B.B. King sings at the Vatican Christmas Gig
Tim Roth
Credit: Corbis Sygma

What do you get for the Pope who has everything? How about the blues? At the Vatican’s annual Christmas concert tomorrow night, the head of the Catholic church will be serenaded by the master of the blues, B.B. King.

King might seem a little, well, swingin’ for a Vatican gig, especially since past headliners at the concert have included Dionne Warwick, John Denver and Gloria Gaynor. But considering that Bob Dylan played for Pope John Paul last October, King’s booking may be part of a movement toward a church with a heavier backbeat. (Funk diva Chaka Khan shares Friday night’s bill.)

When King straps on his guitar, Lucille, tomorrow night, it might be difficult to choose a tune. After all, blues songs are often about heart-broken men lamenting over ladies who stray — a subject that could be a bit risqué for the Vatican.

Not to worry. “He’s very respectful,” says Jennifer Ballantyne, a publicist for King’s record label MCA. “He knows which songs have questionable lyrics, and he’s not going to play any of them.” In fact, King will perform two Christmas tunes, including the R&B classic “Merry Christmas, Baby.” King’s signature piece, “The Thrill is Gone,” might be more appropriate for the self-sacrificing days of Lent, anyway.

Even when he returns to America, the Indianola, Miss., singer will be leaving a bit of the blues behind. In a personal meeting scheduled for today, King will present the Pope with a Gibson guitar. No, King is not encouraging the Holy Father to form a band. Instead, the Pope will most likely auction off the instrument to raise money for a fund to build a church for the Jubilee, the celebration of the year 2000.