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    Posted May 23, 2015 by
    Los Angeles, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    In Memoriam

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    B. B. King Remembered


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     BB King passed away May 14 in Las Vegas. Many fans came out to pay homage to the blues legend in Las Vegas on Friday where a memorial service was held. Dean Stefan writes about his meeting with BB King in 1970.
    - AmandaJTX, CNN iReport producer

    B.B. King was memorialized in Las Vegas Friday, and I imagine there will be many stories shared.


    My friend Dean Stefan from Los Angeles, wrote a remembrance and let me share it with the CNN iReport community.


    When I met B.B. King. A remembrance. So I was in Berlin, early-ish '70s. Middle of winter. Living in an abandoned apartment with various n'er do-wells, artists, musicians…perhaps the occasional draft dodger or petty thief. I was busking during the day, then a few nights a week playing a 3 AM slot in a club, learning to play guitar little-by-little. And of course, B.B. King is not only a semi-god to me, he’s already a huge star, by blues standards, and someone I'd seen at the Fillmore East more than once. And I’d probably learned about him via all my Brit guitar heroes -- from Clapton to Page to the Stones....as their hero, along with Albert King...and Muddy Waters...the whole litany. Plus I had a college roommate who had every blues record that ever was, so I knew a fair amount about the blues – from Robert Johnson and son House to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But B.B. was a cut above, in terms of how he'd been on the Tonight Show, he'd crossed-over a bit – “The Thrill is Gone” was already a hit by that time. (I think.) But he certainly had lots of record sales in the States, with his album that told the story of his guitar "Lucille." So he was still the king, unmatched in tone and taste and no wasted notes. But he also had some Vegas in him. But here was a chance to see him, now that I’d become a bit familiar with guitar playing and the blues scales….to see him fairly up close, in a club that was maybe about the size of the Whiskey -- but no chairs, so you could get up as close as you were able. Now at this time B.B. is well-known in Berlin, but maybe it’s a little different from the States where very few blues guys were known by the masses. Because as well known as he is, so is Otis Spann and Champion Jack Dupree and other more "obscure" players. The Germans love the blues and revere all these old time guys. In any event, this was the early ‘70s and a freezing night in Berlin and you could still walk up and buy a ticket to get into the club to see him. And so I do. And for reasons I cannot completely explain, but certainly had a reason for.... I was carrying a pair of scissors in my winter coat. (Lest this make you queasy, no...I wasn't going to attack or assassinate him.)


    So I get inside, I have my black-colored acoustic guitar with its rhinestone looking plastic pickguard with me. It’s some no-name guitar that I'd bought in a pawn shop in Rome for like 12 million liras, which meant about 80 bucks. I like how it looked hanging in the store....in my mind like something Elvis or Johnny Cash might've played, though maybe closer to what Roy Rogers might have played. But I thought it looked kind of cool which is why I bought it. Never mind that the action was ridiculously high and it might’ve had a slightly warped neck. I’d only been playing about a year or so at this point. What did I know? And besides, you play on the street in the middle of winter in Berlin, nothing’s gonna stay in tune anyhow. So this guitar Ive got with me is in a ratty looking beige canvas-cloth guitar case....with a homemade sewn-on strap, so I could sling the case over my shoulder. Security being what it was in those days, neither the guitar nor I, with the scissor in my pocket, are really noticed. There is no security at all. It's a club in Berlin, in the early 70s... .the Berlin Wall is still up – you could climb stairs at some points and look over it and see the oppression of East Berlin, soldiers walking around with machine guns, patrolling near the wall. Then at another point, you could see Checkpoint Charlie, a scary looking barbed wire part of the wall, with a tall tower, like a prison tower, the only place that anyone could cross from west to east or vice versa, though I’m not sure who would want to go into the East. There are wreaths and markings on the Wall of those killed trying to scale it, to escape FROM the east into the west. All this is to say that West Berlin had an atmosphere of freedom, with an undertow of dread, so they have bigger worries than a hippie-looking American kid, carrying a ratty-guitar case over his shoulder going to see a blues show.


    So I get inside and B.B. does his set and I'm loving it, though I'd prefer it was a little less showbizzy, a little less "horn section" and more just down and dirty guitar blues. But nothing that I didn’t expect since I'd seen him in the States few times and he is an entertainer, not just a blues player. But I love and revere the guy. And the way he'll play a few notes, then do the finger-wiggle thing (actually it’s the whole wrist that wiggles, the finger simply follows the whim of the wrist…) to sustain a note. So effortless, so amazing, so soulful and plaintive and clear as a bell. No distortion, no acrobatics. And the way his face echoes every note with a pained look....but exuding joy at the same time. And then the set is over. The crowd loves it. But he is going to play a second set. And it's not like they clear the house for the second set either. It's like an intermission. So...I mosey towards the side of the stage...and, unlike, say the Troubadour or the Whiskey, There’s a backstage area...not a flight of stairs to any dressing rooms. And again, no security...or if anyone did have an eye out, they might have thought I was a roadie or something since I was carrying a guitar in a bag. Or maybe they thought here's a scruffy kid with a guitar, something we've seen before. And B.B. is back there, just chatting with people, stage crew, band members, some VIPS, journalists? I have no idea. All I know is I want to shake his hand and get his autograph. And maybe he'll say something encouraging to me, seeing that I had a guitar. Or show me the secret of the finger-wiggle, or the opening notes of the Thrill is Gone. But I knew that was highly unlikely – he was busy with an entourage and he had another set coming up. I'd already played it out in my mind, how I was going to ask him for his autograph. Not the words, but the how. And now, there's a little pause in him talking to whoever, and I see my chance. I walk up and shake his hand, and he greets me -- like a showman, very polite, big smile, warm. And I ask if he'll sign my guitar. And I pull it out of its case. And it's all black as mentioned, so obviously he can’t sign it with a marker or pen, in a way that anyone would be able to see it. And he looks puzzled at me, sign it where? And that’s when I pull out the pair of scissors from my coat pocket and I offer them to him. "Just, you know scratch it into the guitar!" Now the little crowd of people are all looking on, it's a weird request and B.B. is trying to be nice, diplomatic even. He says something like, "No, son, I don't want to do that...Scratch up your guitar? Mess it all up?" And he makes a counter offer -- pulls out a marker or a pen and says, "How about I sign your guitar case?" And I say, “No please, not the case, the guitar -- I really want you to sign it.” He looks like he's at a loss and doesn’t want to do it, but reluctantly takes the scissors, again looking around, looking at me like I’m nuts, perhaps. One final, /"You sure?" I nod eagerly, say, “Yeah just scratch it right on the front there…please, I’m a huge fan.” So he assents and starts to scratch his "signature" on the guitar, but it's not like keying the body of a car....It's soon obvious he has to dig pretty hard with this scissor blade -- gouging, really -- to cut through the who-knows-how-many-layers of black paint to make the letters and see the lighter wood color below. And it's almost impossible to maneuver the scissors. So perhaps if you picture trying to make your signature with an Etch A Sketch or a five pound computer mouse, you get an idea of the lack of control you have. So by the time he's finished, his name is recognizable, but it looks nothing like an autograph, certainly not his and certainly not like something I could show off to a fan of his and they would recognize. It looks more like graffiti scrawled by a semi-paraplegic -- all sharp angles, no curves. But I don’t care. I'm thrilled. And I thank him enthusiastically and he seems a little embarrassed or horrified to have these people witness this -- like why is he defacing this kid's guitar? Maybe mixed-in with a dollop of what a great guy B.B. is for granting this Make-A-Wish style request. I can’t read his mind, and don’t know what to think except, what a gentleman, what a mensch. And I'm satisfied, and thank him again, and he doesn’t say anything except “you're very welcome,” or some such. There are no words of wisdom or guitar advice to be given or requested. And no sage prediction, such as "stick with it, I can see it in your eyes...someday you'll be the king." Nope. None of that. He starts to turn away, then pauses...and says to me…in front of the several people around, as if he’s always aware of being a showman and a gent, “I want you to have this." And he reaches in his pocket and pulls out a pick, not any pick, but it says, “B.B. King” imprinted right on it. I thank him, I think I thanked him…but I'm certain my jaw is gaping, B.B. King gave me his own personal pick, out of his personal pocket. It probably has his very own sweat on it from the first set. Maybe this is the very pick he used the night he almost lost “Lucille” in that fire. This is better even than the autograph… And in my reverie, I go back out to the floor, and pretty soon he starts his second set…and I’m showing to a few people around me, the pick that B.B King gave me. And I feel very special. After his first song, B.B. pauses, and I think maybe he’s gonna call me up on stage. (fantasy is strong in this one’s brain). But no, he thanks everyone for coming out. And then reaches in his pocket, the same pocket he gave me the pick out of…..and he hurls about 4 dozen picks into the audience and everyone cheers. And every one is exactly the same as the one he gave me – every one says “B.B King” on it. The consummate showman. The consummate musician. And gentleman. He will be missed.  Story by Dean Stefan

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