B.B. King, 1995
The passing of an artist the magnitude of B.B. King hits us all in some way. Mostly it is a loss of a revered and cherished entertainer. Who doesn’t have a memory associated with the guitar riff from “The Thrill is Gone,” or his humor-laced vocal on “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” (“and she could be jivin’ too!”)? But since he performed live at least 200 times a year for two generations, many of us also have memories from seeing him in concert or having met him that makes his death feel slightly more personal.
No one can doubt what a great musician he was, and in the summer of 1995, my then-six-year-old son Peter and I had an unforgettable personal experience with him that also demonstrated what a caring, soulful individual he was. It was also an experience that played a part in teaching me a valuable lesson or two in business.
In 1994, having just turned 40 and when the Internet was just a “dial up” and the retail landscape was filled with chain record and video stores, I created a character, Jerry Jazz Musician (inspired by a Woody Allen stand-up comedy routine), with the intent of it being the centerpiece of what I imagined to be a “lifestyle brand.” The idea was to license images of iconic “hip” 20th Century entertainers, and feature them on products like clothing, greeting cards and glassware, all connected by the Jerry Jazz Musician logo. For example, I dreamed of developing high quality shirts featuring images of people like Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis; of greeting cards utilizing classic record company logos like King, Riverside, and Vee-Jay;and engraved Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Witherspoon and B.B. King coffee mugs. Since the 20th Century was coming to a close and I believed nostalgia for iconic underground figures would be in demand, it seemed like a great idea, and I spent a ton of time and energy (and money) talking to artists, lawyers, manufacturers, potential business partners, and a very supportive family, who agreed that this idea was quite possibly interesting enough to pursue part time.
During this time I developed a working relationship with the Chicago-based Blues Heaven Foundation – located in the old Chess Records building at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue – whose mission included educating Americans about the history of blues music. With this spirit in mind, I worked toward creating a line of coffee mugs featuring engraved images and signatures of famous blues and jazz musicians that would also communicate the artist’s biography on a tag attached to the mug. I developed Jimmy Witherspoon and Dizzy Gillespie prototypes, shopped them around, and began searching for a real artist whose image I could license and initiate the Jerry Jazz Musician product line. That artist became B.B. King.
In the early 1990’s, in addition to being a legendary artist, B. B. King was expanding his own entrepreneurial vision, which included the opening of the B.B. King Blues Club in Memphis. This club was so successful that he opened a second in 1994 – this one in Universal City, California. While in Los Angeles for other business, I visited the club shortly after it opened, saw the merchandise they sold in the lobby, and came away thinking this would be a great place to sell engraved B.B. King coffee mugs. It seemed like a pretty good idea, but how in the world would I get his permission to use his image?
Before the day of the search engine, finding the right person to talk to required lots of phone calls and research and letter writing and fax machines. Eventually I found someone (an attorney claiming to represent King) who understood my appeal, liked the idea, and agreed to allow me to license an image of B.B. King – as well as his signature – for the purpose of engraving them on a mug and selling them in the B.B. King Blues Clubs. I was to pay King a percentage of every unit sold. It wasn’t a great deal for me, but, I was in business!
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a written agreement.
Nonetheless, with this verbal agreement in place, I worked with a local illustrator who designed the image, struck up a deal with a Portland coffee mug engraver, and wrote a short biography of King to be published on a tag that attached to the mug. Now, armed with this very cool product that I was just certain would change the world of retail, I took a trip to Los Angeles to meet with the buyer of the merchandise sold in the lobby of B.B. King’s Universal City night club. He dug it right away and within five minutes ordered 36 mugs. (To this day, it remains one of the easiest sales I have ever made in my life). I flew home victorious, got the mugs engraved, and shipped the product to the store.
Meanwhile, at around this same time, B.B. King was scheduled to play the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival in suburban Portland. What a great opportunity to meet him and present him with his very own B.B. King engraved coffee mug! I got in touch with the attorney I did the deal with, and told him of my desire to present B.B. the mug at the Festival. He agreed, said he would let B.B. know about my reason for meeting him, and provided me with two tickets – one of which I would use for my son Peter.
On a very hot August, 1995 afternoon, Peter and I arrived at the outdoor Festival venue a few hours prior to B.B.’s appearance, thinking that we could go backstage to his trailer and simply present him with the mug before he started his performance. Instead, since he was unavailable, we spent the next couple hours hanging around B.B.’s trailer, playing catch with a football and dodging the security guy who didn’t believe anything about my story of presenting the mug to B.B., and persistently insisted that we vacate the area. Over the course of an hour he hassled us. It wasn’t pretty. My son learned several interesting words that day.
Eventually my friend Terry Currier (owner of legendary Portland record store Music Millennium) saw my dilemma and provided me and Peter a legitimate backstage pass, and the security guard simmered down. Peter and I were now left to legitimately hang around B.B.’s trailer, where we waited for our opportunity to meet him. It was around this time that his road manager came out to introduce himself and let me know that B.B. knows why we are there but wouldn’t be able to meet us until after the show – which would probably be around 11:00 PM.
A few minutes later, B.B. emerged from his trailer and walked over toward where we and several other people stood, “Lucille” slung over his shoulder. Sixty-nine years old at the time, B.B. was obese and seemed “old” to me, and I remember asking myself how he could possibly perform 200 nights a year at this stage of his life? He took a seat among us, some wishing him well, others just standing in silence. He smiled at the group and then his eyes met those of Peter’s, a young boy bubbling with excitement. For several seconds they looked at one another, with B.B. smiling warmly at my shy son. He winked at Peter and motioned for him to come over to where he was seated and reached into his pocket, presenting Peter with several personalized guitar picks. Peter was awe-struck, and so was I. We both seemed to comprehend the significance of the moment.
B.B. then walked up the steps behind the stage and the next thing we heard was the announcer introducing him, and the roar of 10,000 people greeting his entrance. His guitar exploded on the first note, and the audience went wild. Amid this scene, Peter and I took our seats on the side of the stage, where we sat for 90 minutes, watching B.B. perform and the enthusiastic crowd from this very unique, unforgettable perspective.
After the show was over, B.B. walked past us as he left the stage and back to his trailer. Peter and I followed, hoping to see him before too much time went by. The road manager came over to let me know that he will see us in a while, and we hung out by the trailer door, soon to be joined by a 20 or so other people – disc jockeys, radio station listeners who won a contest to meet B.B., and several others. I was sure we wouldn’t be able to see him until after those folks, and settled in as best as we could for the long haul.
About thirty minutes later, the trailer door swung open and the road manager showed his face, those of us in attendance anxiously awaiting word about when we may be meeting B.B. The manager scanned the crowd and then pointed at me and Peter and said, “You guys are first.” I took Peter’s hand and led him up the stairs and into a moment I continue to find great pride in. I introduced myself and Peter, and B.B. shook our hands and took several moments to talk to Peter, looking directly into his eyes while asking him about his age, where he goes to school, what his hobbies are, and if he liked the concert. It was incredibly sincere and quite moving for me to be a part of. I then nervously presented him with the mug, which he liked a great deal, and he said to be sure to talk to his longtime manager Sid Seidenberg about getting more of these into his stores. We posed for a picture and talked for a few minutes more before leaving. It was an extraordinary experience to share with my son, and I was stoked about B.B.’s reaction to the mug. I was on my way!
Within a day or two, at B.B.’s suggestion I contacted Seidenberg and told him about our meeting, and about the mugs in the Universal City club. They had sold out! Surely Sid would be excited about this news, no?
No. In fact, according to Seidenberg, since the deal I made with the attorney was not in writing it would have to be re-worked on terms more favorable to the artist, with a large advance and higher royalty rate than I could possibly afford at the time. “But B.B. likes the mugs,” I remember quite feebly informing Seidenberg. He could give a damn. It was all about how much he could make for himself and his client and nothing to do with any vision I had for featuring B.B. on a silly coffee mug. He eventually faxed me a letter on his letterhead, informing me to “cease and desist” manufacturing and distributing any more B.B. King coffee mugs. I was depressed by the news and exhausted by the process (and the monetary expense) of getting this far along on the project only to have an opportunity killed at the 11th hour. My enthusiasm waned, and I pulled the plug on the grand idea. Meanwhile, the Internet began to unfold, which opened up a whole new vision and chapter for Jerry Jazz Musician.
Reflecting on this story twenty years later, it is clear that the events in it were central to a serious turning point in my life. Professionally I learned to trust less and to be more cognizant of the importance of doing deals in writing, to understand that the music business was not merely made up of soulful musicians but also of characters like Seidenberg who could easily squash my dreams, and that, as my grandmother would often tell me in very broken English; “When one door closes, another one opens.”
Most importantly, though, the experience of meeting B.B. King is one my now 26- year-old son Peter and I continue to hold dearly together. He posted his own version of this story on his Facebook page yesterday, the day after King’s death, telling his friends that this day was one of his very first memories. “I sat on B.B.’s lap and remember an open warmth from him that meant so much more than his guitar prowess to me at that time,” he wrote. “He gave me guitar picks and took a picture with me and my dad to commemorate our time together. I still have the picks and the picture to carry on his spirit. Within my life B.B. still lives, as I’m sure he does with countless other people he touched.”
For Peter and myself — and perhaps you — the thrill indeed lives on.
Myself and son Peter with B.B. King in his trailer following his August, 1995 Mt. Hood Jazz Festival performance