There aren’t many octogenarian musicians I’d go see without a serious amount of personal trepidation. Sinatra fans generally agree he should have hung up his microphone years before he finally quietly retired in his late 70s. It wasn’t considered polite to say so out loud, but Ray Charles’ performances in his last years before his death at 73 — and even a studio recording like the overrated Genius Loves Company — could be anxious experiences for devotees alarmed by his diminished voice. So it was with some nervousness that I approached an 80th birthday celebration for B.B. King this week in L.A., where the blues monarch was to cap off the evening with a mini-set. Great news: Katrina isn’t the only powerful wind we should associate with Mississippi right now. King still produces surprisingly powerful vocal gusts, and the thrill isn’t gone from what he does with his hands either. If he comes to your town — and odds of that are good, given his still-robust touring schedule — miss it at the risk of your own ex post facto blues.
Plenty of TV personalities turned out for the party, including not-done-partying-yet Emmy fixtures Felicity Huffman (with husband William H. Macy), Ray Romano, and Doris Roberts. The celebration was held at the home of ex-William Morris TV topper Sam Haskell and his wife Mary, both Mississippi natives, who’d set up the $1,000-a-ticket event as a benefit for the future B.B. King Museum, now under construction in a former gin mill where King once worked in his hometown of Indianola, Miss. Of course, this is a bad time to raising money for any charity in that area that isn’t related to the hurricane aftermath, and so some of the funds are being rerouted to victims of the tragedy, even though that’ll make it harder for the museum to make its 2007 opening date.
I sat down with King for a few moments before he went on stage, reminding him that he’s got a new album (B.B. King & Friends: 80, a collection of duets with Elton, Sheryl, Clapton, etc.), a new commemorative book (Treasures), this forthcoming museum… everything but the requisite biopic of his life. “I’m sure they’ll do that long after I’m not here,” he laughed. Turning serious, he added, “But I would like to do a movie while I am here, something where I get to say more than ‘Would you gentlemen like a Pepsi?'” — referring to the one line he had as a secret agent in 1985’s Spies Like Us. At a party filled with agents, surely there was someone around to help make that wish come true.