange in my tight polyester pants, a strangling necktie and my scratchy wool jacket. The venue was an old theater converted into a supper club/music hall near a shopping mall. We walked into the dark club and I was surprised to see it look just like a restaurant, with plush booths, huge indoor plants and dim lighting. Our table was close to the stage. We ordered our food and waited for the band to take the stage. We didn't wait long and they soon appeared. It was a young, all-Black band with a guitarist, a horn section, bass, piano and drums. Big afros were still in style and the young men looked regal in their matching suits. They warmed up the crowd with a few instrumentals before the star of the show came out. When he finally ascended the stage it was like watching a mighty bullfighter step into the ring. The mostly Black crowd applauded and cheered the blues legend and the high energy of the moment saturated the surrounding air until it almost felt humid inside the small theater. It was like a church revival, a pep rally and a sporting event all rolled into one. The man was a God and he held the crowd in the palm of his hand.
I had just got my first real guitar as a gift from my mother. I didn't even know how to play it yet, but I would strum it and hold it to my ear to hear the sound. I imagined myself playing on a stage in front of thousands of people, the spotlight shining on me. I loved to smell and feel the wood, the cool smoothness of the instrument. I would brush the strings, trying to conjure the sounds that I had heard coming out of the record player at home. I loved the guitar, and tonight I would learn what it could really do in the hands of a master. Mr. Riley King did not disappoint. As soon as he touched the guitar it became a living, breathing animal that responded to his every command. His guitar had six strings like mine, and he had ten fingers like me. But his guitar was saying things that only the human voice can express: shouting, crying, wailing, whispering…it was all there. All the while he was singing, rapping, leading the band, feeling the audience. A middle aged Black sister way in the back yelled out to him like it was her own personal show, dancing in the aisle and having the time of her life. "Yes B.B.! Yes baby! Sing it!" I was amazed that he had this affect on a woman who only knew him for his music. This was the first time that I realized the power of music. Every time he struck a chord or a note it seemed as if orbs of light shined from his fingers. The band followed his every cue like telepathy was a normal thing for them. They were polished, and tight, but soulful and gritty at the same time. For a twelve year old boy from a smoggy cowtown called Denver it was a magical experience.
At the end of the concert the band turned it up, playing a fast shuffle while B.B. walked the stage and tossed guitar picks into the audience. I ran over to the side of the stage and he pressed one of his signature guitar picks into my palm. He began to turn away as I held out my hand, hoping for a handshake. He turned towards me again, shook my hand and smiled before continuing on to the other side of the stage to toss out more guitar picks. I had imagined shaking his hand would be something like gripping a rock, but to my surprise his hands were big and soft. I walked back to the table where my parents were seated, feeling as if I had won the lottery. I had never seen a guitar pick like this. It was plastic, the color of tortoise shell with the B.B. King logo emblazoned in glittering gold lettering on one side. I rubbed it with my thumb and it was like the energy of the entire performance was concentrated into this little brown piece of plastic that I now held in my hand like it was a precious stone. Before i saw B.B. King in concert, I imagined that blues was some sort of high science that was taught in music school. It took me years to learn that real blues can't be taught in school. Now that I had seen a real bluesman play and even shook his hand, I began to feel like the guitar was something real that could be learned with practice, not the mysterious instrument that only the chosen few could play. The blues was now real to me for the first time. This was the day that the mystery began to unravel. There was no way I could know that in fifteen years I would be the opening act for B.B. King, touring with him across North America, Europe and Japan. My journey in the blues had just begun.