(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
What do B.B. King and the Bandidos motorcycle gang have in common?
No, it’s not a joke, and the answer probably exists only in my head.
However, the two topics intersected there during the past week with news of the death of B.B. King in Las Vegas and then the deaths of nine members of rival motorcycle gangs in Waco, Texas. King died at the age of 89 after years of declining health. The members of the motorcycle gangs, including the Bandidos, died of gunshot wounds after violence broke out at a Waco restaurant and bar.
Not that the altercation in Texas had anything to do with music, but I’ve often said that anybody who works in the music industry should be required to have at least one story to tell about going to hear live music at a place where you genuinely feared for your safety. Not only does it help you define a certain segment of an artist’s audience, it somehow puts a specific value on exactly how much you want to see the artists perform.
I had a few of those encounters happened in ‘80s when I wanted to experience a bit of history by seeing Jerry Lee Lewis at a nightclub in Longview, Texas, and Carl Perkins at a dive in Leesville, Louisiana. Granted, both of these places probably aren’t as rough as I remember, although I think the one in Leesville -- near the Fort Polk Army post -- probably was. I kind of felt sorry for Perkins playing in a place like that, but it was nothing if not an authentic live music experience. And he was terrific that night and even played “Dixie Fried” at my drunken friend’s special request. In today’s more gentrified, genteel and controlled environment, opportunities like this probably don’t exist that much.
But back to B.B. King and the Bandidos …
I grew up listening to Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Flatt & Scruggs, but I also listened to a lot of other things and still particularly love the great records made by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs and the triumvirate of unrelated blues guitarists with the last name of King -- Freddie, Albert and B.B. So when I was finally old enough to take the family car to concerts in the early ‘70s, I couldn’t resist the urge to see B.B. when he played at the historic Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport, Louisiana.
At that point, B.B. hadn’t yet cultivated the massive white audience that frequented his shows in later years. At least he hadn’t cultivated it Shreveport.
I went to the concert with one of my teenage pals, Bobby Davis. We knew what the audience demographic was going to be, even though neither of us knew what the word “demographic” meant at the time. Those may have still been somewhat turbulent days in the South, but we weren’t worried about it, figuring everyone was there strictly for the music and to have a good time.
But we’re sitting in the auditorium waiting for the show to start and quickly realized we were the only white people in the building -- with the exception of a rather large contingency of the Bandidos, the closest thing to the Hell’s Angels that operated those days in the Texas/Louisiana region. How did we know it was the Bandidos? Well, first of all, they had the name stitched on their jackets.
I remember telling Bobby, “We’re probably going die.” It wasn’t a racist reaction at all. Rather, it was all about the Bandidos. However, if a major fight did happen to break out and sides have to be drawn, where do two teenage dweebs like us fit in?
It would be more dramatic to finish the story by saying that all hell broke loose, but it didn’t. Once B.B. came onstage with “Every Day I Have the Blues” and then had everybody in his pocket with the “I gave you seven children” line in “How Blue Can You Get?” the only demographic that mattered among the 3,000 or so people present was that we were all B.B. King fans who were savoring the moment.
I saw B.B. at one of his last appearances at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He was showing his age, but he was completely coherent and, once he hit his stride, his guitar playing was about as strong as ever. I’m glad I took my son to the show. Everybody alive should have seen and heard B.B. in concert at least once.
I’ve actually got yet another B.B. story about him open for Miles Davis at an evening concert during the 1991 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but I’ll spare you the details.
I guess it proves that seeing a truly great concert is a lot like traveling. The memory can last long after you’ve paid off the Visa bill.